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Monday, January 21, 2013

The Fredericksburg & Wilderness Telephone Company

The Fredericksburg & Wilderness Telephone Company, 1959

     The story of the Fredericksburg & Wilderness Telephone Company began 105 years ago in Spotsylvania with a country doctor and a Scottish immigrant.
     Dr. William Armistead Gordon lived at "Greenwood," his family's home in the Wilderness section of the county. In a desire to better serve his patients, Dr. Gordon made known his wish to have a direct emergency telephone line from his house to Fredericksburg.
     That stated desire set into motion a series of events that created the F&W, an enterprise that survived as an independent telephone company for fifty eight years. In 1908 there assembled at the law office of Judge A.T. Embrey a group of capable men to sign articles of incorporation creating the F&W. They were: Thomas Fell Morrison, G.J. Fletcher, R.A. Jennings, H.F. Etches, J.Y. Downman and Mungo William Thorburn.

M.W. Thorburn, about 1880

     Born in Scotland, M.W. Thorburn arrived in Spotsylvania by the late 1890s. I introduced him in my previous post. Thorburn lost little time in getting underway with establishing the company's  infrastructure. On September 8, 1908 he published in  The Free Lance a request for bids for the delivery of telephone poles. These poles were to be set on the roadside at regular intervals from Fredericksburg to the Wilderness. The line went first to Thorburn's house and he was the first to have a phone installed. From there the line continued to Dr. William A. Gordon.

The Free Lance 8 September 1908
     In 1910 a switchboard was installed in the home of Arthur Lynn Johnson, who lived across Catharpin Road from the Thorburn farm. Johnson's daughter Hazel began work as the switchboard operator while in her teens and continued to do so until the system was converted to dial service in 1950.

House of Arthur Lynn Johnson

Telephone lines coming into the Johnson house

Hazel Johnson Tiffany

Bill Pemberton working on the switchboard
     In 1915 a toll trunk line was established to Fredericksburg. Calls to town were ten cents each. As time went on, lines were installed down several roads in the vicinity; each road had a single line to the switchboard. Customers on each road shared the same party line, some lines having as many as twenty five parties.
     Thomas Fell Morrison served as the first president of the F&W 1908-1916, then Dr. William Armistead Gordon 1917-1924 and M.W. Thorburn 1925-1941. Thomas E. Thorburn was elected president after the death of his father and served with distinction until the company was sold in 1966.

Tom Thorburn (standing) with state auditors

Tom and Marion Thorburn

Tom Thorburn, at head of table, with Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors

     Alonzo Pemberton, Sr. became the manager of the F&W in 1911 and served in that capacity until 1945. He was then succeeded by his son Alonzo Pemberton, Jr. (known to everyone as "Bill" Pemberton). Bill was a cousin to Tom Thorburn. Bill worked as manager of the F&W for the remaining years of its existence, and then for the Continental Telephone Company.

Tom Thorburn (left) and Bill Pemberton

Bill Pemberton

Bill Pemberton (center) with Roosevelt Porter and Jake King

     Things went well for the company for many years, but in 1947 the F&W found itself unable for the first time to pay dividends to its stockholders. The F&W unsuccessfully offered itself for sale to a couple of larger local telephone companies. Bankruptcy began to look like a real possibility.
     Just when the F&W's prospects looked the bleakest, the government announced a new program that seemed tailor made to help the struggling company survive. The Rural Electrification Administration, created during the Depression to help get electrical power to farmers, was soon to be offering loans at two percent interest to local telephone companies wishing to convert to dial service.
     Even before the government could print the loan forms, F&W submitted its application for funding. According to an article written by Patricia Kent in the 9 May 2001 edition of The Free Lance-Star, "Tom Thorburn recalled that, at one point, he rode a milk truck to Washington to get REA officials to sign a document. Meeting the customary stall, he said he would sit on their office's front steps until they signed it." Thorburn got his form signed.

Marion Thorburn holding REA check

     On April 11, 1950 the Fredericksburg and Wilderness Telephone Company received a check from the REA for $55,000. Thanks to the efforts of Tom Thorburn and others, it was the first telephone company in the United States to receive a check from the REA for this new program. At the time there were 165 subscribers to the F&W when the change was made to dial service and soon the company would add 130 more. The first resident in the county to get the new dial service was Eugene Dickinson.

