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July 25, 2003

As I was digging through a pile of manila folder files the other day, out tumbled one that I've been saving for just the right time There is, the saying goes, no time like the present, so here's the start of a series on one of the most interesting aspects and well-documented stories of the history of Perry and Noble County—the telephone company.

In one form or another, the phone company has served homes and businesses here and throughout the U.S. for more than a century. It's likely that we wouldn't know how to function without it. Like so many other devices we use every day, it is taken for granted. Think for a moment. What would life be like today if we had no telephones? There's an imponderable thought. But, this is not intended to be a salubrious tip of the hat to the phone company. It was made to serve our communication needs.

Some historians state that the first telephone line in Oklahoma was installed between Fort Sill and Fort Reno on October 7, 1870 —more than 20 years before the Cherokee Strip land run of September 16, 1893. The primary intention was to facilitate the exchange of information between that day's military units. During that period, patrons had to use cumbersome phones that were boxy, attached to the wall and hand-cranked. Contrast that with the ubiquitous punch-button mini-cell phones now in vogue everywhere you look and you get a feeling of how far we've come. International conversations between individuals and corporations chatting across the ocean are no longer a futuristic dream. Three-phone party lines have vanished. New wonders surely lie ahead.

Our friend, Bob Cunningham, described the early days of the telephone here in his book, Perry, Pride of the Prairie. Here's part of that:

"Ten years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone it appeared in Oklahoma Territory. Like all other 'novelties,' telephone service found lukewarm support at first. It was only after the Indians in Eastern Oklahoma became convinced it could talk Cherokee that a line was permitted. Perry was among the first towns in the Territory to have telephone service. C.P. Walker installed a line from the E.E. Howendobler drug store (near the southwest corner of the square, where my Dad was a pharmacist) to the Santa Fe depot at Wharton (about a mile south of Perry), one month after the run of September 16, 1893. E.E. Westervelt was a station agent at Wharton, and he eventual¬ly became the Oklahoma manager of the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company."

Still quoting from Mr Cunningham's book: "In 1897, John Noble and John Coulter built a line between Perry, Pawnee and Stillwater, maintaining an exchange in the Howendobler Drug. The following year, R.G. Van Cleef, G.P. Westervelt, E.D. Nims, E.E. Howendobler, L.D. Treeman and H.C. Wallerstedt agreed to build a local exchange. CB. Drake, postmaster at Perry, was requested to circulate a subscription list, which proved a success.

"During that same year, Westervelt agreed to join Noble and Coulter in the venture. He bought out the interests of all but these two, and E.D. Nims, who later joined the organization. Byrd Walker was the first operator in the Wolleson building, on the north side of the square. (Presumably, that building is now the Odd Fellows state headquarters.) They started out with approximately 100 subscribers. Residential subscribers paid $1.50 a month for the service, while businesses paid $2.00 a month."

That's all for now, but there's more to come. This epic story will take some time to tell.