HISTORY OF PASCO COUNTY
Phone Pioneer Built SystemsThis article appeared in the Tampa Tribune on Nov. 16, 2001.
By CAROL JEFFARES HEDMAN
DADE CITY — Americans are so in love with cellular telephones that it’s hard to imagine a time when Pasco residents didn’t have access to even wired communications.
The first telephones in Pasco came nearly 30 years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the device in 1876.
The Pasco County Telephone Co. was organized in April 1903 by W. J. Ellsworth of Jessamine, near St. Joseph in northeast Pasco. Included in the company were John S. Flanagan and L. Halsema Sr., both of San Antonio; I. F. Corrigan and Abbot Charles Mohr, both of St. Leo; and Clarence Griffin of Dade City.
At its best, the telephone was nothing but a “plaything” for the few subscribers, Mohr wrote in later years.
The result was a company faced with threats of being sold to pay off debts. The organizers raised enough money to pay off the most pressing of those and then turned over their stock to Griffin, the president and general manager.
Griffin also owned a drugstore where he housed the central exchange. Initially there were only 16 lines, but the 1910 directory lists 135 numbers in 10 communities: Dade City, Trilby, Blanton, Greer, St. Joseph, St. Thomas, Jessamine, St. Leo, San Antonio and Pasco.
Locating the switchboard at the drugstore was suggested by doctor R. G. Sistrunk, who thought it would be helpful for calling in prescriptions. But Griffin and his clerks only made the connections for telephone subscribers when they weren’t too busy.
The instructions cautioned: “When you are called, answer promptly. The party at the other end may be impatient and will not wait forever. Do not expect Central to remember who called you. The operator will ring only twice.”
Telephone pioneer Otto Wettstein Jr. was vacationing in Eustis in 1910 when a friend advised him of the small Dade City exchange that was for sale.
Wettstein had built his first telephone exchange in 1896, at age 21, in his hometown of Rochelle, Ill. In the next two years he developed 30 more exchanges in Iowa and Nebraska.
While in Florida, Wettstein was considering buying other telephone exchanges and went to look at the Dade City company. Florida had only about 700,000 people and 32,000 telephones then. Jacksonville was the only town that had competing exchanges.
With financial assistance from Elliot E. Edge of Groveland, Wettstein bought the Dade City exchange and included it with those in Eustis and Tavares to organize the Lake County Telephone Co. at a cost of about $25,000.
That same year he developed the Fort Lauderdale exchange.
Bitten by the real estate bug and a bit of homesickness the next year, Wettstein traded his telephone exchanges for 42,000 acres along the Kissimmee River, thinking the land looked like Midwest farmland. He planned to colonize the property and farm.
But the land was wet, and Wettstein went broke trying to sell the property and farm the 60 acres he kept for himself.
Wettstein was nearly penniless in March 1915 when he read in a Tampa newspaper that R. C. Cummings, a lineman in Dade City for the Lake County Telephone Co., had been electrocuted by crossing a telephone wire with power lines from Tampa Electric Co.
Wettstein wrote and asked for Cummings’ job, and on April 2, 1915 he arrived in Dade City to work for the company he had once owned. For $80 a month, Wettstein returned to climbing poles, something he wrote he had not done since leaving Rochelle 17 years earlier.
After a few months on the job, Wettstein was told he was about to be fired. He asked for a meeting with the directors and found the only complaint was he devoted too much time to civic work and not enough to telephone business.
Wettstein convinced the directors his civic work was good public relations for the company and he kept his job, plus his chairmanship of the membership committee of the Pasco County chapter of the American Red Cross and membership on the Board of Trade, which organized the Farmers Dairy Association.
Within a year, Wettstein proceeded to buy the company, again with Edge’s help. Wettstein operated the Dade City exchange, which now had 200 subscribers, as Pasco Telephone Co.
Wettstein moved from Dade City in 1917, returning to Eustis where he bought the Leesburg exchange. He then added the Groveland and Clermont exchanges, followed by a system of six exchanges in the area of the Suwannee River.
In 1919, Wettstein moved to Live Oak and three years later purchased telephone exchanges in Winter Garden, Apopka, Kissimmee and St. Cloud. When his daughter graduated from Live Oak High School in 1922, Wettstein moved his family to Orlando to enroll her at Rollins College.
He built a headquarters in Leesburg, then acquired the balance of 28 exchanges, which he merged into Florida Telephone Corp. in 1925.
“Starting with nothing except experience, energy and ambition in 1915, with Mr. Edge’s confidence and help, I had, in 10 years, acquired a system of 28 telephone exchanges and control of a corporation with a capital of $1,400,000,” he wrote in his autobiography.
“I came into this telephone situation at an opportune time. The Bell and Peninsular were the only telephone companies in Florida, operating more than one or two exchanges. The others were local companies owned by one individual or by a group of business people who could not obtain telephone service in any other way than to organize their own company.” Wettstein died in Leesburg in 1967 at age 92.
Florida Telephone Corp. was purchased by United Telephone Co. of Florida in 1973. United Telephone became Sprint Corp. in 1992.
