December 11, 2019

It’s for You…

by Joseph G. Evrard

The other day I was contemplating the history of the telephone when it occurred to me that you might be interested in what people did before this modern age of instant communication–-cell phones, emails and social media mayhem. My daddy, who (as you will remember) was a mountain man, through and through, told me about life in the mountains before the telephone. The first way people had of communicating was to send smoke signals.

It started like this. One day, old man Clem was sitting around his cabin thinking it would be good to have someone to talk to. He became so absorbed in his thoughts, he didn’t realize he was throwing way too much wood on the fire. Before he knew it, his cabin was aflame. As he stood out in the meadow watching his home go up in smoke, neighbors from all around came running to see what was going on.

When Clem asked them why they had showed up they answered, “Saw the smoke. Came to see what was going on.” As they all sat back to watch the cabin burn, they got to talking about old times. Pretty soon a deck of cards came out. Then somebody pulled out the jug and passed it around. By the time the fire had died down, they realized they all had one heckuva good time and vowed to get together again soon.

That began the tradition of smoke signaling. Any time one of the crowd got to feeling lonely and needed company, he set fire to something and was assured of attracting a fun-loving crowd. In addition to providing many hours of fun for the group, this practice did wonders for the cabin building industry.

Eventually somebody figured out that burning down your home was a less than desirable way of communicating. Enter the carrier pigeon. These were some neat birds. All a person had to do was write a message out on a slip of paper, hand it to the carrier pigeon, tell him where to take it, and toss him out the window. The pigeon flew to the proper cabin and pecked on the window until somebody answered. The obedient bird would then wait for a return message or just return home, whichever he was instructed to do. This system worked beautifully for many years until, yup, you guessed it, somebody figured a way to mess it up.

The people who did this were the first telemarketers. At the peak of their reign, they would release thousands of pigeons to blanket an entire area –-all right at suppertime. It got to where you could count on having a bunch of birds pecking on your windows just as you sat down to enjoy a nice evening meal.

This practice soon aroused the ire of many people and hours were spent in the legislature trying to figure out how to regulate the industry. The solution to the problem came when somebody spread the rumor that carrier pigeons made good eatin’. The entire telemarketing industry was wiped out within two weeks!

The next great advance in communicating came with the invention of the tin-can phone. I’m sure you experimented with this when you were a kid. Remove the top and empty the can. Punch a hole in the bottom and thread a string through it. Tie a knot in the string so it won’t pull through the hole. Connect this “phone” to another can at the other end of the string. Pull the string tight and talk into the can. The person at the other end of the string can hear you when they put their ear up to the can.

The tin-can telephone became so popular in the mountains that, before long, everybody who was anybody was either shouting into a can or standing with their ear up to one. The popularity of this form of communication had several significant effects.

First, it accounted for one of the most famous fortunes of all time. It’s a little-known fact that, before he got into oil, John D. Rockefeller had already accumulated great wealth. He started off as an aspiring young string merchant in a little mountain hollow. Everybody scoffed at him, knowing selling string in the mountains was plain crazy. Little did they realize that in business, timing is everything! No sooner had J.D. set up shop than the tin-can telephone craze hit. Being the only string merchant in the area, he was free to name his price. The rest is history.

Another significant effect of the tin-can telephone craze was the creation of the “party” line.  Since all the phones were tied together with a huge network of string, when you listened to your tin-can phone, you could hear everything everybody else was saying. It soon became impossible to keep anything secret in a small community, a phenomenon that exists to this day.

The third effect of the tin-can telephone network was its undoing. The network eventually became so popular and widespread that you couldn’t go anywhere in the mountains without encountering (and getting tangled up in) the huge network of string. At its peak, the situation became so bad that a simple afternoon of squirrel hunting became a challenge of how to hack your way through the woods with a machete.

Fortunately, about this time, Alexander Graham Bell married Ma Bell and their progeny took over the world of telecommunications. Eventually the mountain string network rotted away or got torn up by stampeding elk or was used bit-by-bit by birds to build their nests – I’m told carrier pigeons were best at this.

It’s time for me to go eat supper.

Oops, there’s the phone…

See ya around,


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