The “Hello Girl,” as telephone operators were called, worked on Jackson County switchboards until dial service began just before World War II.

Waiting for the phone call

In the 1940 movie, "Go West," the villain has tricked the Marx brothers out of their valuable deed.

For Groucho, Harpo and Chico, there's only one thing to do. Sneak into the villain's parlor, break open the safe and steal it back.

"Don't be afraid," Chico says. "If any trouble starts, we'll telephone for help."

"Telephone?" says an agitated Groucho. "This is 1870. Don Ameche hasn't invented the telephone yet."

It was the joke that would last for a generation.

Of course, Hollywood leading man Don Ameche didn't invent the telephone, but his starring role in the 1939 motion picture "The Story of Alexander Graham Bell" had captured the nation's imagination.

It was a timely film for the Rogue Valley, where telephones, only then, were being converted from operator to dial service.

Bell got his patent for the telephone in 1876, but it would take 18 more years before Jackson County residents finally began building a viable telephone system. The delay was not entirely their fault.

Royalties to use Bell's patents were expensive, and his company strictly enforced them. As late as 1889, Bell collected $72 per telephone and 15 percent of all money earned.

His domination of the market gave rise to an alternative telephone that didn't use electricity and was safe from Bell's patents. Called the "acoustic telephone," it was a more-sophisticated version of a child's tin-can telephone.

The first acoustic system in the county was connected by Jacksonville dentist Will Jackson in April 1879. The taut lines ran from his residence on California Street to those of Judge Duncan on the South First Street hill and William Turner's home on North Fifth Street.

Turner, editor of the Oregon Sentinel newspaper, was impressed.

"Conversation and music can be heard perfectly for a considerable distance," he said.

The real problem with acoustic telephones was the taut wires. When they came loose or broke, conversation was over.

Dr. Jackson's fascination with the telephone was endless. In 1886, he announced that he and partner Alexander Reuter were organizing a company that would construct a Medford-Jacksonville electric telephone line. There would be one telephone in the Riddle Hotel at Front and Main streets in Medford, and another in Dr. Jackson's variety store on California Street in Jacksonville.

Initially, each call was charged at 25 cents, with the caller expected to talk for a "reasonable length of time." Within weeks the rate changed. The fee was based on the number of words spoken — the first 10 words cost 15 cents, and each additional word cost a penny.

With no privacy, few used the service, and after two months the line reverted to telegraphy.

When Bell's patents expired in 1894, Jackson County telephone service began to grow. A stranger came to town, set up a telephone company, and by the second week of July, Jacksonville and Medford were "helloing" each other.

Within two weeks, telephone workmen were setting poles and establishing offices in Phoenix and Talent, and were well on their way to Ashland.

Don Ameche would have been proud. Three telephones in 1894, and now, it seems, there's a cell phone in every ear.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

Share This Story