In 1860, a mere 16 years after Samuel Morse had invented the telegraph and tapped out the words, "What God Hath Wrought," to inaugurate the first lines, the Pacific and Atlantic Telegraph Company built a telegraph line from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The charge to tap a 10-word message on this one-wire line was $2.50, roughly equal to three day's pay for the average worker.

When the Sunset Telephone and Telegraph Company built the first long-distance line from San Francisco to L.A., completing the project in 1894, it generally followed the route of the earlier telegraph wires.

According to the records of the General Telephone Company, the Sunset company, in its drive to build a long-distance line from San Francisco to L.A., introduced the first telephone service in Santa Maria in 1891. The entire Sunset project was completed in 1894.

The company functioned with more than its share of problems, though, as the lines were subject to disruptions such as lightning and roaming cattle.

Grace and Florence Clark were the first telephone operators in Santa Maria, operating a board installed in 1891 in the corner of their father's stationery store located in the Hart Hotel. The board was not more than 2 feet square and the holes for the plugs were about an inch apart.

With Florence as manager, Grace as her relief operator and only 20 business subscribers (at this point there were no resident telephones), the switchboard was closed at dusk.

With not enough work to keep them busy, the girls were assigned other jobs within the store.

When subscribers would ring to get "central," a buzz sounded at the board, and one of the women would run would run to answer the call.

In 1894, telephones were installed in the main business houses and many dwellings, but it was not until after 1909 that they operated 24 hours a day. By that time, the Home Telephone Company had convinced Santa Barbara City Council members that the county would benefit by having two competing telephone companies and were thus granted a franchise to operate in the North County. The name Home Telephone and Telegraph of Santa Barbara County was adopted.

The company incorporated Sept. 11, 1906, with Bob Easton at the helm, and maintained its headquarters in Santa Maria.

Eventually, the two firms merged into the Santa Barbara Telephone Company, which in 1917 had 900 telephones in service and installation equipment consisting of a National Harvester truck, a Ford Roadster and a 2 horsepower Studebaker spring wagon.

According to Winston Wickenden, a lifetime resident of the Santa Maria Valley, people in Sisquoc who wanted telephones were required to put up their own telephone poles before the phone company would consider installing the lines.

In many parts of the state, early switchboards were often located in private homes, with operators providing a variety of information as well as community and emergency services.

With the inauguration of the Home Telephone Company, Santa Maria then had two servicing phone companies. To add to the confusion, Sunset Telephone, which had provided the original service, was absorbed by its parent company, the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1907.

Townspeople were divided between those who had Home Telephone service and those who had Pacific. Since customers of Home couldn't call Pacific customers, merchants were forced to subscribe to both companies in order to reach all of their customers.

When Pacific wouldn't permit Home to make connections with it long-distance lines, Home counteracted by forming a company known as the United States Long Distance Telephone Company.

However, despite this grandiose name, the company had no lines any farther north than Santa Maria, resulting in subscribers being unable to make calls to anyone in either Central or Northern California or in any other state. This situation continued until April 6, 1916, when the competing companies agreed to merge under the name of Santa Barbara Telephone Company. The entire county was finally in the hands of one telephone company.

By 1917, there were some 900 lines in service in the Santa Maria area.

In 1926, the telephone company service had advanced from meager beginnings to where seven operators manned the switchboards, then located in the old Masonic building at Broadway and Church Street.

It was still the era of wall-hung crank telephone and party lines, where calls went through the operator and the number of rings signified the customer that the caller was trying to reach.

Get tips on free stuff and fun ideas delivered weekly to your inbox

For operators, camaraderie and excitement of the work compensated for the heavy headphones ruining their coiffures and triggering headaches. In addition, they were building friendships that would last a lifetime.

Training for an operator was nominal. She’d simply sit next to an experienced operator who would tell her what to do.

There was only one long-distance circuit to L.A.

The operator handled fire calls and would signal another operator to blow the whistle to summon volunteer firemen.

Operators sometimes acted as human alarm clocks waking customers each morning at an established time. In addition, when customers went out at night they would leave a number with the operator so she could switch calls from homes to wherever customers were at the time.

The lone night operator had an easier job as there was little business during the nighttime hours. The operator could catch a few winks by lying down on a company-provided cot.

In 1939, with 2,400 lines in service, the Associated Telephone Company, later the General Telephone Company of California, acquired the Santa Barbara Company, thus buying out Bob Easton's group. However, the new company kept Easton on its payroll as an honorary adviser and when offices were built in Santa Barbara, a special office was made for Easton “just in case he needed it.”

However, the role of the rural telephones, those little boxes screwed into the wall with a crank on the side and a mouthpiece to talk into, as well as central switchboards were destined to become part of history.

Time marches on.

Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 623-8193 or at Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she’s written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.