Cottage Grove

You rang? Cottage Grove man’s hobby dials up memories

Cameron Reiten has a love of all forms of telecommunication. As owner of local radio station KNND, the Mighty 1400, it makes sense that someone in his position would need an understanding of electronics to keep the station on the air. This knowledge was no doubt helpful as KNND went through a years-long process of adding an FM translator to the station’s capabilities.

If you pass by KNND’s station on Main Street, it is hard not to notice the array of old-timey telephones visible through the window. Ranging from a 1904 “Candlestick” model to the more modern Western Electric 302 Model rotary dial from the 1950s, Reiten’s collection of 21 antique and vintage telephones are connected to their own “party line” and you can dial or signal (depending on the vintage) and talk one or more of the other phones. I heard Cameron’s voice as clear as a bell through the aforementioned 1904 model phone.

Reiten was born into a North Dakota farming family who had fought the hard winters and tough agricultural conditions there for several generations, before his dad, Joel Reiten, decided to pull up stakes and head for greener pastures. Reiten Sr. had realized it was nearly impossible to make a living farming in North Dakota, so he brought his farming skills and family to Cottage Grove in 1994 to join the team at Territorial Seed Company.

Cameron Reiten started his radio career as a 16-year-old high school intern at KNND in 2003 and by 2013 was serving as the general manager while in the process of buying the station from the two former owners and the transfer of license was working its way through the FCC. On a side note KNND’s call letters were chosen in 1960 by then owners Milt Viken and Pete Ryan. When they bought the station it was using KOMB (the former owners’ initials). According to Lloyd Williams, longtime presence at the station which continues on today, “This time the call letters were meant to sound like something everyone liked: candy. So KNND was born, Viken and Ryan had jingles made that proclaimed that “everyone loves candy” (KNND with underaccent second “N”), from “Golden was the Past, the Stories Continue …”

But back to the telephones. Even as a kid, Reiten had a passion for tinkering with old telephones, taking them apart and trying to put them back together. He also enjoyed radios and stereos and all sorts of electronic devices. I guess the farming genes skipped a generation here as the seeds of telecommunication found rich soil to grow in Reiten’s life.

As a teenager he had a collection of telephones from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s but ended up getting rid of them. Then five or six years ago Reiten caught the bug again and started collecting old phones once more. He would pick up telephones on his travels, while visiting family back in the Dakotas or other trips, finding them in antique stores and the like. 

Reiten hit the bonanza when he discovered “The Olde Telephone Company” in Newport. In the store’s proprietor, George Valenzuela, he found a kindred spirit, who not only loved old phones but made a living off them. His store in the coastal town was overflowing with all sorts of phones and ephemera. “He had an old style phone booth, and all sorts of very interesting foreign telephones including one from Russia and many German models. One had an attached “Mother in Law” speaker so that others could listen in on the conversation. I guess people over there had a different sense of things. There were all sorts of novelty phones, payphones, and of course a large selection of vintage and antique American phones. George was a very special person. It was great to meet someone who shared a love for old telephones. He was also my source for parts that I needed in restoring some of my old phones. Sadly, George had some health issues and passed away recently. I’m really going to miss him.”

While showing me his collection, Reiten intimated that he had boxes of other phones in various states of repair and restoration. He also gave me a primer on the evolution of telephones and how they worked. The first phones available in the 1880s were the wooden wall phones which had either a battery or hand- cranked magneto to generate a charge that would send a signal to the operator or other phones connected to its network. These phones, some known as “Fiddlebacks’’ due to their shape, had a horn to speak into and a separate earpiece. Bells on the box would signal an incoming call.

Reiten pointed out that not all people enjoyed the idea of having to stand up to have a phone conversation and those vertically challenged people led to the next evolution in phone design, the “Candlestick” model. This model was first introduced in the 1890s and continued to be produced into the 1940s. I always think of these phones in connection to old black & white movies. Also known as the desk stand or upright telephone, this model allowed much more freedom and comfort for the user. The transmitter was still a horn-like feature with the earpiece attached by a straight cord which would disconnect the call when you put it in the holder on the upright stem. These models required a subscriber set box that contained the bell to signal a call, the induction coil, capacitor and other electrical components necessary to connect to the telephone network. With the introduction of automatic telephone exchanges, candlestick phones acquired a rotary dial on the base to be able to self dial instead of having to connect to an operator. Reiten has examples of both styles of candlestick phones, including one made of brass, in his collection.