The first telephone exchange in west Pasco was in New Port Richey at the home of Clyde and Harriet Lapham in the early 1900s. Harriet was the operator on 24-hour duty.
By 1922, the phone equipment was moved to the second story of the old Eastern Star building at Missouri Avenue and Boulevard South. Lapham continued as operator.
By 1926, under the name Peninsular Telephone Co., there were 129 telephone subscribers in New Port Richey. That number fluctuated throughout the boom years and the Great Depression.
In 1941 there were 139 subscribers. That number jumped to 289 in 1946 after a larger switchboard was moved from Bradenton in 1944 and five operators were employed.
General Telephone Co. bought Peninsular Telephone Co. in 1957. GTE merged with Bell Atlantic Corp. last year to become Verizon Communications.
The first telephone calls were put through by cranking the telephone to call for the operator. Only the name of the person being called was given to the operators, who would in turn ring that person. The operators where also privy to the latest town gossip.
Bill Dayton, a Dade City attorney and a Pasco County historian, related a story told to him by the late Elizabeth Burks, who came to town in 1919 with her husband, John. The couple only knew one family in Dade City and when Elizabeth Burks went to place her first call, she cranked the operator and said she wanted to reach Lucy Lock.
“I don’t think she’s home right now,” the operator told Burks. “I just heard her say she was going down to Mrs. Jackson’s. You might wait five minutes and try and reach her at Mrs. Jackson’s.”
The dial tone was introduced in 1945, letting callers know when the line was free to place a call.
This article is taken from West Pasco’s Heritage (1974).
During the early days of telephone construction, many obstacles had to be overcome. All traveling was done by horse and wagon over sand trails. The density of palmetto growth was outdone only by the abundance of rattlesnakes and the intense heat of the sun. The first telephone, according to one oldtime resident, was installed in the store of J. M. Mitchell, in Sapling Woods in the early 1900’s. The first telephone exchange in New Port Richey was located in a small house on Missouri Avenue, the home of Mr. and Mrs. Clyde Lapham. She was the operator on 24 hour duty. Calls were few, however, and the work load very light.
In 1921,the exchange was moved to a room on the second floor of the old Eastern Star Building at the corner of Missouri Avenue and Boulevard South. Mrs. Lapham continued in position of operator. Mrs. Hilda Anderson was employed by the company in July, 1932, as the day time operator. She worked from 8:00 a. m. to 6:00 p. m. daily, with Mrs. Lillian Frierson, night operator, working from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 a. m. The switchboard was a one position board. When Mrs. Anderson took over the day shift there were sixty telephones in New Port Richey. Later, Mrs. Anderson became the charge operator and C. B. (Pop) Stinson of Tarpon Springs was general manager of this area.
In 1944, the need increased and a larger switchboard was moved from Bradenton. It was a two position board and there were five operators employed at this time.
Growth of Telephone Subscribers
New PortRichey Hudson 1926 129 1931 162 1936 95 1941 139 1946 289 1951 776 1961 3,313 1,171 1969 10,056 2,914
By January, 1948, the company had increased its phone installations to the point where more room was necessary and the company moved their facilities to a new building (a small office) located at the present site of the modern new office on Missouri Avenue.
Telephone numbers, like everything else in West Pasco, went through a process of constant change. In the beginning the operators knew every customer by name and often had a few personal remarks with the customer before dialing their requested number. Next came numbers such as 1-, 2- or 3. Then when the telephone became so popular the number exceeded 100 phones, a different system had to be devised. Additions were made, in some cases special codes were used, such as Red 25 or Black 51, to aid the operator in locating the number on her switchboard. As more phones were installed the numbers increased to a four or five digit, such as 4892 and later, 6-4892. Many large cities used prefix letters, such as We-4892 (Webster).
With the advent of direct dialing the company literally ran out of numbers and a complete new system was devised using area codes. Example: 813-842-7761. The first “Sun Dial” newsletter was enclosed in customer billing envelopes in January, 1932. The “dial tone” was introduced in 1945, to “tell” a customer when an over-loaded line was ready to accept his call.
In May of 1958, the company name was changed from Peninsular Telephone Company to General Telephone Company of Florida. Workmen were kept busy for several weeks changing signs from the old to the new.
Change and expanded service continues to be characteristic of telephone service in West Pasco. Many new styles of telephone were introduced in the 60’s, including the Slimline and the Starlite. Varicolored styles became popular. The West Pasco area now has several different prefix numbers, and it is wise to consult a directory quite often to keep abreast of the ever increasing changes in service.
On Nov. 2, 1904, the Tampa Morning Tribune reported, “The people of Dade City are delighted to know that they will soon have a telephone system connecting with San Antonio, Blanton, Greer and Jessamine Gardens. The business men and a good many of the residents are having phones put in.”
On Feb. 11, 1918, the Tampa Morning Tribune reported, “The Peninsular Telephone Company has installed a public telephone in the postoffice block [in New Port Richey], with a direct line to Tarpon Springs.”
On Jan. 16, 1948, the New Port Richey Press reported that dial telephone service would begin in New Port Richey on Jan. 21.