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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Phone Fear

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Oh, the wonders of digital technology. We can call, text or email anyone anywhere with our cell phones. We can accomplish miraculous things on our tablets, laptops or desktops. All is fantastic until something goes wrong. And that possibility can make us anxious.

Learning to cope with progress has been a problem since the beginning of the industrial age, though it probably has grown more acute with each new invention. Around 1899, Panhandle ranch wife Bena Jones had a brief, if unsettling, run in with high tech.

That spring, a company in Liberal, KS had begun connecting ranches in southwestern Kansas, northwestern Texas and Oklahoma by running telephone wires along barbed wire fences. As a Kansas newspaper noted, "It had been demonstrated that a fence wire worked perfectly for a telephone connection."

Since most ranches were miles from railroads or telegraph offices, cattlemen liked having a communication system that did not involve mailing a letter or saddling or harnessing a horse. With a telephone, a rancher could not only stay in touch with his neighbors, he could conduct business and keep abreast of market conditions.

"The plan is one of untold advantage to stock owners," the newspaper concluded, "and will be pushed until the complete benefits have been derived."

Born in Pittsburgh, PA in 1866 a decade before Alexander Graham Bell displayed his telephone at the U.S. centennial exhibition in Philadelphia, Bena grew up in Topeka, KS, where her parents had moved when she was a child. At 19, she married Joseph Jones, whose family had immigrated from Wales when he was eight. They, too, settled in Kansas, but in 1880, Jones left home for Mobeetie on the eastern edge of the Texas Panhandle.

In 1885, back in Topeka, Jones married Bena. Returning to Texas by stagecoach from Dodge City, they took up residence in Mobeetie. Five years later, Jones bought a ranch in Hansford County, but he and Bena continued to live in Mobeetie. After their first child was born in 1892, they moved to the ranch six miles south of present Gruver.

Hostile Indians and the buffalo were gone, but the Panhandle was only sparsely settled. For the Jones family, food and supplies lay a long wagon ride away in the community of Hansford.

On one of those trips from their ranch to town, Bena encountered something she had never seen before: A telephone line. The line, actually two wires, ran along a barbed wire fence. At each gate, the phone wires were strung overhead between tall posts.

All that would have been merely of passing interesting to her if the road leading to town did not pass through one of those gates with the phone wires overhead. Studying the situation, Bena developed a plan.

Leaving her children in the buggy, she walked cautiously to the gate, opened it real fast, and hastened back to the wagon. Snapping the reins, she shot the buggy through the gate like a horizontal bolt of lightning. Pulling her horse to a halt about 200 feet beyond the gate, she reversed the process, carefully and quickly closing the gate as her children waited safely in the distance.

Her fear was logical enough and reflected some pretty sophisticated thinking for the day. The telephone lines, she worried, might be radiating a dangerous electrical charge that could be harmful to anyone exposed to it. That, of course, is a worry that continues to this day in regard to now ubiquitous cell towers.

When Bena got to the store in Hansford, she told the proprietor of her concern. He assured her she faced no danger from the new method of communication.

Telephone lines were not dangerous, but a raging blizzard was. The first winter on their new ranch had been so cold the young couple had to stack their furniture on one side of their ranch house and move their horses into the other side. Otherwise, the animals would have frozen to death.

One day as the Jones children played outside during a more temperate time of year, they heard horses and tinkling bells. Peeping over the stone wall of their corral, the children saw Indians riding down the hill toward their ranch house.

Though a war party had not been in the area for more than a decade-and-a-half, Texans had not forgotten their 60-year struggle with the Comanches and other war-like tribes. The children ran to report the "attack," but their father took the news calmly. He knew the reservation Indians from Oklahoma meant no harm and let them camp on his land for several days. In turn, the Indians invited the Jones family to join them for a meal.

When the children outgrew the small country school near their ranch, Jones moved his family to Guymon. But he continued to run the ranch in Hansford County until his death at 57 in 1919. His widow kept the ranch running for another 40 years. She died on Jan. 4, 1951.

Long before then, telephone lines had been relegated to poles.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" August 16, 2018

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