Sherburne History Center

Sherburne History Center
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Friday, October 30, 2020

The Telephone in Early Sherburne County

A new exhibit on the Sherburne History Center web page explores postcards and their popularity as a means of communication.  An equally interesting development in Sherburne County history is the adoption and use of the telephone.  Beginning in the early 1890s and continuing through the 1920s several small telephone companies organized in Sherburne County to offer this unique method of communication.  Delving into the early history of companies such as the Meadowvale Rural Telephone Company and the Haven Telephone Company, and the efforts of anonymous companies in Elk River provide an interesting appreciation of a rising telephone technology in the county. 

Drawing of candlestick style
telephone common in 1900

As early as 1893, the opportunity to reach out to friends in distant communities arrived in Elk River.  The Elk River Star News reported a telephone company installed a “hello line” at the Merchant Hotel.  A telephone at the hotel allowed residents to communicate as far as Winona.  The company promised the service would soon reach Chicago.  An amazing technology that allowed individuals to reach and connect with distant family and friends.

The hello line, although exciting, functioned with some drawbacks.  Often long-distance connections required fifteen minutes, or more, to complete.  Charges for the call seemed relatively expensive, charging five cents per minute.  Privacy also seemed a challenge.  Within a year the telephone moved to the Babcock and Son Store.  A room in the back of the store promised more privacy than the office of the hotel. 

As the 1890s progressed, the value of telephone communications became more apparent.  The newspaper reported in 1899 plans being developed to provide a local exchange for Elk River residents.  In 1902 telephone service within Elk River came available as a local telephone exchange opened.  Within seven years Elk River and larger areas of Sherburne County gained access to the telephone.  In 1906 the Sherburne County Rural Telephone Company connected the communities in the western portion of the county.  Telephone lines connected Big Lake with Becker, Zimmerman, Clear Lake, Orrock, Santiago, and Blue Hill.  That same year, the Meadowvale Rural Telephone Company provided additional connections between Elk River and Zimmerman. 

Beginning in the 1910s and into the 1920s, more technology and development enhanced the business and culture of the telephone in Sherburne County. Creating connections first in Elk River, with other parts of Sherburne County following suit, the telephone developed into an important tool for communication.  Letters and postcards remained important, yet the new technology quickly moved to the forefront of daily life.  Beginning in 1893 and continuing into the 1920s, connecting Sherburne County residents became an important feature of Sherburne County.

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