The next step toward modernity came with the introduction of the handset. This put both the speaking part (transmitter) and the receiver in one hand-held unit. In the 1920s Western Electric had come out with its first model to use this improvement. The “102” model was essentially a candlestick with a round base and a shortened upright tube. A cradle held the handset which also opened or shut the connection and also featured a rotary dial. There were some bugs to work out, such as sidetone, where you hear your own voice and even breathing amplified back to you. Anti-sidetone circuitry and an oval base to provide stability while dialing were features of the “202” Model which was produced from 1930-39. Reiten has examples of each in his corral of phones. Both required the same call box as the candlesticks. He also has some hybrid handset models without a rotary dial for the country folks who wanted the modern look but still had to rely on the operator to make the connection for them.

The next leap of progress came in the form of Model 302. For the first time all the components of the phone system including the ringer (the volume of which could be adjusted by a mechanical dial) were contained in the phone. All you needed to install your phone was a phone line into your house with its jack. These durable phones were produced from 1937 until well into the 1950s with refurbished models being sold into the 1960s.

All along the evolution of the telephone came the network. First it required a wire to each subscriber. Then a switchboard with an attendant operator to make the connection for you. So by opening the circuit by either giving a crank or lifting the receiver signaled the operator who would connect you through. Mechanical switching made it possible for customers to self-dial. First established in big cities, many areas in rural America had to wait until the 1960s to get this dialing ability.

The design of the standard telephone became more sleek and lighter as materials and technology evolved. Numerous models such as wall phones, princess phones, and other options became available. The number of phone subscribers went from 23 million in 1942 to 160 million by ’75.

The next big innovation in telephone technology was dual tone multi-frequency signaling (DMTF) or “Touch-Tone, introduced in 1963. Instead of the old pulse signal generated by the rotary dial, the DMTF technology uses two pure tones which generate a sine wave. With eight tones it is possible to generate 16 separate signals. It also changed the face of the phone itself, with push buttons replacing the rotary-dial. Reiten’s collection does not include this aspect of telephone history, his “newest” phone being a 302 Model.

When I asked Reiten how much he knew about the history of telephones in Cottage Grove, he shared a few bits and pieces of lore he had heard but confessed to wishing to know more. He did lament the passing of public pay phones. While there are still several remaining in town, Reiten remembers them being at all schools, shopping centers, every corner store, and one booth at 7th & Washington by the phone company.

To learn more about early telephone history in Cottage Grove, I made a jaunt to my favorite hunting grounds, the files of the Cottage Grove Historical Society. Without trying to be definitive, I want to share some highlights of CG phone history.

From the Feb. 17, 1899 Bohemia Nugget, “Cottage Grove now has a telephone system surpassed by none in the state in point of service. Some 25 houses in this city have subscribed.” Further notices from the Nugget tell how two operators are located at the “central” in Benton Drug Co., and on duty from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mrs. Fay McLaughlin, one of the original operators recalled in a July 18, 1968 Cottage Grove newspaper piece, “When anyone called they never told me a number, just the place, I had to know what number went with which place. The railway depot was “1.” She further recalled she had 85 numbers and places to keep straight at the time. By 1932 the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co. had five operators.

In January of 1957 it was announced that the four-month process of changing phones and equipment to allow self-dial would begin. In 1963 the all-number dialing system would replace the local WH(itney) two-prefix for the Grove giving us the 942 prefix some of us still proudly bear. Lastly in 1987 Pacific NW Bell announced digital service would replace all the electro-mechanical switching equipment.

Disclaimer: This reporter has never owned a cell or mobile phone and harbors two rotary dial and one touch-tone phone all hooked to a landline. I enjoy looking at Cameron Reiten’s phones each time I pass and long for the simpler time they represent. Give me a ring sometime, if I’m home I’ll answer.

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