The Story Of Payson, Arizona

Chapter 19: The telephone came in 1908

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In gleaning the memories of “old timers,” a seeker of facts soon faces a dilemma: memories are not all the same. However, most folks who were there agree that the telephone first came to Payson in 1908, and this accomplishment was inspired by a near tragic accident.

According to Ernest Pieper, Louis Pinkley (“Pink”) Cole was bringing family members up to Payson in his farm wagon when the accident occurred. He had family members living in Mesa, and they liked to come to Payson in the summer. They had packed into his wagon at Cole’s Deer Creek Ranch to drive up to town, and the children were bobbing around, excited with the prospect of seeing Payson. Pieper reported, “They was coming up where the old rock quarry was, and them kids was all going to see who could see Payson first, and they got up there, and this one fell out of the wagon and it run over and broke his arm.”[1]

The Cole family hurried on to Payson for help, but the nearest doctor was a company physician in Roosevelt during the building of the dam. A young man named Ben Robbins saddled his horse and headed for Roosevelt to get the doctor, not knowing at that point how critical the child’s injuries might be. Ernest Pieper continued his report, “Ben Robbins said he knew just exactly, it took him four hours and twenty-eight minutes to ride a horse (that is, four or five horses, changing; I don’t know how often) from Payson to Roosevelt…”

In those days most ranchers kept a fresh horse at hand in case some emergency arose, and a rider was loaned the horse to go on while his last mount rested at that ranch. Ben reached Roosevelt in the race against time, four hours and twenty-eight minutes, and put the doctor on behind him as he began the return journey. He said, ‘You know, when I was about to the Hardt Place [near Punkin Center] I didn’t know whether I could make it.’”

Five horse-changes from Roosevelt, Ben Robbins successfully brought the doctor into town. He treated the injured child, and before Ben could get the doctor back to his post in Roosevelt Payson was buzzing with a red-hot discussion. “So one lady decided they’d better do something about getting a telephone in there,” said Pieper. Payson was too isolated from medical aid, and needed a telephone line from Roosevelt. Because of the large construction camp there, a phone line already existed from the county seat at Globe to the dam.

A young entrepreneur named W. H. Tharpe was instrumental in bringing the line to town, by selling stock in the Arizona Overland Telephone and Telegraph Company for which he was its General Manager.[2] The company was incorporated June 2, 1908 in Maricopa County to operate in the Phoenix area, “to make contracts, to construct and maintain telephone and telegraph lines and fuel plants for lighting and heating purposes… to transmit messages for toll…”

The Roosevelt to Payson line was a bit out of their purview, but Tharpe made it possible by selling stock and paying the workers in shares. Ernest Pieper remembers that so many who wanted the phone line in Payson pitched in to help by buying shares for 25 cents each. Then many local men went to work setting poles up the Tonto Basin and Rye Creek, with a single wire stretching to Payson. The memory that those phone calls were free prevailed among the old timers, yet the corporation papers clearly state the line was for “a toll.”

Memories on other matters were also fuzzy. Sarah McDonald Lockwood insisted “the first phone that was ever in there was in Dad’s store (Mart McDonald). Theresa (Boardman) got that mixed up. She said it wasn’t; that it was in their store. But it wasn’t. It was in Dad’s store. Then they took it from there on to Pine before they ever put it anyplace else.”

The Rim Country History seems to have settled the dispute (at least in theory) by stating, on page 38, “Payson had telephone service beginning in 1908. This private line had two phones, in two stores…”

The Overland T & T Company soon extended their lines from Payson on to the Verde Valley. The company was also stringing phone and telegraph lines between Winslow and Flagstaff and down to Jerome. The circuit was complete, enabling Payson to talk to Flagstaff if necessary. The company was also planning to add Ashfork and swing south to Prescott, not to compete with local phone companies but bidding for long distance calls.

In 1912 Payson got its first full-time doctor, thus taking the urgency out of the original push for phone service. In June of that year the Overland T & T Company was sold to Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company “for the sum of $432,000. All transactions (transfer and delivery of the Overland Company’s property and the settling of the shares of stock etc) had to be completed by July 20, 1912.”[3]

By then, shares of stock in the former Overland T & T were worth only 15 cents, according to Ernest Pieper. Apparently the owners did not get much of a settlement since Pieper said he was left with four or five hundred shares. “You might want to buy them,” he laughingly said to School Superintendent Ira Murphy several decades later. “Boy, we’ll cash in on them. Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll split with you, half.”

Apparently the new company, Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph, did little to maintain or claim ownership of the line from Payson to Globe.

In 1922 the U. S. Forest Service took over the phone lines, and placed phones in a number of homes along the line primarily to serve as fire warning system. However, the new service was free, and Payson residents were able to talk to people all the way to Globe without charge. The Payson Forest Ranger Station became home for a small central office, and local ranchers working for the Forest Service helped maintain the lines.

By the end of World War II the lines to Globe were humming with Payson’s business, and the Forest Service hired a lady named Belle Russell Lovelady to work the switchboard. She became one of the town legends. Her husband Walter had homesteaded a ranch on Webber Creek, but after being gassed in World War I ranching became too difficult. He sold the ranch to Bill Craig (later it became the Geronimo Estates community) while he and Belle moved to town. In 1924 Walter became Payson’s town constable, succeeding his father James Lovelady in that position. Walter was soon known for his method, during rodeo week and on weekends, of handcuffing drunks to trees, car bumpers and utility poles; Belle and their daughter Dorothy would go around checking on the culprits, and when it was determined they had sobered up, would call Walter to come and release them.

Belle’s special prominence began in 1947 when she became Payson’s telephone operator, a position she held for the next 10 years. After Walter’s health deteriorated, Belle had the switchboard moved to their home on Frontier Street. She said, “I soon found out that I was married to that thing. It controlled my life.”

The citizens of Payson and the surrounding Rim Country were grateful for her 24-hour-a-day dedication, since she put through many life-saving calls for help. Belle was a woman of faith, and when those desperate calls came through, she said, “We never ceased to pray. I can’t turn the switchboard off and go lie down somewhere for someone’s life might depend on the communication.” However, she occasionally got Anna Mae Deming, another legendary Payson woman, to spell her.

The town was growing, and the phone lines expanded. Instead of eight calls a day Belle Lovelady was fielding more than 40 calls. It was a party line and she knew that folks were listening in all over the Rim Country. “You have to be careful what you say,” she emphasized.

She retired in 1957 when the Mountain Bell telephone company took over the phone service for the Payson and the Rim Country. Payson no longer needed a local switchboard, but was in communication with the rest of the world. The very next year the road over the Mazatzal Mountains was paved from the Valley of the Sun to Payson. Isolation from the outside had become a thing of the past.

But a lot of history was made in the meantime.

[1] From an oral history taken by Ira Murphy, archives of the rim Country Museum.

[2] The Rim Country History, page 623, spells his name “Thorpe.” Sarah Lockwood remembered it a “James Thorpe.” However, the original records of the Overland Telephone and Telegraph Company, in the Arizona Historical Foundation, give his name was W. H. Tharpe.

[3] Ibid

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