Yesterday's News

Phone's history is connected to Henderson

By Frank Boyett - Gleaner Community Columnist
December 19, 2004

The telephone company is having a birthday tomorrow.

So to speak, that is. The history of Ma Bell is complicated, but her largest Baby Bell after the 1983 breakup is now known as BellSouth. And the earliest predecessor of BellSouth is the company called Southern Bell founded Dec. 20, 1879, by James Ormes.

What I find interesting is that a major component of what became Southern Bell at its apex -- the Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph Co. -- was founded right here in Henderson in 1883, according to a story that appeared in The Gleaner 50 years ago. At the time of its merger into Southern Bell in 1912, Cumberland provided telephone service to Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana.

"In 1883 the Cumberland Telephone and Telegraph company was organized here, where its headquarters remained until 1888. E.S. Babcock Jr. was president, E.T. Baker secretary and Paul J. Marrs superintendent and general manager.

"The headquarters of the Cumberland company were moved to Nashville in 1888 and it was purchased by Southern Bell in 1912, but continued to operate in the name of the Cumberland company until 1926, when its name was changed to Southern Bell."

(If I haven't confused you already, I'll try again. The corporate genealogy gets even murkier and more convoluted.)

At the same time Cumberland was incorporated, a sister company by the name of Great Southern Telephone & Telegraph Co. was formed here by some of the same people. The two companies merged in early 1898, according to incorporation records at the county court clerk's office.

Great Southern was also incorporated in Indiana and Illinois, while Cumberland was also incorporated in Tennessee, so it was obvious from the very beginnings the incorporators had grand designs.

To wrap up this brief corporate history, after Cumberland was gobbled up by Southern Bell in 1912, the merged firm provided phone service throughout the South. In 1968, the company was split into Southern Bell and South Central Bell, but the two were reunited 25 years later when the Baby Bells were carved from Ma Bell's carcass.

Telephone service first came to Henderson in the summer of 1880, courtesy of Postmaster Harvey S. Park and druggist William S. Johnson, who was a brother of famous Confederate Gen. Adam Rankin Johnson. They set up an exchange in the rear of the post office, which was then located at the southeast corner of Second and Main streets. Within months they had sold the operation to J.W. Porter, but the system was later acquired by Cumberland.

I might note that the earliest phone directory I've seen for Henderson dates from 1881, when there were 49 telephones in town. Seven of the subscribers were doctors. That directory was reprinted in the Nov. 17, 1929, issue of The Gleaner if you'd like to see it.

In winding up this discussion of Henderson's telephone history, I should mention another item I ran across in The Gleaner from 50 years ago. The article, which describes the first speaker phones in this area, appeared in The Gleaner in mid-February of 1955:

"It's called a 'distant talking set' or 'hand free' phone -- and a few have already been installed in Henderson, one of the first cities in the Southern Bell (system) to have the new style telephone.

"C.D. McIntosh, local manager for Southern Bell, said yesterday the first such set here went into commercial use shortly after the first of the year."

140 years ago

The Henderson Reporter reprinted the following item from the Louisville Journal noting that Capt. Timothy Tubbs, formerly commanding the 118th U.S. Colored Troops, had received a dishonorable discharge in Louisville.

Tubbs was found guilty "of sending recruits from his camp in Kentucky across the Ohio river into Indiana, and there selling them to a substitute broker," which allowed men with money to escape the Union Army draft.

The Reporter added, "As Timothy Tubbs perpetrated the above mentioned rascalities at this post, we are pleased to learn that he has been dishonorably discharged."

120 years ago

Dr. Pinckney Thompson, Henderson physician and president of the state Board of Health, which he was instrumental in founding, was called upon to heal himself in 1884 after a severe sleet storm.

The Reporter noted that Thompson had fallen after slipping on ice at his home at the southwest corner of Center and Alves streets, breaking a leg and dislocating an ankle.

75 years ago

A railroad section house on Knoblick Road one mile from Henderson was destroyed by fire, The Gleaner noted in 1929.

The house had been occupied by Ruda Kertz, but the family had been away from their house when the fire began.

25 years ago

Plans for three major downtown construction projects were in the works in 1979, according to The Gleaner, but only one of them came to fruition.

The one that came to pass was a major expansion of the headquarters of Big Rivers Electric Corp. The other two projects were a four-level parking garage and riverfront condominiums at Third and Water streets, which is currently a parking lot.


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS