Talking across barb-wire

The Vulcan and District history book “Wheat Country,” published in 1973, gives this good description of a truly western innovation.

The telephone played an important part in the development of the hamlet of Brant and the surrounding district. The Barb Wire telephone was the first form of communication.

A part of a story from the Albertan January 25, 1908 describes a barb-wire telephone system connecting Brant to Nanton:


Calgary Man Writes of the Telephone System in the South

If Charles Ross McAdam, “Knight of the Grip”, President of the “Teddy Bear Society” Ex-President of the “Canadian Lambs”, discoverer of the Stettler Air Ship, etc., etc., etc. continues to make his valuable discoveries, there will be a seven foot Canadian buried in Westminster Abbey in the next bunk to that of Livingstone or some other Britisher.

When McAdam discovered the Air Ship at the thriving town of Stettler all his friends remarked: “Mac is going some!” But this discovery made by a big man at Nanton a few days ago eclipses this and will replace him in the front ranks of the leaders of Science and Discovery.

McAdam’s latest find of the moment is a Telephone System running out of Nanton where in the place of the usual telephone poles and costly wires, the message is transmitted along the top strand of a barb-wire fence. What would have happened had there been a picket or snake fence in that portion of Sunny Alberta is a mystery unsolved.

Mr. McAdam states positively he did not discover these great matters intentionally but naturally ran up against them. When he discovered the modern phone system in Nanton, be thought it was just an ordinary tie-post for the ranchers’ convenience when they dropped into town. It was a very peculiar looking post to Mr. McAdam and immediately some new science germs were born within him for without taking time to buy a cigar, he started one of his wonderful scientific investigations and found that it was the most modern system on the face of the globe.

The story of how Mr. McAdam made this discovery, how he verified and the sensations it brought to the gentleman are best told in his own words. “While in the town of Nanton, Southern Alberta, today, my attention was drawn to two or three ordinary two-by-four scantlings standing in the distance, perhaps 100 feet apart on the side of the Main Street and perhaps 20 feet high. On the top of these scantlings was strung a fine wire. I asked a friend what that thing meant. “He answered saying: ” That is a conveyor of sound whereby you could talk to the town of Brant, thirty to thirty-two miles east and north of here, also to any farmer intervening who has a receiver!” (These party lines made private conversations difficult, as anyone with a receiver could listen to the talk, and even join in with their opinions.)

We were required to set up a pole or scantling at each section corner where a road had to be crossed. These scantlings had to be of sufficient height to permit any load passing under it. There we attached an ordinary piece of No. 9 wire such as is used in baling hay to the top strand of the wire fence and run it up and over the top of the pole, across the road and down and attached it again to the top wire of the fence on the other side. When we came to a railway, we laid an ordinary piece of insulated telephone wire alongside the ties and another little piece of insulated wire to pass through the side of the hardware store and attached to the receiver there. The entire cost of giving us the full connection from Nanton in a circuitous route to Brant thirty to thirty-two miles was $40.00. Those who did not bring their receivers up with them had to pay us $17.00 each for them.

They had this ‘Phone System’ connecting Brant and High River though it may seem too ridiculously incredible to be believed for one moment, yet it is absolutely true and correct beyond a shadow of a doubt that you could speak and be heard thus plainly for a continuous route of 30 to 32 miles without the aid of the “Hello Girl” or the Switchboard, only a receiver attached to the fence with ordinary No.9 Wire.

Charles B. McAdam, Nanton, January 23rd, 1907″

There were others using the barb-wire telephones in this area including Dr. Shamberger and Wm. Auld. An excerpt from the Annual Report of the Department of Public Works (Telephone Branch) for 1909 shows that the government built a rural line from High River to Brant during that year. Some Brant subscribers were included in the High River listings in the A.G.T, official telephone directory number 6, published in December, 1911, These were: Wm. Auld, Earl Austin, Bank of Hamilton, Geo. Bateman, H. K. Bateman, Bertrand Bros., J, E. Bowen, Brant Store Ltd., J, W. Campbell, W. E. Green, M. M, Hall, Eli Mitchell, Monteith & Duncan, A. J, Spankie, C. W, Stout.

According to the A.G.T. Annual Report for 1915, the Brant toll office was converted to an exchange that year, with eight subscribers, The A.G.T. directory for July 1917 shows the first listings. The rural phones were eventually routed through the exchange, as shown in the directory for September, 1923. Jennie Leach, daughter of the manager for the Beaver Lumber Company, was the first telephone operator for the new exchange, which, along with the post office, was situated in a building owned by Thos. Johns. Kathleen and Mary O’Connell, and Dorothy Johns also served as operators. There was day service only for many years. Eventually an automatic exchange was installed which connected Brant to the High River office and used their operators, This was replaced by the dial operation on December 16, 1953. The buried cables have now replaced the telephone poles. On June 6, 1971, the Brant office was closed and the district is now served from Blackie.

This was a barb-wire phone used near Young, Saskatchewan.

Mae McMullen also wrote: “The first telephones were barb wire phones between neighbors, with no number and no office. You just rang and got your neighbor. One such line was between the T. M. Davis farm and Bill Jurney’s, also one between the Irving Place and the McIrvin place east and north of the Corner Store. The first telephone office (in Vulcan) was put in in 1911, with the office being in Elves Brothers’ Store. It was in combination with the post office and was where Les Coombs’ barber shop is now on Main Street, with the store in the building where the Vulcan Pharmacy is now. There was a very small switchboard with 40 town phones and 10 rural phones.”

Maud Snow remembers that when she arrived in 1909, telephones were on the barb wire fence from High River.

Things have certainly changed here in 100 years. A barb-wire fence is only a barb-wire fence, used for keeping animals in or people out. Some Vulcan citizens would be lost without their iPhones or Blueberry allowing them to be in constant contact with the rest of the world. Twitter and Facebook are our new “party lines.”

Samples of a variety of barb-wire fencing can be found in the Vulcan and District Museum, 232 Centre Street, Vulcan, Alberta.

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