Tom Ross: Routt County families still use hand-cranked phones
August 2, 2012
Steamboat Springs — The news that old-fashioned crank telephones still are in use in Routt County, even nominally, came as a surprise to me this week.
If you missed it, I researched a local history book to describe in my Tuesday column how telephone service came to the Yampa Valley in 1900 and that cattle companies installed some of the first phone lines.
Now, readers are telling me that some of the old hand-cranked wooden wall phones continue to be used as a personal communication system to link buildings on rural properties in North Routt. Who needs cellphones, anyway?
Dale Barker, of Clark, emailed to say his wife uses one of the antique phones to tell him his dinner is about to get cold.
"I have two of them at my house, one in the kitchen and one out in the garage, so my wife can call me in for dinner," Barker wrote.
He said the phones are remnants of the old Clark phone system and were given to him by the late rancher and ski industry pioneer John Fetcher.
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"Oh how I wish he were still here so I could crank it up and hear him on the other end," Barker wrote.
Coincidentally, Fetcher's son, Bill, also emailed to say hand-cranked phones still are used in a similar fashion on the Fetcher family ranch just downstream on the Elk River from Clark.
"We still have a few old crank phones at the ranch, part of an intercom system set up between houses and outbuildings," Fetcher wrote.
Fetcher (don't worry, he wasn't around in 1900) was able to provide some depth to my description of how the old-fashioned phones in the Yampa and Elk river valleys brought rural families here closer together. Even in relatively modern times, the crank telephones made it easier to get replacement parts urgently needed to repair farm machinery.
"Even in the days of crank telephones in Clark, and before UPS and FedEx, we were able to get parts overnight to get a piece of hay machinery up and running again," Fetcher wrote.
He said a call would be placed to Luekens Motor Garage, the Chrysler, Plymouth and International Harvester dealer at the corner of Ninth Street and Lincoln Avenue in downtown Steamboat.
"We'd give them parts numbers from our parts books for the items needed," Fetcher wrote. "They'd call the IH warehouse in Denver and the desired parts would be sent up to Steamboat on the Trailways bus. Someone would arrange to meet the bus, collect the parts and deliver them to the ranch. Usually we'd be rolling again by noon."
Frances May Dorr Wheeler, who celebrated her 94th birthday Tuesday, supplied my favorite hand-cranked telephone anecdotes this week. Wheeler's daughter-in-law, Rachel Door, emailed to say that Frances recalled with great detail two occasions when her family's hand-cranked phones were used for something other than conducting ranch business and keeping in touch with neighbors.
"The first was when (Charles) Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic (in an airplane called the Spirit of St. Louis), and they listened, along with other ranch families by way of the phone, (capturing the sound) of another rancher's radio that was broadcasting the news."
A similar system was used to share an event of great import in Northwest Colorado — the arrival of the first railroad line.
"The other was when the Moffat Tunnel was completed and they listened to the radio, along with all others on the line, to the completion of the railroad that included hammering in the last spike," Rachel Dorr wrote.
New communications technologies changed life in Routt County during the first half of the 20th century just as they do today. And, it appears, some of us are reluctant to let go of handsome old telephones.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com