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Telephones & History

This morning, I had a great exchange with several colleagues and friends on the Washington County (Florida) Genealogy Facebook page. I hang out there with several fellow historians who have been extremely helpful with Emmett Wilson’s research over the past four years.

It started with a post I shared (and discussed in this thread) about the telephone exchange when Emmett lived in Chipley, then in Marianna:


Additions to the Chipley local telephone ‘directory’, as published in the February 28, 1906 issue of The Chipley Banner. Subscribers were advised to add the updated names to their personal directories.

A little more digging around in old copies of The Chipley Banner revealed that their phone number was #3.


March 10, 1903, The Chipley Banner.

This little finding fired up the detective in me:

  • Was there a phone directory provided to subscribers of the Chipley Telephone Exchange? If so does one exist?

Yes, and it was likely a fluid document (i.e., it was small, and probably with blank pages in it for subscribers to update it as necessary). But, unfortunately, the local historic society does not have a copy of a phone directory going back to 1903 in their holdings.

However, it would be possible to put a draft together. Using contemporary media, stationery/letterhead in the archive, advertisements, and the like, it would be a reasonable and interesting project for, say, a high school or college history class: The students would get great hands-on experience working with primary sources, learning to use citations, collecting data, and constructing the model, not to mention high school or college credit.

Also: The historic society would have a great model of the telephone and communication technology for early-1900’s Florida. What’s more: A little project like this is more than just collecting the phone numbers for a small town; it tells you who was wealthy, and whose business was really central to the town. It is a great indicator of how open the citizens were to new technology.

The Abstract Office Marker

The historic marker outside the Abstract Office in Marianna, Florida, which is where the telephone exchange was located. The text says the Marianna Telephone Exchange was established in 1901. Source: Historical Marker Database

In Marianna, Florida (only an hour away from Chipley back in the day), Emmett’s brother, Cephas Love Wilson had the #1 phone number. Cephas was one of the founders of the Marianna Telephone Exchange. Cephas likely put the most money into it right at the first, and so, it would make sense that he would be given the “phone number of honor.”

Interestingly, the #2 phone in Marianna belonged to Dr. R.S. Pierce. Dr. Pierce was also a shareholder with the Marianna Telephone Exchange — and — one of the town’s physicians.  By the way, the three major shareholders in the Marianna Telephone Exchange were Cephas, J. Walter Kehoe, and Senator W.H. Milton.

So, back to Chipley:

  • Who had the #1 phone number in Chipley?

One of Chipley’s historians told me he believed the #1 phone number belonged to a man named Tom Watts — primarily because Mr. Watts had the telephone equipment in his house, and was the proprietor for several years.


July, 1911. The Chipley Banner. Watts probably did have the #1 phone number.

The one other telephone-related question I’ve kicked around for almost three years has been this one:

  • Did the Wilson family have a phone in their home?

It’s possible — here’s an article I came across today, from 1899:


September 16, 1899, The Chipley Banner.

It isn’t clear if Dr. Wilson actually had a telephone, or, if the phone call came into a store, or other business, and someone had to fetch Dr. Wilson. But, it stands to reason that if anyone in town had a phone, it would be Emmett’s father. His practice was extensive throughout Washington County.

Regardless, I’ll keep looking for confirmation that Emmett’s father had a telephone at the turn of the last century. And I’ll plug the idea for the telephone directory project to a few history teachers and colleagues!

Categories: Family Florida History Interesting & Odd

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Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
The University of Maryland Global Campus

2 replies

  1. Greetings, This is really very interesting. I am the great grandson of RS Pierce mentioned here. He and my great grandmother purchased the old Wilson house (Green House) in 1900, and the Abstract Office building was on the corner of their property. My great grandmother sold all of the property to the current bank there in the mid-1970s. My great-aunt wrote that after Dr. Wilson’s death in 1868 the building was a: “dentist office, later a newspaper was published in it by Jim Gardner and Judge Liddon practiced law in it; still later it was used as the first telephone office in town.” My father was born in the old Wilson house. Take care, Gregory

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