The story of Rochester’s first phone system

Jan 20, 2021
The writer of this piece, Connie Eshbach, is the vice president of the Rochester Historical Society. This is part of a series of Rochester history pieces.
Today, many of the younger generations know phones to be an essential item to carry with them at all times. Devices to use as cameras, to text and to store all the important aspects of life. A landline phone, particularly one with a dial, is an antique to be puzzled over. Older residents of Rochester, however, remember not just landlines with easily accessible human operators, but also party lines. My mother told stories of calling home from college in Boston to let her father know when to pick her up from the train in Bridgewater. The operator would tell her that her father was at the Mill, but she'd make sure that he got the message.
A party line was a phone line shared by many households, each of which had their own ring. If you picked up at the first ring (something we did as kids visiting our Grandmother) you would be told to hang up. You had to see if it would be 2 short rings or a short and a long or some other variation to avoid eavesdropping on a neighbor's conversation.
Rochester's first phone system was set up by the proprietor of McGilvaray's Grocery Store at 240 Mattapoisett Rd. in the mid-19th century. He strung wires from his store to the homes of his most frequent customers, so they could call in their orders ( sounds like the original online shopping). The building, is at the intersection of Snipatuit Rd. and North Ave. Here was the office of  the Rochester Telephone Exchange from the early 1900s to 1950. In the front room operators manned their stations, connecting callers. Some of the lines had up to 24 customers.
The phone company is only part of the building's interesting history. The original owner was John King and in 1830 it was a Methodist Meetinghouse. By 1832 it began its life as a store. For many years it contained a general store with a series of owners. It also was home to the North Rochester Post Office for some years during the 1800s. In 1889 the large building was used for a Rotation Town Meeting in an attempt to placate outlying residents who complained about the long trip to Rochester Center.
In addition to King, some of the others who operated the store at 289 North Ave. were Hiram Waldron, Albert Reed, and George Allen. When Allen owned the building he converted it into a home with the store in the basement having a direct entry from the street. After 1957, the telephone exchange moved to another building on North Ave. closer to the New Bedford Waterworks.
Barbara Besse and her family have lived there for many years. After 1957, she operated an antique store there into the 1970's.