By Jeff Blakley
In my earlier post about Walter A. Frazeur, I relied on Jean Taylor’s information about how the People’s Telephone Company was established. She wrote that J.U. Free bought the three circuits that belonged to Walter Frazeur in 1912 and established the People’s Telephone Company on the second floor of J.D. Redd’s dry goods store. That account is wrong on almost every count.
There were two telephone companies in the early Homestead area: one in Homestead and one in Redland. Because Mrs. Taylor’s book was based on oral history, a rather muddled account of the true story about the telephone company in Homestead was presented. This is not a judgement of Mrs. Taylor’s work, rather, it is a reflection of the weaknesses of relying exclusively on oral history. Two different people can witness the same event and tell remarkably different stories about what they saw.
Walter Frazeur may have established the first telephone company in the Homestead area: in Redland. An article that appeared in the Miami Metropolis on December 11, 1908 states that both telegraphic and telephonic communications were available in Homestead at that time. Whether Mr. Frazeur was involved in this is not known because the earliest date known for his presence in the area is the date when he filed for his homestead claim: April 9, 1910. He had to have been in the area before that date because homesteaders didn’t generally file before they saw their land. No evidence has surfaced yet to provide an earlier date for his arrival, though. At any rate, the switchboard for his system was in his house and his wife was the operator. Jean Taylor mixed parts of that story with parts of the story of the Dade County Telephone Company (which was in Homestead, not Redland) and created a very confusing picture. It hasn’t been easy to untangle her account.
Walter A. Frazeur was part of a group of people who came to this area from Topeka, Kansas: Dr. John B. Tower, Ruben L. Moser, Orville W. Calkins, Roy Marsh, Hugh Ewing and Grant Allen. All except Frazeur filed in 1907-1908, but some proved up later than others. Frazeur proved up on June 29, 1916, while Grant Allen, his neighbor to the west, proved up on September 9, 1913. Frazeur and Allen’s homesteads were on the north side of Waldin Drive between S.W. 207 and 217 Avenues. The rest of his group were neighbors in an area further south, known as Longview, bounded by Palm Drive on the north, 372 St. on the south, 192 Ave. on the east and 204 Ave. on the west. Tower proved up on February 18, 1913; Moser on January 10, 1913; Calkins on October 20, 1913; Marsh on June 20, 1912 and Ewing on July 13, 1917.
After much digging through old newspaper articles in the Miami Herald, the Miami Metropolis and The South Florida Banner, I found the true (or as true as newspaper articles can be) story about the founding of not one, but two telephone companies in the Homestead area. I’ll quote from the Herald article first, which appeared on May 26, 1911. This account refers to the Dade County Telephone Company, the second telephone company established in the Homestead area:
“Monday morning a number of representative men of Redland, Homestead and Detroit met at Dr. Tower’s office and organized a telephone company. J. L. Billingslea as chairman, conducted the meeting and J. M. Bauer was secretary. The company will be known as the Dade County Telephone Company, with headquarters at Homestead. The following officers were elected: R. L. Moser, president; C. T. Pummer vice president, J. M. Bauer, secretary and treasurer. Directors: R. L. Moser, C. T. Plummer, J. M. Bauer, J. L. Billingslea, J. Bratley, M. L. Williams, J. U. Free, W. D. Horne, Thomas Brewer.
“The company will be incorporated and J. L. Billingslea was appointed to attend to the legal organization. A committee will confer with A. W. Frazier, who now has a line of 25 phones operating in Homestead and doubtless Mr. Frazeur will sel his equipment to the new company. It is also understood that the position of lineman will be offered to him. One hundred shares of stock will be issued and nearly al have been subscribed for.”
This is an exact transcription of what appeared in the newspaper, misspellings, bad punctuation and all. The article appeared on Friday, so the past Monday would have been May 22, 1911.
Mrs. Taylor wrote that Walter Frazeur had a grocery store and that the reason he started stringing wires for telephone circuits was because he wanted to be able to call his wife, who was at home, while he was at the store. That is possible, but Frazeur, businessman that he was, saw an opportunity to make money by providing telephone service to other people, too. Frazeur did have a grocery store in J. U. Free’s building. Whether or not he was able to call his wife, who was at their homestead on S.W. 280 St. and S.W. 207 Avenue is another story.