Eugene Dickinson

     September 20, 1950 was declared "REA Telephone Day" at the Fredericksburg Agricultural Fair. The Marine Corps Band arrived to play, speeches were given and President Truman called Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Dickinson to congratulate them.

Eugene Dickinson (just kicked by a cow) and wife

Marine Corps band at Fredericksburg Fair 1950

Crowd gathered at Fredericksburg Fair 1950

     Party lines continued to exist for many years after the four digit dial service replaced the old wall mounted crank telephones, but the number of customers on each line continued to decrease. While this was undoubtedly a boon for all (the ten cent toll charge for calls into town became a thing of the past), some people missed listening in on their friends' conversations, or being listened to. One housewife said she could tell who was listening in by the sound of the clocks in her friends' kitchens. After the removal of the old wall phones some homeowners were confronted with vivid patches of wallpaper that had not seen the light of day for forty years.
     In 1952 the F&W installed an experimental system developed by General Electric which made possible the transmission of phone calls by radio waves. The Alsop community in Spotsylvania was deemed too distant for the F&W to build lines to, so those people were the beneficiaries of this program. A special building equipped with a radio receiver was built at Five Mile Fork to receive calls.

F&W building and radio tower

     The four digit telephone numbers were later upgraded with the Sterling (prefix 786) and Hunter (prefix 489) exchanges. My sister still has the Sterling telephone number assigned to our parents fifty two years ago.
     By 1965 the F&W, which in the 1940s could not attract a buyer, found itself in the enviable position of being courted by the Continental Telephone Company. When the F&W sold out to Continental in 1966 it had 1,168 subscribers.

     Late on a Saturday morning in 1965, a twelve year old boy in Spotsylvania took his single shot .22 rifle down from the rack, shoved a handful of bullets into his pocket and headed out the door. The widow who lived on the farm across the road paid this boy a dollar to come over when he could and discourage blue jays, starlings and other poachers from helping themselves to the cherries in her orchard. It had not taken these crafty birds long to avoid the orchard when the boy was there and often it was not necessary for him to dig out a single bullet from his jeans pocket. This particular Saturday morning I (yes, gentle reader, I need not dissemble further--this intrepid hunter was none other than myself) was in a certain mood to plink at least one bird and after a couple of frustrating hours drowsing against the trunk of a cherry tree I sullenly began to trudge home. Then, on the telephone line above me running along Old Plank Road I spotted a bird arrogantly perched on the line above an aluminum junction box. I slipped a round into my rifle and slowly brought up the barrel, the end of which could not have been more than six feet from my intended prey. I gently squeezed off a shot. Unharmed, the startled bird flew off. It had not been a good day so far. It was about to get worse.
     When I came into the kitchen my mother had a baffled look on her face, holding the phone, repeating "Hello, hello." She had been talking to her sister Nancy and the line had suddenly gone dead. In an instant a host of emotions strove for mastery within my breast as I at once realized what I had done. With an understandable concern for the consequences, I confessed to my parents that I believed I knew what happened
     Mom called Bill Pemberton, who in due course arrived with his truck and worked for a time on the insides of the aluminum junction box. It must be admitted here that I managed to take out phone service to the county west of our house. When finished, Bill came up to the house and handed my mother the flattened .22 slug (in the kindest manner possible, given the circumstances). Mom kept that souvenir for the rest of her life as a symbolic relic of my marksmanship.

The photo of M.W. Thorburn is courtesy of Rich Morrison. All other photos are from the Colvin Collection.



  1. Thanks Pat. I never knew that Dr. Gordon was the drive behind the phone company. I also remember Jake King coming to our house in 1954 to put an additional jack in my parents bedroom prior to the birth of my brother. Mom remembers the crank phone with Hazel on the other end. I have an old phone book from 1957, with the numbers from Brokenburg, Hartwood and Fredericksburg as well as the F and W lines. It is a very small book, and I am sure you remember ii, as it fit perfectly under the phone. - Wil Bowler

  2. I never knew how it started. I remember the Thorburns and the Pembertons as the owners of the phone company. We got a phone (5 Mile Fork area) after the 7 digit numbers were installed, and I remember calling Mr. Pemberton at his home when we had problems. I visited the Thorburn home once and was amazed that they had a phone in every room, and the latest phone, the Princess model. Oh, and the party line!