One Ringy Dingy, uh, Two Ringy Dingies: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

If you lived through the 1970s, you understand the reference in the title. For the younger readers, go find a YouTube clip of Lily Tomlin doing her telephone operator routine on Laugh-In, a variety show that aired from 1967 to 1973. This story is about the development of phone service in Conway.

The first “telephone” in Conway was said to be a 200-yard wire connecting two cups so that Asa Robinson, the city’s founder, could communicate with his servant, “Uncle” Ned, who lived in separate quarters. The first electrically-operated telephone, however, was developed in 1891 by Hendrix Professor George H. Burr. The switchboard was at Hendrix College.

In September, 1898, the Conway Telephone Company, owned by Burr and another Hendrix professor, George C. Millar, was granted a franchise by the city council to construct, operate and maintain a telephone system for a period of 30 years. The telephone exchange was located in the back of Bayless’s jewelry store on the corner of Front and North streets.

George W. Sammons replaced Burr as the exchange’s manager in 1901 and later that year, Burr and Millar sold the telephone company. The company changed owners a couple of times during the next decade. In 1903, the exchange was moved to the Donaghey Building on the southwest corner of Oak and Parkway. By 1910, there were 277 telephone customers in Conway.

In 1911, the company bought a new switchboard with a larger capacity and installed it in a new building on West Oak Street. The company, with its 375 subscribers, had about 200 miles of open wire (steel) strung throughout the city. The city council would eventually insist that the unsightly wires be replaced by a less visible system in the business district. It was then that Conway Telephone was sold to Southwestern Bell. Sammons remained as the manager.

By the 1930s, there were 753 telephone customers in Conway. The three operators worked six days a week and each had about ten pairs of cords with plugs. Each telephone in the system was represented by a light and a numbered hole on one of the switchboard panels. When someone wanted to make a call, he would pick up his telephone receiver. This caused a light on the switchboard to come on. Phone numbers were four digits.

The operator would take a plug and stick it into the lighted hole and flip a switch which allowed her to talk to the caller. She would then stick the plug at the other end of the cord into the hole of the number requested by the caller. The operators also tended to keep up with the doctors’ whereabouts and be the source of information if the firetrucks or ambulances were dispatched.

In the late 1940s, telephone service would be extended to the rural areas around Conway. Rural customers between Conway and the Arkansas River as well as those between Mayflower and Conway would receive service. Phone service was also extended up Highway 65 North and east of the city about ten miles.

That did not mean all would take advantage of the service. Many could not, or would not, pay the $2.25 per month. For many years, if you discontinued service or didn’t pay your bill, the phone company would remove the phone because all equipment belonged to them. If you didn’t have a phone, you might make arrangements for people to call your neighbor’s phone if they needed to talk to you. Your neighbor would send one of their kids to fetch you when that happened.

Southwestern Bell installed a dial telephone system in Conway in 1960, using the Fairview prefix. All phone numbers had FA7 or FA9 in front of them but you didn’t have to dial the corresponding 32. Thus my number was 9-2187. A new direct dialing system for long distance calls would be in service by 1964. Southwestern Bell also built a new office building on Locust during this time.

It was not until 1974 that Southwestern Bell began burying telephone cable. So if you wonder why older folks refer to the utility poles as “telephone poles” it is because the telephone wires used to be strung through the air too.

The entire telephone experience changed dramatically after the break-up of AT&T in 1984. Southwestern Bell and 21 other “Baby Bells” were forced to operate separately and AT&T would no longer monopolize long-distance service. Customers could now choose their long-distance carriers. Now you could dial 1, an area code, and a seven-digit number to reach anyone in the United States. To make local calls, you now had to dial a seven-digit number.

But even more drastic changes were coming. The first cell phones were in use by the early 1980s and by 1989, there were already 2 million cellular customers. A whole new technology was already in use that would replace land-line phones almost entirely.

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