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  • Dale C. Maley

1897 marked local phone era

In July 1896, the Fisher & Hartley company of Goodland, Indiana, obtained a franchise from the City Council to erect and operate a telephone exchange in Fairbury.

The telephone charge was to be at most $2.00 per month per dwelling. The exchange was to be in operation within one year. The two-dollar price in 1897 would equal $72.13 in today's dollars.

The 1897 Blade reported that the new telephone exchange would be in Room 19 in the Walton building. Miss Lottie Hanna was the first switchboard operator. A night shift operator would be hired once enough phone lines were installed. Twenty phone lines were installed initially, but they ran out of cables for a while. It was thought that, eventually, there would be 100 phones installed. There was also an effort to run a telephone line from Fairbury to Pontiac.

Sometime before 1901, ownership of the telephone exchange changed to the Peoria & Eastern company. When this firm attempted to get its subscribers to sign a contract to use the telephone for a specified length of time, the Fairbury City Council awarded a franchise to the Fairbury Telephone Company in 1901.

In 1903, Mr. Heald sold the Fairbury Telephone Company to T. R. Voorhees of Fairbury. The Blade estimated the transaction would be completed by December 15, 1903. Before 1910, the telephone exchange was sold to Charles E. Monk of Fairbury and George Monk of Chicago. In 1910, the Monks sold the company to Ray Blaisdell and A. F. Mettee of Pontiac. A third owner was Ammi Lewis of Emington.

In 1914, the Fairbury Telephone Company proposed raising the telephone rates. The Fairbury City Council sued the phone company, saying they had a previous franchise agreement stating the phone bill rate could not exceed $2.00 monthly. The matter went to the newly formed Illinois Commerce Commission. At the ICC hearing, it was noted that Fairbury had 624 stations or phones. About 350 stations were south of Locust Street, and 275 were north of Locust. The ICC had sent a representative to review the equipment of the Fairbury Telephone Company and reported all the equipment was in deplorable condition. The company had received $10,429 in gross income in 1913. This revenue would be equivalent to $316,800 in today's dollars. Phone company owner Ray Blaisdell received an annual salary of $1,800. This salary would be equal to $54,682 in today's dollars.

The ICC ruled that since the ICC group was formed, it had jurisdiction over phone company billing rates, and the City Council did not. The ICC granted the rate increase request but noted further rate increases would only be approved once the Fairbury Telephone Company improved its equipment.

In 1916, Miss Wilma Codlin accepted a position as an operator at the Fairbury telephone exchange. In 1918, the Fairbury telephone company bought the livery barn north of Walton Bros. Co. store on Third Street and began remodeling it. When renovations were completed, the telephone company occupied the front of the building, and the livery part was in the back part of the building.

In 1919, the Blade reported that Doctor G. W. Schelm was now located in the Telephone Exchange Building with a phone number of 593. Mr. Blaisdell attended the Illinois Telephone Association annual convention in Peoria in 1922. He was photographed with a representative of Page & Hill Co. of Minneapolis. The representative explained new checking tools to ensure telephone poles were adequately treated with creosote before installation.

On March 28, 1923, Fairbury experienced one of the worst fires in its history. The Walton building burned to the ground in a massive fire. The small telephone exchange building north of the Walton building was saved. In the audience watching the massive fire was Mr. Ray Blaisdell, owner of the Fairbury Telephone Company. Also watching the fire was Alderman Myron Fuller. Mr. Fuller asked Mr. Blaisdell why the telephone girl did not report the big fire to the waterworks. Mr. Blaisdell replied that he assumed the operator had called the water department as the girls always do when a fire alarm comes in.

Mr. Fuller replied that he had investigated and the girl had not called. Mr. Blaisdell then offered to escort him to the telephone office and ask the telephone girl if she had reached the water department. Mr. Fuller refused to go with Mr. Blaisdell and said he wished the telephone building would burn down also.

Mr. Blaisdell went to the telephone exchange, where the operator was still on duty. She reported she had run the waterworks several times, but no one answered the call. Mr. Blaisdell then checked and found nobody was on duty at the waterworks during the call attempts. Mr. Blaisdell wrote a letter to the Blade editor defending the actions of his switchboard operator.

1927 was the last year the Fairbury Telephone Company was owned by a local citizen. That year, Mr. Blaisdell sold the Fairbury Telephone Company to the Standard Telephone Company in Illinois. Mr. Blaisdell owned both the Fairbury Telephone Company and the Chenoa telephone company. He received $115,000 for selling both phone companies. This sales amount would equal $2 million in today's dollars.

The Standard Telephone Company purchased the telephone companies in 25 small towns in Illinois. The Blade reported that Mr. Blaisdell had moved his phone company to its current location north of the WaltonBuilding before the massive Walton fire on March 28, 1923. Also in the telephone exchange building was G. A. Heckman's tailor shop, the Beach-Wickham Grain Company, several apartments, and a garage.

In 1930, fourteen former employees of the Fairbury telephone exchange threw a bridal shower for Mrs. Reuben Hacker. Former employees of the telephone exchange that attended the shower were Mrs. Ben Huette, Mrs. Ben Peter, and Miss Grace Patterson.

The earliest known Fairbury phone book was published in 1930 and was titled City Directory of Fairbury and Forrest. There were approximately 972 residential phone numbers listed in this directory. The population of Fairbury in 1930 was 2,310. Assuming most households had a married couple, the total number of houses was about 1,150. So 972 homes had a phone out of a total of 1,150 houses. The format of the phone numbers was up to three digits long.

The Fairbury Echoes Museum has copies of 1930, 1940, and several other later years of telephone books. They are valuable in researching family genealogy because they also give the name and street address.

The precise year when human operators were no longer required, is yet to be discovered. Several Fairbury citizens believe this date was around 1960.

In 2000, GTE Corp. merged with Bell Atlantic to become Verizon Communications Inc. Landline service in Fairbury is still provided by Verizon.

For over 60 years, human switchboard operators were required to complete all phone calls. Eventually, digital switches eliminated the need for humans to conduct telephone calls.

(Dale Maley's weekly history article on Fairbury News is sponsored by Antiques & Uniques of Fairbury and Dr. Charlene & Doug Aaron)

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