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  Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Barbed Wire Telephones

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
In this day of seemingly unlimited telephone services, it's hard to believe we once used barbed wire to carry our message. Laura V. Hamner, noted Panhandle historian, wrote of such telephone service in her book "Light and Hitch." Various pioneers in early day Claude and Gruver told of nearby ranchers installing telephones using the top wire of barbed wire fences for the telephone line. -- In 1949, when we purchased our Alenreed ranch, a telephone line ran eight miles to the south, some of it still using barbed wire.

At first, few realized the signal would be diminished during rainy weather because the wire was stapled directly to the post, causing grounding when wet.

As the theory of insulators became understood, the most clever, most innovative cowboys used every conceivable type of device as insulators to suspend the wire. I have found leather straps folded around wire and nailed to the posts, whiskey bottle necks installed over big nails, snuff bottles, corn cobs, pieces of inner-tube wrapped around the wire and short straps of tire holding telephone wires to the post.

The big ranches were among the first to install barbed wire telephones in as effort to be alerted when prairie fires started. Distant line camps could be contacted and work schedules discussed all using the "already-in-place" barbed wire. Fence riders also became telephone line repairmen.
A handmade electric pole


A pole in Codman, Texas
(minus insulators) that may have supported a telephone line.

Photo courtesy Erik Whetstone, April 2004
Eavesdroppers seemed to be the biggest problem with all early day communications using a party line. No secret or business was safe or private. When you raised the receiver and cranked out your call, clicks could be heard up and down the line as all close to a phone listened in.

Any chore, no matter how important, could wait when the phone rang. Families fought for the listening position after a ring. We had a neighbor woman confined to a wheel chair who seemed able to stand when the telephone rang. When invitations to a party went out over the line, everyone who eavesdropped showed up.

Craig Morris, our early day ranch foreman, now deceased, and who cussed a lot, would crank out his call, wait until everyone on the party line picked up their receiver, then announce "All you old biddies better hang up cause I'm gonna talk about castrating a (expletive deleted) stud horse." The hang-up clicks followed quickly - allowing a bit of privacy.

Our ring was two shorts and a long. Grandma Trew's ring was a long, a short and another long. Can you remember your ring combination?

I can remember several emergencies when fires started in the wheat fields or someone was injured. The phone would ring long and continuously - similar to our 911 calls of today. I remember sad calls during WWII, when the military called to report deaths or missing in action.

The buried cables and fiber optics of today are a long way from barbed wire fence telephone lines. However, to me, the ability to talk over a wire is still somewhat of a miracle.
Delbert Trew

"It's All Trew" February 20 , 2004 column
 
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