The telephones in use in the Homestead area in those days were crank magneto telephones. To place a call with this kind of phone (this was before the dial telephone came into use in this area), you picked up the receiver, held it to your ear, and turned the crank on the side of the phone. That generated ringing current, which lit a lamp on the operator’s switchboard. She plugged into the circuit and asked you to whom you wanted to speak. Upon learning that, she plugged in to the other party’s line and cranked the magneto on her switchboard which caused the other party’s telephone bells to ring in a distinctive pattern so that others on the party line would not answer. If the person answered, she then connected you to the person you wanted to talk to with a special kind of cord, made to be used in telephone switchboards. The telephones in use in those days had dry cell batteries in them to provide what telephone people call “talk battery”. These early telephone systems did not yet have central office switching or battery power. That came later, with the introduction of dial telephones. I don’t know if the magneto in those kind of telephones generated enough current to light the lamp on a switchboard 7 miles away or not. I doubt it, so I doubt that Frazeur could call his wife from his store.
An article that appeared in the Miami Herald on October 29, 1911, five months after the incorporation of the Dade County Telephone Company, stated that “[t]wo telephone companies are now in operation here.” An article that appeared on November 2, 1912 in the Miami Metropolis stated that “W. A. Frazeur is conducting a store in Homestead, but when he came to the Homestead country two years ago he took up land like the balance of the far-sighted men. He is living on his homestead, but finds time to look after his store and to take care of the People’s Telephone Co., which has fifty subscribers and covers a country from Detroit almost to Princeton.” Interestingly enough, a short piece about the Dade County Telephone Co., in an adjacent column which apparently Taylor didn’t see, listed the directors of the company and stated that it had recently built a line “running from Detroit to Perrine, where it connects with the Miami system. There is now more than 210 miles of wire on poles. The Telephone company is already a paying proposition and its stock is in demand.”
Because Jean Taylor relied on oral accounts from her informants as the basis for her book, she may have attempted to reconcile conflicting accounts between her informants about the telephone company and thus created her muddled account. Again, this is not an indictment of Jean Taylor; it is just what happens when a researcher relies solely on oral history. Advertisements for Frazeur’s company, the People’s Telephone Line (not the People’s Telephone Company), appeared as late as August 26, 1912 in The South Florida Banner and offered prices that matched those of the Dade County Telephone Company but then stopped. Numerous advertisements for and news articles about the Dade County Telephone Company also appeared in Rev. J. A. Kahl’s newspaper, The South Florida Banner, during this time, so no doubt Frazeur was battling not just a well-capitalized company (it had sold $6,975 worth of stock by July 26, 1912), but also editorial bias from J. A. Kahl. The People’s Telephone Line, owned by one man, couldn’t compete with a public company. It didn’t help that the local newspaper was biased in its coverage, either.
An article that appeared in The South Florida Banner on May 9, 1913 described what happened to Frazeur’s People’s Telephone Line. It said that on May 7, a group of Redland citizens had held a meeting in which they purchased “Mr. Frazeur’s entire interest in stock and fixtures of the telephone company. The new company will start business with 300 shareholders and will work on a cooperative plan, for the mutual benefit of the growers of the Redland district. The line will be repaired and put in tip top shape, using poles where trees had been used before. It is the object of the company to give good service, without working for a profit, and it is their intention to extend the line in every direction as needed. The officers appointed until the company is duly formed are Perry Hainlin, president; Austin McColough, secretary-treasurer; Thos. Brewer, Otto Froriep and J.F. McColough, as directors.”
I don’t know how long this company existed but it eventually went out of business as it could not compete with the better-capitalized Dade County Telephone Company. It served a need for the residents of the Redland District, but the company in Homestead soon over-took it.
The Dade County Telephone Company’s switchboard was on the second floor of J. U. Free’s building, which later became known as J. D. Redd’s building, adjacent to the other building owned by J. D. Redd.
At the time that the Dade County Telephone Company was organized, the building was the home of J. U. Free & Co. The businesses located in the building changed a number of times. In January of 1913, for instance, J. U. Free & Co. was sold to C. J. Denham & Co. That didn’t last long, though, because in April of the same year, Mr. Denham and his partner, Mr. Michaels, sold out to Bunny Caves and Henry Pridgen. That company was known as Caves and Pridgen. Then Caves sold out. It’s hard to tell how many businesses were in the building before J.D. Redd opened his dry cleaning business there.
The switchboard for Frazeur’s People’s Telephone Line was in his house on Waldin Drive when he owned the company. Where it was moved to after he sold his interest in the company is unknown.
Untangling the account about telephone service in the Homestead area that appeared in Taylor’s book required many hours of research but the true story is finally known. J. U. Free and W. A. Frazeur were both ambitious entrepreneurs and were involved in many ventures. The switchboard for the company Free was a part of was in his store, not J. D. Redd’s store. The company’s name was the Dade County Telephone Company, not the People’s Telephone Company. Free did not purchase Frazeur’s lines. Frazeur did not work for the Dade County Telephone Company. Free did not found the company. Many other people played a role in the telephone company Free was a part of. In future posts, I’ll try to provide more detail about the people involved in the founding of the Dade County Telephone Company in Homestead.