Ponderosa’s Historic Journey

Newspaper Articles  from the 1960s

February 1964

New Telephone System:

Automation Comes to O’Neals

By H.M. Anthony
Tribune Staff Correspondent

O’NEALS – Because a woman in 1908 wanted to talk to her mother 1 mi. down the road, the foundation of a telephone company was laid. And today, Jesse M. Bigelow’s Ponderosa Telephone co., in its new 3,400-sq. ft. building in the center of O’Neals, exemplifies all the properties of a modern digit-dialing telphonic communicational activity.

It was eight years after the turn of the century that Mrs. Harmon (Leotta) Bigelow, wife of a Madera-bo-Bass Lake stage line operator, sent away to a mail-order house for two magneto type, hand-cranked telephones.

Following installation of the communication link between daughter and mother by stringing wires along fenceposts, the potential of two-way conversation between widely-separated points became apparent to the community. More people wanted to be able to talk to one another.

The voice medium was expanded from ONeals to North Fork by Harmon Bigelow and son Jess, using trees to support the hand-strung wires. Shortly therafter, lines were run to Friant, and by 1910, the Bigelow ranch house was serving a dual function – home and telephone office.

In 1911, a tie-in was effected with the Bell system at Clovis, at a cost of $16,000.

“In 1912”, recalled Jess E. Bigelow, “my father founded the present organization, under the name of the Bigelow Telephone Company.”

“In those days, telephones cost $11 an instrument,” he continued, “and subscriber’s rates were $1.50 per month, with toll calls priced at 15 cents for the first three minutes.”

Harmon Bigelow died in 1944, and son Jess took over the job of running the operation.

During World War II, telephonic equipment was unavailable, thus precluding any expansion of facilities.

But after cessation of hostilities the system widened, until in 1948 it encompassed 450 mi. of circuitry, with 85 magneto type, hand-cranked-equipped subscribers, serving some 600 persons (still at the 1912 rates), from the original ranch house site through the ancient manually-operated switchboard.

“One had to be more than just a telephone operator,” said Mrs. Jorn (Clara) Ashworth, who first manned the board in 1947, but now is in charge of the accounting department.

“You had to know where non-subscribers lived,” she added; “and the most expeditious means to contact them in case of an emergency.”

Florine Dandy, now a receptionist but also a 10-year veteran of the “Number, please” board, said that “in order to properly handle the job, you had to become familiar with individual names and voices.”

In 1957, when the reorganization into a closed family corporation under its present name – Ponderosa Telephone Co. – was effected, with Jesse E. Bigelow, president, his wife, as vice president, Mrs. Robert Silkwood (the Bigelow’s daughter) as secretary, and Robert Bigelow, treasurer, the 45-year-old switchboard continued to do yeoman duty.

But with a $1,100.00 loan from the Rural Electrification Agency in 1961, an expansion program got underway, and the Ponderosa Telephone Co. facilities befan to undergo modernization – with complete automatic dialing for all circuits the objective.

Obviously, the old housing would not be adequate for all of the new equipment, and plans were formulated for a new bulding.

Auberry subscribers were the first to enter the automatic dialing system in May, 1959. Later the same year, North Fork joined the new circuitry. And soon followed dial service to Big Creek, Friant, Pineridge, Prather, Shaver Lake and Tollhouse.

In February 1964, the old ranch-house telephone office was abandoned, and the new headquarters activated, with inclusion of the O’Neals area in the dial system.

Currently, the Bigelow family’s activity employs 12 persons, encompasses extensive microwave circuitry with four towers, 14 transmitters, 14 receivers, 73 toll links to Fresno, and as of March 31, 1,126 subscribers.

Of the some 300 persons who visited the $76,000 quarters of the Ponderosa Telephone Co., with its intricate automatic equipment at the open house ceremony lsat Saturday, many were users of the Bigelow Telephonic service for 54 years.

Obviously, they recognized and accepted the demands of the automative sixth decade of this 20th century. Yet, for those accustomed to the old magneto-type, hand-cranked, intimate party-line system, presided over by Mrs. John (Clara) Ashworth, who knew each and every subscriber by name and voice, there was much nostalgia. One visitor was heard to remark that “Now I put my finger in seven holes and get my number. But it is not like before when Clara answered with “Hello, Mary, who do you want to speak to?”

“Why, now,” another guest said, “I don’t dare to send any more personal notes to Clara when I forward my monthly checks – with this new-fangled billing system Jess (Bigelow) has.”

Yes, progress has taken over in the large foothill area served by the Ponderosa Telephone Co. But the old hand-crankers have not disappeared completely. An operational system still is in being between the homes of Jess E. Bigelow, Mrs. Robert Silkwood, his daughter, and Robert, his son.

Image captions

  1. Room Jammed With Equipment . . . Clara doesn’t answer any more
  2. Ponderosa’s Modern New Buildling . . . more progress in the mountains