Telephones Come to St. Mary’s County

In May of 1936, The Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company of Baltimore City placed an ad in the St. Mary’s Beacon. Under the headline “ANOTHER FAMILY JOINS THE TELEPHONE COMMUNITY,” the phone company promised that:

“Another family goes modern and installs a telephone. Now they really belong. Now they’ll take part in the activities they’ve been missing.


No more hurried dashes here and there in bad weather….

No more trudging from store to store….

No more worried moments in an emergency….

No more wondering how the children away at school are getting on….

No more missed parties…

No more uncertainties about schedules and engagements…

You can have a telephone for as little as $1.50 a month.”

At left December 2, 1909 telephone ad from Washington, DC.

Then, the telephone was still a new technology in St. Mary’s County. Though a Washington Post article from December 12, 1928 boasted that the city had over 150,000 phones at that time,County residents who grew up in the 1920s, and even into the 1930s, remember never seeing a telephone in their homes. As one put it:

Caroline Cecelia Thomas Countiss: “No telephone. One or two people had telephones and you’d go to their house. But in my years there probably wasn’t no telephones at all. You’d write letters then.”

Slowly that began to change, however, and during the 1930s phone service became a part of county life. Leonardtown was the first to have a phone service, followed after by the county’s more rural parts. As Alfred Gough, an early telephone worker recalled:

Alfred Mattingly:”I worked for the telephone company for thirty-three years. In the rural part of the county, if somebody wanted to get a telephone, they would call down and give their name and location. Then you would go down there, find the house, and most of the time there was only one line going on by. So you’d climb the pole, test the line, and you’d get the operator on the line. Say ‘ operator, what line is this? ‘, and she’d say ’75.’ Then the next thing you’d ask is how many people are on the line? She’d say something like ‘5’. And then you’d ask her ‘what ring is available?’ Like, you’d have two kinds of rings… long and short. You had to listen to the phone when it rang so you could see if it was your ring.”

“There were different kinds of service. Magnetite was where you cranked, and then later on out of Great Mills you had manual where you’d pick up the phone and it automatically got you the operator, you didn’t have to crank. We had magnetite in Leonardtown. And we had a private line. If you lived in Leonardtown they weren’t so expensive. It was the further you lived outside of a certain radius, the more you had to pay for a private line. So when you lived out in the country, nobody could afford a private line. Well, maybe a doctor.

All the phone services, whether in Leonardtown or elsewhere, came with some inconveniences. Namely, anyone hooked up to a telephone line could listen to any conversation that was happening on it. As Paul Bailey and others recalled, that made getting local gossip an easy job:

Paul Bailey: “We had these party lines, you know. For instance, my line in those days at my aunt’s house was 1-4-F-2. That was her number. That meant one long ring, followed by two short ones. And everybody when they heard that number called -for instance, my family was right much gossips – people would raise their phones and listen.”

  1. Webster Bell,Sr.: “Fifteen people on one line. If someone was tryin’ to call me and you was on my line with fourteen other, as soon as mine would ring everybody’s would ring. And of course everybody’d take the receiver up and listen to see what was goin’ on because that was about the only news. We’d get the paper once a week.

Alfred Mattingly: “If you had anything important to say on your phone call, you would have to say that real quick because everybody else on the line would eventually pick up and listen. That was the way that they found out what was going on. Every time somebody else picked up, that’d cut down on the volume. So towards the end you couldn’t hear nothing anyway because other people were on the line. You weren’t supposed to listen in on other calls, but people could and they did.”

Yet as much as telephones changed life for some in St. Mary’s, others were less affected. As Dr. John Fenwick put it, staying in touch with people wasn’t a priority then. If he needed to reach anyone by phone he’d go over to Wise’s Store on the corner of Medley’s Neck Road and Route 5, and use theirs.

For more St. Mary’s County history, read the other parts of the John Hanson Briscoe Historical Project, available by clicking here.