Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Unique phone lines connected early Helix residents

The tiny town of Helix in Eastern Oregon has always gone its own way. Isolated among wheat fields 17 miles northeast of Pendleton, Helix boasted just 189 residents at the 2010 census. Besides farming, the largest employer in town is Helix School. And the town has maintained its own privately owned telephone company since the 1930s, which currently offers local, long distance and Internet service to its customers. But even before Helix Telephone Company was incorporated, the farming community had its own telephone system using lines that connected every family in the area: barbed wire fencing.

In March of 1903, the East Oregonian reported that Helix was planning to expand its phone service to residents in the area. Owners of phones along the eight lines centering in Helix, with a switchboard in the office of Dr. Lyman Griswold, planned to form an unincorporated company to secure better service and establish rules for the expansion of the phone system.

Dr. Griswold was happy to serve as switchboard operator whenever he was in the office, which apparently wasn’t that often. The patrons of each line met to propose a charge of 50 cents per month for every phone user, the funds to be used to pay a permanent switchboard operator. A second switchboard also was to be installed in order to expand the system from eight lines to 16, increasing the system from 46 to 150 phones by the fall of 1903.

In early 1903 the Helix phone system connected with just Athena and Adams, and though the transmissions ran through barbed wire, it was said that “a whisper can be heard 17 miles away when the weather is favorable.” Plans were already afoot for expansion to Canyon Station to the south and Wallula to the north even before the new lines were installed.

The smallest telephone company in Oregon with less than 300 access lines, Helix Telephone Company has been owned by the Gene and Betty Smith family since 1972. The current owners are sons James and Timothy Smith, who took over the business when their parents retired in 1998.

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