The History of Telephone Service in Pasco County Florida
It was 1876 when Alexander Gram Bell shouted the history making words: "Mr. Watson, come here. I want you." What had occurred was the invention of the telephone. But it was nearly 30 years after that first phone conversation that the communication device that is today taken for granted became available to Pasco County residents.
The first telephone in Pasco County was located in Dade City. In April 1903, W.J. Ellsworth of Jessamine organized the Pasco County Telephone Co. Included in the company were John S. Flanagan and L. Halsema Sr., both of San Antonio; Dr. J.F. Corrigan and Abbot Charles Mohr, both of St. Leo; and Clarence Griffin of Dade City, who was president and general manager.
At first the telephone was nothing but a plaything for most subscribers. And when the company was in danger of being sold for debts, the organizers raised enough money to pay the most pressing obligations and then turned their stock over to Griffin. Griffin operated a switchboard behind the prescription counter of his downtown Dade City drug store. Dr. R.G. Sustruck, who thought it would be helpful for calling in prescriptions, suggested the project.
In 1910, Otto Wettstein Jr. was vacationing in Eustis when a friend told him the small Dade City exchange was for sale. He had been toying with the idea of buying other telephone exahanges, and the friend suggested including Dade City in the same company, Wettstein wrote in his memoirs. At this time, there were only about 700,000 people and 32,000 telephones in Florida. The only town that had competing exchanges was Jacksonville.
Wettstein was already experienced in the telephone business when he began organizing in Florida. When he was 21 - in 1896 - Wettstein built his first telephone exchange in his hometown of Rochelle, IL. During the next 12 years he developed 30 more exchanges in Iowa and Nebraska. Whettstein went to Dade City to check out Griffin's switchboard. Griffin and his clerks made the connections for his telephone subscribers when they weren't too busy waiting on drug store customers.
With the financial assistance from Elliot E. Edge of Groveland, Wettstein purchased the exchange at Dade City and included it with those in Eustis and Tavares to organize the Lake County Telephone Co. at a cost of $25,000. But shortly afterward, the real estate bug bit him, and he traded his exchanges for a 42,000-acre tract along the Kissimmee River. The he planned to farm and colonize the property. But the land was wet, and he went broke trying to sell the property and farm the 60 acres he had retained for himself.
In march 1915, Wettstein read in a Tampa newspaper that R.C. Cummings, a lineman in Dade City for the Lake County Telephone Co., had been electrocuted by crossing a telephone wire with power lines of Tampa Electric Co. Nearly penniless, he wrote and asked for Cummings' job. And on April 2, 1915, Wettstein arrived in Dade City to take the job for the company he once owned. Wettstein proceeded to buy out the company in 1916, again with financial assistance from Edge. The Dade City exchange operated under the name Pasco Telephone Co.
Wettstein continued to acquire telephone exchanges throughout the state. In 1925 he merged his 28 exchanges into the Florida Telephone Corp. The corporation built a structure on 7th street in Dade City to house the company. Florida Telephone Corp. later expanded, moving its headquarters to Ocala and then Leesburg. United Telephone Company of Florida purchased the corporation in 1973.
The first telephones in west Pasco County were installed in the early 1900s. The first phone reported to have been in the store of J.M. Mitchell in Sapling Woods, now known as Elfers. The Peninsular Telephone Company of Tampa was the first system, with Harriet Lapham as the first operator. She operated the telephone switchboard out of her home on Missouri Avenue in New Port Richey. By 1922, the phone equipment was moved to the second floor of the old Eastern Star building, located at the corner of Missouri Avenue and Boulevard South.
In the early 1930s, the phone company operated in the house of Robert Sims on Missouri Avenue. When that house was moved, a new building was erected on the same property. In 1931 there were 162 subscribers in New Port Richey, and that number steadily increased. With the expansion of telephones, more equipment was needed. And in 1944, a larger switchboard was moved from Bradenton and five operators were employed. General Telephone Company bought Peninsular in 1957.
The first telephones were operated by the callers cranking the phone for the operator, who then put the call though to the desired party. The caller only had to give the operator the name of the person he wanted to call. It wasn't uncommon for the operators to know the activities of the community, said Dade City lawyer and local historian Bill Dayton. As an example, Dayton related a story told to him by the late Elizabeth Burks. Mrs. Burks and her husband, the late John S. Berks, had just moved to Dade City in 1919. The only people she knew were the Lock family, and she decided to place her first telephone call to them. She told the operator she wanted to call Mrs. Lock, Dayton said. And the operator replied, "I don't think she's home right now. I just heard her say she was going down to Mrs. Jackson's You might wait five minutes and try and reach her at Mrs. Jackson's."
Elizabeth Berks is said to have turned to her husband and said, "What kind of town is this you brought me to? Everybody will know everything about our business." And he is said to have replied: "Well honey, we'll know everything about theirs, too."
Even after a new system was introduced in which each telephone was assigned a number and a color, such as "nine black,” people didn't bother using the numbers to place calls, Dayton said.
As late as 1940 the operators recognized callers' voices and knew the whereabouts of nearly everyone in town, said Charles F Touchton Jr., former owner of Touchton Drugs in Dade City. In 1940, when Touchton's son, Tommy, was 2, he would pick up the telephone and just tell the operator "I want to speak to my daddy." The operator would recognize his voice and place the call to Touchton at his drug store.
The first automatic exchange was introduced in 1945, and with it came the end of the familiar operator asking, "Number please."