Today, when Granny wants to talk to her grandsons in Toronto and in California, she goes to their Facebook pages, clicks on the camera icon and a minute or two later is having a face to face conversation with them. She can talk with them as long as she wants to, all day if she wishes, and won’t be billed a single nickel for the call.
What a contrast with the time Granny was a teen living in a community about five miles from Wolfville. When she wanted to talk with a friend that lived a kilometre or so down the road, she went to a big boxlike telephone that was on the wall in her kitchen; to call she turned a handle on the side of the phone, cranked out a pre-arranged combination of short and long rings, hoping her friend would answer and others connected to the line wouldn’t listen in. If she wanted to call Kentville or Wolfville, or any other nearby community, she had to push a button on the side of the telephone, then crank the handled to connect with an operator who would put the call through. Granny’s parents were then billed for a long distance call, which could be anywhere from 20 to 50 cents.
Granny’s parents were on a private line, or what was better known as a mutual or party line. As Granny recalls, there were no more than seven or eight other households she could reach without connecting with an operator. This was in the early 1940s; while telephones had been around for decades and decades, they were still relatively new at this time in many rural communities, in villages such as Canning and Port Williams and in towns like Wolfville, Berwick and Kentville.
In fact, at the time Granny started using the telephone for the first time, there were private telephone companies in many of the larger communities in Kings and Hants County. At first, most of these companies were connected to the Valley Telephone Company and eventually to the much larger Nova Scotia Telephone Company.
While there were central agencies, such as the Valley and the Nova Scotia Telephone Company, the onus to connect to them was on the community. Private telephone companies often were set up, some with less than a dozen subscribers. In Granny’s community, for example, the residents purchased the wiring, cut and set up their own poles, strung the lines and connected eventually to an agency with headquarters in nearby towns. This was a common practice in many communities if they hankered for communication with the outside world – the “outside” often being towns you reached only by horse and wagon and by walking.
Between 1905 and as recently as 1960, for example, private telephone companies existed in Kings County communities such as Scots Bay, South Alton, Blue Mountain, Blomidon, Canaan, White Rock, Sheffield Mills, Waterville, and Welsford. There was a similar scenario in Hants County. In the late 19th century the Hants & Halifax Telephone Company, operating out of Windsor, allowed private phone companies that were set up in outlying communities to hook up with them. But first these community companies had to establish and maintain their own lines, and at their own expense.