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‘Hello ... Central’

There was a time when the comforting voice and sympathetic ear of a telephone operator could soothe the public’s fears about a mysterious new technology.

The first real telephone arrived in Jackson County in 1887. It was a single line connecting Jacksonville to Medford. The Medford end was set up in the Riddle Hotel on Main and Front streets. It’s believed the Jacksonville end was in the Telegraph Variety Store on California Street.

The Bell Telephone patents were still in force, and the owners of the Jackson County line struggled for eight months before giving up. The contract with Bell’s company required $72 per telephone and 15% of the line’s profit.

In 1894, with Bell’s patent expired, a new company began offering private telephone lines between individual homes and businesses. The system began with three telephones — two connecting Medford and Jacksonville; and one, acting as the central office, sitting near the cash register at Charles Strang’s Main Street pharmacy.

The phone network grew slowly. Most telephones were installed in businesses. The average person thought the telephone was an unnecessary and extravagant luxury.

For two years, while Charles and his employees acted as the “central office,” whenever the telephone rang in his store, “Whoever happened to be handy, answered it,” he said.

That began to change in 1898, when the first telephone switchboard was installed in the back of the store. Charles and his employees still played operator; however, with only 15 or 16 subscribers, the switching work was light.

Subscriptions stopped, and the desperate company asked Charles what he thought would encourage interest. “Free calling between Medford and the county seat in Jacksonville,” Charles said.

The change was made and telephone business began to grow immediately. Two more switchboards were added, and Charles, while trying to run his pharmacy, couldn’t keep up with switching calls as an operator. He hired his first operator, Lillian Barr, in September 1898.

In March 1901, when Lillian resigned to be married in San Francisco, Florence Toft took over. When Florence headed south for her own wedding in December 1904, Edna Eifert, daughter of a future Medford mayor, took over the position. By then, the earlier phone companies had consolidated into the Pacific Telephone company.

Back then, the operators were affectionately called the “Hello Girls,” and a caller would often begin their call request by saying “Hello Central” to the operator.

Sometimes, especially during the early years, the telephone connection was so bad that the operator had to repeat what was said in a conversation to each of the parties involved on the call.

Obviously, in those cases, discretion was paramount. The operator heard everything and had to be trustworthy. Their lips were sealed. Arguments, romances in the making or breaking up, business deals, and every other human endeavor might pass through the operator’s ears.

Soon, a few “farmer telephone lines” were connected in the county, and just as quickly they were taken into the Pacific Telephone system.

Albert Bliton, editor and owner of the Medford Mail, predecessor to the Mail Tribune, received a call from Edward Judy.

“I’m talking from my home on Griffin Creek,” Edward said. “A telephone line has just been completed out this way, and I thought I would notify you of the fact.”

Bliton asked if Edward found it convenient. “I should say so. Don’t know how we got along without it this long.”

By 1911, the phone company had nearly 1,300 subscribers, and Edna was the supervisor and trainer of 15 operators.

It seems a telephone chat was becoming an obsession.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “To Live and Die a WASP, 38 Women Pilots Who Died in WWII.” Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.