History of Winnetka’s Telephone Service

Gazette Article by: Richard L. Mathias
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall/Winter 2002

Telephone service in Winnetka has a long and interesting history. In 1885, 32 years after Mr. And Mrs. Charles E. Peck settled in the area which later became the Village of Winnetka, the Chicago Telephone Directory showed that telephone service was available at a telephone toll station in the Gage & Meyer general store. A five-minute phone call cost 25 cents, which was expensive at the time. Frequently, telephone lines were placed on railroad rights-of-way and telephone toll stations were usually installed in the homes or offices of local agents who guaranteed certain minimum receipts and received a 10% commission on receipts. Records show that the location of Winnetka’s telephone toll station changed several times over the next few years, with listed locations such as W.H. Cairnduff and Company and Mrs. Henry Willey.

In January 1900, the Winnetka local telephone exchange opened at 740 Elm Street. It was located on the first floor of the Prouty Block, which was later called the Leonard Roach Building, and then was demolished to permit the extension of Lincoln Avenue. Phototronics is now at this address. The exchange provided free service to Wilmette and Kenilworth. When the Village light plant was opened, there was such electric interference (induction howl) on the telephone lines during the evening street lighting that the telephone service was practically useless. It was a year or so before the Village provided suitable electric circuits. By the end of 1900, there were 68 telephone stations in service in Winnetka, most of which were party lines that required two or more families to share one telephone, sometimes resulting in disagreements as to who was entitled to use the phone.

At first, telephone numbers were not used. The operator memorized the names of the subscribers and everybody asked for each other by name. The first telephone operators were boys, but later it was determined that they were rude and that young ladies made much better operators. They were sometimes called “‘telephone girls”’ or “‘hello girls.” Training for telephone operators was taken very seriously. Operators were instructed how to sit and how to speak correctly. They were taught to look straight ahead, not to look around the room and not to talk to each other. When talking to customers, operators were only allowed to use a limited set of phrases. “Please” and “thank you” were considered very important. No matter how rude or insulting the customer, the operator was always required to say “thank you.”

By the end of 1905, Winnetka had a population of roughly 3,000 and 360 telephone stations were in service. Average daily telephone traffic consisted of 1883 local and 323 toll calls. In 1927, the telephone business office was located on the first floor of the building at 819 Elm where Caribou Coffee now is located. However, the telephone switching equipment apparently remained on the second floor of the Leonard Roach Building. The number of toll stations in service increased to 5,261 by 1930. Other important dates in Winnetka’s phone service history include:

• December 1932: New Winnetka central telephone office building on the southwest corner of Oak and Linden Streets.
• In August 1943: Winnetka customer names were combined with those in Glencoe, Kenilworth and Wilmette in one alphabetical directory listing.
• February 1948: The last of the 4-party line service was eliminated by upgrading to 2-party line service.
• September 1948: Winnetka telephones were converted to a two-letter, five-number basis coincident with similar conversions in Evanston and Chicago. The new prefix was “Winnetka 6.” Nine years later, Hillcrest 6 replaced Winnetka 6 in Winnetka and Northfield.
• November 1948: The Winnetka central office, which also served Northfield, became the second post-war Illinois Bell Telephone central office (10 months after River Grove) to convert to dial operation. The conversion involved some 8000 telephones in the two communities.
• December 1951: 9,251 telephones in Winnetka and Northfield averaged 39,495 originating calls per day. In the spring of 1965, direct distance and touch-tone dialing became available to local customers.

The first telephone number in Winnetka was issued to the Vollman Meat Market in 1900. Before the introduction of all number calling, the telephone “number” was Winnetka 1, which subsequently became 446-0001. Later, John Bell, a stepson of Louis Vollman, and his wife Julia used the 446-0001 telephone number at their 803 Cherry Street residence. After Julia Bell died in 1992, the telephone number was kept and maintained by John and Julia Bell’s family heirs until the home was sold to Bob Burchmore. When Bob Burchmore bought the 803 Cherry Street home, the telephone number, Winnetka-1 went along with the residence. In the summer of 2001, Mr. Burchmore contacted the Winnetka Historical Society to find out if it would like to assume 446-0001. The Winnetka Historical Society then contacted SBC Ameritech and in November 2001, the number was transferred to the Winnetka Historical Society.

While Alexander Graham Bell is generally credited with the invention of the telephone, Elisha Gray of Chicago filed with the U.S. Patent Office a caveat describing an apparatus “for transmitting vocal sounds telegraphically,” allegedly two hours after Bell applied for an actual patent on an apparatus to accomplish the same end. It was later discovered that the apparatus described in Gray’s caveat would have worked, while that in Bell’s patent would not have. After years of litigation, Bell was legally named the inventor of the telephone, although to many the question of who should be credited with the invention remained debatable. Elisha Gray’s great-grandson still lives in Winnetka.

Richard Mathias is Chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission

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