The year in Danville was 1879. Polhemus and Smith had opened their new meat market on February 11th. The best buys in town were at Cheap Charley’s Clothing Store. P. T. Martin was president of the Temperance Society, and the circus was coming to town on October 2.
Then on Tuesday, September 23rd, the Danville Daily News blared: The first telephone put up in this city was placed in the News counting room last Saturday, and another was placed at the junction. It was attached to the telegraph wire which runs into the News office, but as a battery is between the office and the junction, and telephones do not work through batteries, yesterday an individual wire was put up from this office through the Western Union telegraph office to the junction and now all things are ready for a telephone test. Some words were passed over it yesterday and the click of the telegraph can be distinctly heard. The exchange will soon be complete, and the telephone will soon be as familiar to our business people as the fares of their neighbors.
Only two years before, in 1877, Alexander Graham Bell had buttoned up his first practical telephone. Already Danville, one of the most important cities in Illinois, was getting in on the line. Telephones were installed in thirteen offices, including the First National Bank, the Vermilion City Bank, Dickason and English, the St. James Hotel, and the post office. Six homes snapped up the service, including W. P. Cannon and J. C. Black. By October 18th, Miss Eva Beck was sitting at the switchboard, ready to connect any two of the city’s 19 telephones.
Instructions for using the phone read, “In talking, speak in a moderate tone and directly into the transmitter with lips as close as possible to the mouthpiece. To call Central, take hand telephone from hook and place to ear.”
In 1903, the American Can Company could be reached at Hoopeston 1. Customers for Charles Ahrens’ Saloon in East Main St. had to remember four digits to reach him. The Central and Eastern Illinois Railroad had eight telephones listed while the city conducted its business on five. Emergency calls in 1903 went to the police at Main 34, or Lakeview Hospital at Main 174. The not-yet-yellow pages listed 14 liveries and two budding auto agencies. Four names were listed under I. Mr. H. M. Steely could be reached at the First National Bank, Main 36. Business merited a special section in the back of the book. At that time, Danville supported twelve attorneys, a cigar maker, five newspapers, and a bath parlor.
In 1905, you could call 43 numbers in Westville, 17 in Soldier’s Home. The Rev. M. F. Collier could be rung at 23. James Savage answered at 243. The company’s new two-story brick central office was opened that year, bringing 10,000 visitors in two days to an open house.
Growth of the telephone system was gradual and steady over the next years. By 1936, the telephone book ended with familiar yellow pages, but white pages too screamed with advertising. Toll calls to Perrysville were l0c and to Hoopeston, 25c.
By 1895, the independent Danville Telephone Co. was incorporated by Elliott E. Benedict on $25,000 capital. The 1898 directory listed 450 subscribers and 200 places where toll calls could be placed. The next year, more than 1000 telephone talkers were listed, and the company sprawled into larger quarters.
Five years later, toll lines were strong to Fithian, Potomac, and State Line. The Vermilion County Telephone company, a consolidation of smaller independents, was launched on $60,000. It wasn’t until 1907 that the Vermilion County Telephone Co. and the Central Union joined. Until then, subscribers to one service couldn’t call friends on a competitive line. Business and emergency services had to subscribe to both companies.
Improvements in 1903 totaled $65,000. Six miles of cable were trenched through the city, goring through the ground to some 1029 customers. There were even five pay stations and 17 extension telephones in the city. But 344 short-winded customers were on ten-party lines.
Harry Haworth presented a still-extant bill for delivering telephone directories in 1904. He earned $13.40 for peddling 715 books, including 13 to Soldiers’ Home and 38 to Vermilion Heights. He mailed 594 books at a penny each. Today’s toll for a Danville directory is 25 times that much. The tale of a city laces through the few early telephone books still on file at Illinois Bell offices on North Walnut St. A 1903 directory claims that direct connections can be made with “New York, St. Louis, and 25,000 other points.”
A 1940 census credits Danville with 36,919 citizens, of whom 9172 had telephones. The Pape Memorial Home was called at 430 then. A 1941 directory lists directions for dialing. Almost two pages now are devoted to names beginning with A, and ads have been banished from the white pages except for one persistent plea from the Danville Rendering Company for dead and diseased animals, on page after page.
The four years between 1946-50 saw extensive underground work threaded through Danvilles’ earth. Eighty miles of cable were laid; 229 new poles were hoisted. Telephone company business offices were moved to 25 E. Main. In 1947, ground at Walnut and Seminary was purchased for the present office structure. Since 1928, it has been Illinois Bell.
Milestones within memory include continued growth, improvement, introduction. Telephones have a new look, new colors, new talents. Direct distance dialing is reality. “Central” is a girl of the past.’
But telephone pioneers meet to remember. They remember the men who built Illinois Bell, and the girls who snaked the human voice through primitive switchboards. The Heritage salutes Illinois Bell and its part in building Vermilion County.