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home : columnists : columnists September 20, 2017

8/18/2017 3:01:00 PM
Eugene L. Brown takes on the phone company

By Paula Dunn
From Time to Thyme

I recently called my local phone company to question some information about my long distance carrier which they'd included on their bill.

Since they only supply my local service, the customer service rep just kept repeating they didn't handle my long distance and knew nothing about it - never mind that they clearly had a record of my long distance carrier since they'd put that information on the bill they'd just sent me.

The whole time I was going round and round with the rep, I kept thinking it was a good thing for them I wasn't Eugene L. Brown.

You see, back in 1893, Eugene L. Brown, the druggist at the Corner Drug Store here in Noblesville, got so fed up with his phone service he started his own telephone company! His Noblesville Telephone Company is believed to have been the first independent telephone company in the country.

In the years prior to that, the Bell system had had a monopoly on phone service in this state. Rates were high, service was spotty and people complained bitterly.

The Indiana state legislature tried to help consumers out in 1885 by passing a law fixing telephone rates, but the Bell people didn't like that, so they took their phones and went home.

Four years later, the law was repealed, Bell came back with their phones and everything was just like before. Whenever customers complained too much about the service or fees, they were informed they could take it or leave it.

Eugene Brown had already had a run-in with Bell when he lived in Pennsylvania and he was in no mood to put up with their attitude and fees again after moving here. He decided once Bell's patents on telephones expired, he'd get into the telephone business himself.

That decision was reinforced one day when Albert Church, the cashier at Citizens State Bank, crossed the street to fill a prescription at the Corner Drug Store.

The furious Church gave Brown an earful about how the phone company's dismal service had just caused him to lose hundreds of dollars on a deal. Church said when he'd complained to the Bell folks, they told him they couldn't guarantee his service and he could "sue till blue blazes."

It didn't take much for Brown to talk Church into joining him in organizing their own phone company. Together with several other prominent citizens, they formed the Noblesville Telephone Company.

Fortunately for Brown and his colleagues, there was a man in Kokomo who'd also had enough of Bell. P. C. Burns had been manufacturing telephones in St. Louis before Bell tied up all the patents and put him out of business.

Burns was so eager to take on the monopoly, he sent out flyers notifying potential customers that he was willing to supply them with "telephones exactly like those used by the Bell Company" two months before Bell's telephone patents actually expired.

With Burns contracted to provide the phones, the only problem facing the Noblesville men was the switchboard. Bell still controlled the patents on that part of the equipment, and would for a long time to come. The solution turned out to be the construction of a simple switchboard like that used by the telegraph company.

That fall the Noblesville Telephone Company went into business with 75 subscribers, an unusually high number for a town that size. They cut Bell's rates in half and cleared 30% on their capital of $10,000.

The Noblesville company did finally sell out to the Bell system's Central Union Telephone Company five years later, but they made them pay a high price for it.

Paula Dunn's From Time to Thyme column appears each Friday in The Times. Contact her at younggardenerfriend@gmail.com

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