Their clocks could be heard

Bell on the telephone in New York (calling Chi...
Bell on the telephone in New York (calling Chicago) in 1892 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1905, when Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces, thousands of people were flocking to the Prairies. In the first ten years of the century, Winnipeg‘s population grew from 42,000 to 136,000. Regina‘s from 2,250 to 30,000. Edmonton grew from 2,600 to 25,000. Calgary‘s from 4,400 to 44,000. Saskatchewan from 113 to 12,000!

Because of this rapid growth, the provincial governments and municipalities were under pressure to offer public services. On November 1, 1908, the government of Saskatchewan established a Department of Municipal Affairs. Saskatchewan and Manitoba were the first provinces to do so.

The majority of newcomers were taking up holdings on the land, and their huge wheat-growing areas meant that their homes were widely spread apart. Alexander Graham Bell‘s new-fangled telephone had been fully accepted after a long struggle, and was a blessing to the Western farmers. In fact it was so essential to their welfare that a Rural Telephone Act was passed, making it possible for groups of five people to build, maintain, and use a rural telephone system.

In his book Saskatchewan: The History of a Province, J.F.C. Wright has an amusing story of how the rural telephone systems provided entertainment before radio. One prolonged ring on the line was a signal for all subscribers to lift the receivers and listen. There might be an announcement of an auction sale, dance, or public meeting, or perhaps serious news about a fire or other tragedy. Telephone conversations were seldom private, and were made with the knowledge that probably most of the other subscribers were listening. Their clocks could be heard ticking, or perhaps the shout of a child at play, or a sudden snore from grandfather asleep in his chair However, no one ever “let on” that he or she was listening If someone heard that a neighbor was going to town, he or she would allow an interval to elapse, then phone the neighbor and say, “Do you happen to be going to town today? If so, I wonder if you would mind bringing back some groceries for us?”

I remember “listening in” on what was called a “party line” when visiting a relative who lived in the country.  I must have witnessed the more boring conversations.  However, I do remember the parties talking finally knew someone was listening, and I soon heard, “Get off the line!”  I did.

Telephone (Photo credit: HowardLake)

Radio was a blessing in later years but it never provided the intimate entertainment of the country telephone system!

If you would like to read more about today’s post, I suggest going to Archives Canada, and there is a rather extensive article at the Canadian Journal of Communication. There’s an interesting article, also, at the Grey Roots Museum and Archives.


  1. My Dad told me about this as well. He is from Guysborough County, NS and I’ve been entrusted with the old family phone which I have displayed at home (It is actually my brother’s , lol). Dad will still pick up the receiver and crank the small lever and explain what each number of rings meant.
    Although I was very young I’m quite sure I can remember when my grandmother still had the “party line”. He says too that you would ‘listen in’ ( or spy) on others conversations, ha! Thanks for the post!


    • LOL I can see that the post brought back memories … and good ones, too. I’m happy that it does. Wow, that phone is a real gem! And it’s nice to hear that other “wiser” people have “spied” on the lines; I wasn’t sure my confession would be well received. LOL 🙂


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