Jack Klasey: ‘Hello, Central?’ The telephone comes to Kankakee

April 13, 2019

Today, almost everyone in Kankakee carries a cellphone; there literally are thousands of telephones here (most of them in seemingly constant use).

But there was a time when the number of telephones in the city could be counted in single digits. In early 1878, there were four telephone lines (and, thus, eight telephones) in Kankakee. One line connected Hatch’s Furniture store with Bonfield’s Drug Store (which also was the town’s post office). A second provided communication between Frank McGrew’s gristmill and residence, and a third connected the homes of Gazette editors Charles and Arthur Holt. The longest line was one that stretched for three blocks between George Beede’s home and his market. All these were “homemade” instruments that allowed the users to only talk with each other; they were not far advanced beyond the “two tin cans and a string” gadgets children once made.

Only two years earlier, Alexander Graham Bell had patented the first telephone, unleashing a torrent of interest in the idea of being able to talk with someone beyond the reach of even the loudest voice.

“The telephone mania is raging among our people. They’ve all got it,” observed the Kankakee Weekly Gazette on May 23, 1878. “For a little thing, the telephone is the biggest thing out. It is thoroughly democratic, too. It is alike accessible to the rich and poor. It talks German, Irish, English and St. Annish with equal facility.”

It wasn’t long before a more formal telephone system was in place. In March 1881, the Central Union Telephone Co. was organized in Kankakee and quickly signed up nearly 50 subscribers. In June, a switchboard was installed on the second floor of Knecht Clothing Store building at East Avenue and Court Street. The switchboard made the Kankakee “exchange” a reality: Unlike the earlier systems that connected only two telephones, any telephone in the exchange could be connected to any other.

To make a call, you would turn a crank on the side of your telephone to connect with Central, (an operator seated at the switchboard), then ask to be connected to the desired person. When the system was relatively small, you asked for the person by name; later, when more subscribers were added, you had to use a number (162, rather than Myra Schmidt). The operator would then use plug-in wires to make the connection.

For the first year of the Kankakee exchange, subscribers only could make calls to local numbers; there was no long distance service. That was remedied on April 12, 1882, when a line was installed connecting Kankakee with the Momence exchange. It was a toll line, requiring an extra fee. By the end of that year, toll lines connected Kankakee with Grant Park, Exline, Chebanse, Irwin, Herscher and Cabery. A Chicago connection wasn’t available until July 1884 (a five-minute call from Kankakee to Chicago cost 25 cents).

The key figure in the telephone system at this time was the switchboard operator, typically referred to as “the telephone girl.” While the telephone created job opportunities for many young women, the role of the operator often was stressful. A short newspaper article from 1900 titled “Trials of Telephone Girls,” described the problem:

“An employee at the telephone exchange occupies a position which makes a strenuous tax on the nervous forces. The great facility with which the patrons of the exchange lose their patience when they encounter little delays in the service entitle the girls at ‘central’ to considerable charity.”

Telephone operators also found their way into popular culture. On Feb. 2, 1900, the Kankakee Gazette reported that a farce entitled “The Telephone Girl” had attracted a “good-sized audience” the preceding evening at the Arcade Opera House. “The house showed every indication of being pleased,” noted the newspaper.

Telephone competition came to Kankakee in 1904, when the Eastern Illinois Independent Telephone Co. opened an exchange in Kankakee. Their switchboard was installed on the second floor of a building on Merchant Street, east of Schuyler Avenue. For the next 15 years, Kankakee would have two different telephone systems; many businesses subscribed to both, listing two different telephone numbers in their advertisements. The competition ended in 1919, when the Central Union Telephone Co. bought out the Eastern Illinois exchange. Illinois Bell Telephone Co. absorbed Central Union in 1920.

In 1949, the role of the telephone girl changed drastically when Illinois Bell introduced the dial telephone system to Kankakee, Bradley and Bourbonnais. Instead of asking an operator to make the connection, you used a rotary dial on your telephone to enter the number you wanted to call. In the 1960s, telephones with push-button (touch-tone) dialing replaced the rotary-dial models.

By the 1990s, handheld mobile telephones (cellphones) began appearing; today, they have become the preferred telephone type for many subscribers.

Many households no longer have a traditional, wired (landline) telephone. Instead, each family member has his or her own cellphone.