By DAVID GREEN
The numbers tell the story.
As writer Laurie Perkins points out in her history of the Sand Creek Telephone Company, the progression went something like this:
• 30R, the old crank telephone system used by Sand Creek from its founding in 1908 until 1957;
• GE 6-3563, when direct dialing took over from the operator on duty;
• 436-3397, marking the end of the rotary dial phone and the beginning of the digital era;
• 517-260-1947, the cellular telephone.
Sand Creek was established as a stop on the Wabash Railway in 1881 and it wasn’t until 1908 that telephone service was set up.
Investors formed a board of directors and the decision was made to house a switchboard in Edward Tuttle’s store. His wife, Minnie, became the first telephone operator.
Turn the hand crank to power the system and you were soon connected to the operator.
Homes were contacted via a series of long and short rings. The number 30R listed above, for example, referred to line 30 and three short rings. The number seven indicated two short rings and one long.
The operator, known as Central, was considered the most knowledgeable person in town, often serving as a personal secretary.
Over the years, operators included Gwendolyn Loop, Wanda Anderson, Leta Hauenstein, Zola Ries, Betty Simpkins, Katherine Morris, Pearl Pickford, Ann Pearcy, Darlene Emmons and the Jones girls—Betty Lou Creger, Ruth Bennett, Marjorie Schutte and Marion Dickens.
The equipment stayed in Tuttle’s store for only eight years. A house across the street from where the high school now stands was purchased in 1912 and the office remained in that location through 1994.
The company grew quickly through the 1920s and survived the Great Depression by cutting salaries and slashing the service cost to customers.
As the century progressed, fewer and fewer businesses thrived in the village and the telephone office served as a social gathering place. A wooden plank covered the steam radiator in the front office and this is where customers took a seat to exchange their news and views.
A major technological change came in 1957 with the advent of direct dialing. Explicit directions were mailed to customers to explain the newfangled way of making a phone call:
“If the line is available, you should soon be able to hear a steady humming sound...Hum-m-m-m...the dial tone. Be sure to listen for the dial tone before dialing.”
Changing to the new system required an $85,000 investment and marked the end of the local operator.
Ten years later, another $100,000 was invested to upgrade equipment and expand services. The customer base reached nearly 900.
Digital equipment was installed in the 1980s and cable was buried within the 56-mile service area.
In a later upgrade, an agreement was signed with Century Cellular for the first cellular phone service. The company now operated out of the existing office, across from the high school. A year later, fiber optic cable was laid.
Subsequent improvements reflected changes in modern communication, such as the collaboration with companies in Waldron, Ogden and Deerfield to form the Cassnet internet provider.
Even the name of the company changed to reflect the times: Sand Creek Communications.
As small telephone companies become fewer in number, Sand Creek celebrates its 100th birthday and looks toward the future.
“It seems to be the mode that bigger is better,” said general manager Harvey Souders. “I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that.”
Service is the keyword for his company.
“Our main interest is to provide quality service to the people in our area,” he said, “rather than seeing how fast we can grow and how big we can get.”
Sand Creek Communications is keeping pace with technology, Souders said, but there’s still a warm body at the other end of the line when a customer calls the office.
“We’re still here,” he said. “People know who we are and who they can talk to.”
And what’s next for the company that’s gone from serving as a connection between neighbors to instant communication around the world?
“I wish I knew,” Souders said. “We certainly try to stay abreast of what’s happening.”
He expects video services to be the next advance.
“We are not yet committed to video, but we’re seriously looking at it.”
It will take some upgrades and more fiber optic cable in the ground. Another 10 miles or so will be laid this summer to form a loop in the company’s line to better assure stable service.
Souders expects the company to continue changing as it begins its second century, but one thing that won’t change is its presence in the community.
That means continued support of ball teams, the fire department, 4-H groups, school projects, etc.
Just try asking a mega phone company for a donation, he said.
• Sand Creek Communications will celebrate a century of service with an open house from 3 to 7 p.m. Friday. The public is invited to visit the office for hot dogs and chips, drawings for prizes and a display of vintage telephone equipment.