Community phone company in Staunton area turns 100


NEW HOPE, Va. - In 1902, 26 years after Alexander Graham Bell patented the first telephone, a group of about two dozen New Hope farmers decided it was time they had access to the new technology making the world smaller.

"They were just some farmers who wanted access to the markets in Staunton," said Kelly Chapman, who has been either president or vice president of the New Hope Telephone Company Board for 42 years.

"So they got together and did it themselves," he said.

Almost 100 years later, the New Hope Telephone Co. is still tiny - the second-smallest in the state - with 864 customers, about 1,000 lines and five full-time employees.

Chapman estimates there are about a dozen small, cooperative-style telephone companies like New Hope left in the state, and chances are good that the wireless world someday would render them obsolete.

"But that's going to be a long way off - probably not in our lifetimes," Chapman said. "Until then, we'll be here."

As a cooperative, non-profit business, the New Hope Telephone Co. will be around as long as the owners want it, and every customer is an owner. Along with each telephone line the company sells comes a certificate of part ownership, and each year the owners hold elections for the nine-member board of directors.

In late June, the company opened its doors - actually, it's just one door - to the public for a centennial celebration at the switch building in the center of town. There were refreshments, free New Hope Telephone Co. flashlight key chains and displays set up showing the old equipment that used to connect people in the village to each other and the outside world.

Lifelong New Hope resident Dorothy B. Caricofe, 72, lives in a house beside the switch building, but she had never been inside.

"It was very interesting," she said. "Things certainly have changed."

When Caricofe was growing up, a longtime switchboard operator named Miss Sarah connected all calls coming through the company. Except for emergencies, Miss Sarah was on duty between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

The big difference between then and now, Caricofe said, was the use of party lines, but not like the "1-900" party lines advertised on late-night television these days. Party lines were shared lines.

When the telephone company first started, customers paid all the expenses for laying phone lines and connecting them to their homes, so it was cheaper to have one line serve an entire row of homes.

Before making a call, one first had to pick up the phone and make sure nobody else was on the line. If somebody was talking, it was proper to hang up the phone and wait for it to clear.

"That's what you were supposed to do anyway," Caricofe said, laughing.

Eavesdropping over the phone wasn't so much an intelligence gathering method, she said, as it was a means of confirming news obtained through more conventional sources.

"Everybody in New Hope was so friendly, we all knew what each other was doing anyway," Caricofe said. "You just listened in to make sure that what you were talking about was right."

General Manager Tim Harris said that the company still had a few party lines, and in his 16 years working for the company, the move to more private lines had been one of the more controversial changes.

"I think folks just wanted to listen in on other peoples' business," he said.

As for the level of service provided by the New Hope Telephone Co., Harris and Chapman were proud that it far surpassed state standards for the number of problems per 100 calls. That record may go unnoticed by customers, but in a way, that may serve as the tiny phone company's best compliment.

"I've never had any problems," Caricofe said. "It's just like any other phone company."

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