In this day of seemingly unlimited telephone service via satellite phones and other modern contraptions, it’s hard to believe we once used common barbed wire to carry messages.
Laura V. Hamner, a noted Texas Panhandle historian, wrote about such unique telephone service in her book, Light and Hitch. According to Hamner, pioneers in early-day Claude and Gruver, Texas, recalled nearby ranchers who’d installed telephones and used the top wire of barbed-wire fences as telephone lines. When we purchased our Alanreed ranch in 1949, a telephone line ran from our ranch 8 miles south, and some of it still used barbed wire to transmit crude signals.
When the signal diminished during rainy weather, few pioneers realized it was because the wire was stapled directly to the fence post and grounded out when wet. As insulators became popular, the clever, most-innovative cowboys used every conceivable device as an insulator to suspend the wire and improve the faint telephone transmissions. I’ve seen everything from leather straps folded around wire and nailed to the posts, broken whiskey bottle necks affixed with big nails, snuff bottles, corncobs, pieces of inner tube wrapped around the wire and short car tire straps holding barbed wire telephone wires.
Bigger ranches were among the first to install barbed wire telephones to alert them to prairie fires when working distant corners of the ranch. Line camps located far from the ranch house were contacted and work schedules discussed using the “already-in-place” barbed wire. One-time fence riders also became telephone line repairmen because Ma Bell’s service workers simply didn’t exist yet.
Early phone lines, even the barbed wire variety, were usually party lines shared by neighbors. Eavesdroppers were the biggest problem with those early-day communication networks, and secrets were rare. When a caller raised the receiver and cranked out a call, clicks could be heard up and down the line as neighbors carefully listened in.
Any chore – no matter how important – could wait when the phone rang. In fact, families fought for position to listen in with each ring. A neighbor woman who was confined to a wheelchair was miraculously able to stand when the telephone rang. When party invitations went out across the line, eavesdroppers later became guests
Some folks quickly learned how to clear nosey neighbors from the line. Ol’ Craig Morris, our early day Trew Ranch foreman, was well-known to cuss a lot. When he cranked out his call, Craig waited until everyone on the party line picked up their receivers, then announced, “All you old biddies better hang up ’cause I’m gonna talk about castrating a (expletive deleted) stud horse.” The hang-up clicks that followed in rapid-succession provided virtually unheard-of private conversation.
To clear up confusion about which family received a particular call, a unique ring was assigned to each household. Our ring was two shorts and a long, while Grandma Trew’s ring was a long, a short and another long. Many former farmers and country people can still remember their ring combination. Yet, that complex code was often scrapped when trouble called. When wheat field fires started or someone was injured, the phone shook with a long, continuous ring, a signal similar to our 911 service today.
Little by little, the phone became the main communication source for isolated farms and ranches. It brought sad news during World War II, when the military called to report that a soldier had died or was lost in action. Happy calls also came across the line, like when school officials called to say that classes were canceled because of bad weather.
Satellites and fiber optic lines used today are a far cry from the barbed wire telephone lines of yesteryear. We take them for granted, as if we’d always been able to communicate across the globe with the touch of a button. Few recall that not long ago the ability to talk over a wire – especially twisted old barbed wire – sure seemed like a miracle. FCDelbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.