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Our rural phone

The early telephone was as transformative as the internet is today

The early telephone broke the isolation of rural Manitoba. Seen here are early telephone operators.

The rural phone had at last reached the district. Many there were who fought strongly against its coming, but the few progressive citizens after a hard fight managed to overcome all objections. When the poles and strands of shiny wire were actually on the ground, all felt as though we were given a new world.

Here we were, isolated from town and neighbours. Our only chance of talking to them was to hitch up a horse and drive a few miles. Now all was changed. Our neighbours were distant no longer. They could be talked to at any time. It was not necessary for the young men to carefully shave and dress up then drive a number of miles only to find that their best girl was not at home. The doctor could be called at a moment’s notice. No wonder we all felt progressive.

All went lovely. The whole neighbourhood was one huge family. Then like a thunder cloud came the scandal, causing many to look askance at one another. It developed into a typical feud, only there was no bloodshed. No one was disfigured for life, but some hearts were made sore, which is sometimes worse than a wound.

It came about in this way: Jim McHenry, a homesteader, was located out north of our little settlement some five miles. A likable sort of chap was Jim, good natured, quiet and very bashful in the presence of ladies. A confirmed bachelor by all appearances. He was a slave to work.

People predicted a great future for Jim; wealth and all the comforts that go with it. Many a mother with a far-seeing vision tried to get him in her clutches in order that one of her daughters might be amply provided for. He was invited to tea on Sunday evenings and stuffed full of every conceivable article of food they thought he might like. Through it all Jim remained normal. He was pronounced absolutely hopeless. “But then one never can tell,” said Mrs. Jones to her neighbour one afternoon. “Life is made up of hope, you know.”

The fall the phone arrived Jim was very anxious to have it installed. When questioned as to his reasons he blushed and stepped from one foot to the other finally stating that lately he had been thinking that a fellow should be in better communication with his neighbours. One never can tell, he said, what might happen and no one would know anything about it. There are many cases just like that where, had a phone been in some lonely fellow’s shack, his life might have been saved. No answer coming over the wire after repeated trials for a day or two would naturally cause people to suspect that something was wrong.

One bright, sunny December day Mrs. Strong called up Mrs. Jones for the express purpose of finding out the methods of making angel cake. Of course, after the recipe had been given and duly commented upon, district news was next in order. “Did you hear that Jim McHenry was engaged to haul out the school wood supply?” Mrs. Jones said, “I suppose Mary Thompson is getting along pretty well teaching for a home girl.”

“It must be awfully hard,” Mrs. Strong replied, “for a girl to teach the children in her own district.” Here an awful noise came over the phone. “Mercy! What’s that,” she exclaimed as the noise continued, finally dying down in a guttural sound like that of a dying cat. “I don’t know. Oh, well, I must get at that cake. Goodbye.”

On the same line, standing at the phone, an interested listener had held her phone tightly gripped in her hand. Owing to the baby crawling around it was a difficult thing to catch all the news without the infant making the fact known. As Mrs. Jones had finished the part about Jim being engaged the youngster gave a loud yell causing the mother to hastily place the receiver on its hook. After he had been quieted and her ear again pressed against the instrument Mary Thompson’s name came over the wire. Then young master Roy, having fallen on his face, gave out a yell and the mother had to rush to his assistance. She had heard enough anyway. News like this was not an everyday occurrence.

During the afternoon she called up her bosom friend, Mrs. Doyle, and told her as a great secret, the news that Jim McHenry was engaged to Mary. “Of course,” she added, “I don’t wish it to go any further, you know.” Mrs. Doyle thoroughly understood and it would be as safe with her as though locked up in the bank vault. However, when down at the store she met her dear friend, Mrs. Brown, and during the talk gave her as a strict secret the news that Jim and Mary were to be married. Mary was going to quit the school the end of the term, she understood, and Jim was busy getting things in shape for a trip.

Before long everyone in the community knew all about the affair, all except the two most concerned. As the news travelled the story became longer and more detailed until it had now assumed tremendous proportions. Jim was going to build a regular mansion of a home, was going to Palm Beach on a wedding trip. Mary had a most beautiful outfit all ready for the event. The Rev. Wilber Thomas who had baptized Mary was coming all the way from B.C., mind you, just to make the couple man and wife.

Meanwhile, Jim worked away drawing wood to the little school and Mary daily tramped two miles from her home every morning. As Jim was usually unloaded about 4 p.m., and his homeward way led past Mary’s place she rode home on the sleigh. They became quite good friends. She apparently had reached underneath the surface of this bashful man’s character and found him a true man, and a good talker when he forgot self, and it was a sight to see his eyes light up with enthusiasm when talking on some subject of interest to him. Of course, all this was noted.

There came a day when Mary on her way to town stopped at a neighbour’s for a short visit. During the talk that followed, marriage came up. “I suppose we will soon hear of you getting married, Mary.”

“Not for a while yet, I am afraid,” Mary replied, with a smile.

“Oh, don’t try to put me off that way,” her hostess said. “I know all about it. You two tried to keep it quiet and give this neighbourhood the surprise of its life, but I know,” she nodded wisely.

“What in the world are you talking about?” Mary said.

“Why you and Jim McHenry.”

Mary leaned back and gasped. Then the humour of it striking her forcibly she gave way to paroxysms of laughter. After she could control herself she asked just what was going around. So it all came out, whole volumes of it.

After making her purchases in town Mary started homeward. Bells ringing behind made her plunge off the road. A cutter drew up and stopped. Jim’s voice it was who asked if she would have a ride. After being tucked in and the cutter moving swiftly down the road Mary looked at him and laughed so heartily that he was amazed. When she could control herself she told the tale. Jim at first blushed a rosy red and then turned pale. This was awful. Good heavens! The whole neighbourhood talking about him.

They passed Jones and the wife on the way to town. Jim pretended that the horses were too fractious to look their way. He felt their eyes glued upon him. It made him chilly and he shook. The tale had ended. So engrossed had he been that he had not noticed Mary stop talking. He looked around. Mary was sitting there quite composed as though a neighbourhood talk was an everyday occurrence. It helped him regain possession of his own faculties. She turned toward him.

“Well, what are you going to do about it?” she demanded.

“Do about it?” he echoed, nearly jumping out of the cutter. “Do about it? Good sakes alive! Don’t you know what this means? Everyone talking about us.” – Here he waved his arm – “Everyone believes it. We will never be able to make people think otherwise.”

“Yes, but Jim, after going to all that trouble about building a new house and everything, and look at my new clothes all ready, according to reports.” She looked at him and laughed. He looked into her eyes, and, forgetting all about himself, also laughed. “Well,” he said, “Mary, I’m game if you are.”

“My,” said Mary irrelevantly, “what a blessing the phone is after all.”

The trouble began when the news was really confirmed. One remembers telling her friends in strict confidence, of course, all about it. Link by link it traced back to its origin. Everyone blamed her friend for telling her secret, and the settlement suffered a severe frost for a time.

But now all is over. Blessings on the rural phone!”

A version of this article first appeared in the Nor’West Farmer on December 5, 1919.

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