Phones connected the community

Published 7:45 pm Tuesday, March 6, 2018

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More Gwaltneys had telephones than any other local family in the years immediately following World War II.

I know that because, as a result of the Short Rows about the demise of the phone book several weeks ago, I was loaned a priceless piece of local history — a 1948-49 Home Telephone Company Telephone Directory. Bob and Verne Edwards had found the book among Bob’s mother’s personal effects and dug it out when they read the column.

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The book is not proof of the largest families in the Smithfield area, but it does tell us who had phones — and not everybody did.

There were 29 Gwaltney listings are in the directory, including business phones.

Back then, most phone numbers were only three digits, though some were shorter. P.D. Gwaltney Jr. and Company’s phone number was 3 — just plain 3.

In line behind the Gwaltney listings were 21 Joneses, 19 Edwardses, 15 Chapmans and 13 Delks.

There were separate exchanges for Battery Park=Rescue, Crittenden, Windsor, Surry and Dendron. In Battery Park, the Bloxoms outnumbered other phone users, followed by the Carters. In Crittenden, the Adams family dominated the system and in Surry, Berrymans and Sewards had the greatest number of phones. In Windsor, the leading users were Johnsons.

There was a long distance charge for any number outside of your own exchange, so a Smithfield resident had to pay to call Battery Park or Crittenden. Some of those charges, by the way, remained in place for decades. The book doesn’t list those charges, which became increasingly nettlesome for local phone users before they were finally removed.

The book did list charges to other areas, however, and long distance calls were not cheap. A call to Norfolk cost 45 cents. Adjusting for inflation, that would be $2.61 today. Back then, “person to person” calling was a way to guarantee you didn’t have to pay unless the person you called was available. Person to person to Norfolk cost an extra dime. (People did try to beat the system. A person might call home to let folks know they had arrived safely at a destination. By asking for someone who didn’t exist, they could avoid paying and still get the message across. It was cheating, plain and simple.)

The book’s most interesting feature in my view is the advertising it contains. The Bank of Smithfield advertised “experienced counsel and financial support that will prove an effective alliance to progressive plans and projects.”

The late J.E. “Red” West was one of the community’s best known — and busy — entrepreneurs. In 1948, he was operating West’s Frozen Food & Locker Plant, West’s Market and the Smithfield Livestock Market. (He may also have been partners in West and Winall, advertised as “growers, packers and shippers of oysters, but I couldn’t confirm that it was he.)

You could buy Kitchen Maid cabinets, air conditioning units, automatic eating-refrigeration units and washing machines from Griffis Tire and Appliance. (You could also buy a beer there and drink it while sitting on a stack of auto tires. That tradition lasted into the 1980s at two Griffis locations.)

Betts Inc., located in what is now The Christmas Store building, was promoted as “The Complete Department Store,” specializing in mail orders and phone orders.

Surry, which has little business activity these days, was still a thriving small town back then. The community had both Ford and Chevrolet dealerships as well as two auto repair shops.

The phone book had a cover that was repeated in similar form year after year. It featured a winged messenger identified as the “Spirit of Communication,” wrapped in cables and holding a handful of lightning bolts. There was also an illustration of a hand-held telephone with the slogan “Nothing Gives So Much for So Little.”

And nothing has given me more pleasure for so little effort than this piece of local history.