The Molalla Telephone Company Building is located at 118 South Molalla Avenue in Molalla, Oregon. The architecture is 20th Century Commercial Style. It is a two-story brick structure, built from materials furnished by the local Molalla Brick & Tile Company. Contractors Birkemier & Saramel built the structure in 1928. The building had two sound-proof booths for the switchboard operators and large, plate-glass windows. It had a basement and living quarters in the back and upstairs. Local author, Lois Helvey Ray, remembers that in the 1950s to 1960s there was an alcove, in the outside front, which held a pay phone.
The First Telephone
The very first telephone was installed in the Levi Robbins’ Store in 1898. Levi's son, Wayne, took a special interest in the telephone. He was instrumental in establishing telephone service in the Molalla area. Due to Wayne’s efforts, Pacific Telephone Company agreed to build a long-distance line from Oregon City to Molalla in 1899. The telephone poles had to be furnished by the customers. They were ten inches square, cut from cedar logs. The Pacific Telephone Company paid the residents $1 for each pole and for their labor, in script, which could be used to pay for long-distance calls. After the long-distance line was completed, phones could be rented for $6.00 per year.
In 1901, Levi’s sons, Wayne and Everman, along with Frank Everhart, purchased the store from Levi. They named the store “Robbins’ Bros. Store”. They built a new building and had a very large variety of general merchandise in stock. The store soon became an informal community meeting place. Wayne started in the store when he was fourteen years old and took over the management when he was twenty. That same year, Wayne installed a three-jack switchboard in his office, so he could connect customers to long- distance when they called in. There were so many calls that it was soon decided to form a mutual company and install a magneto switchboard.
First Telephone Operator
In January, 1907, it was reported by an Oregon City newspaper that Mrs. Anna Clifford had been secured as central operator for the Molalla Mutual Telephone Association by the board of directors. The position required a civil service exam. In 1907, she was paid $454 for the year. She had been running the Molalla Post Office since 1892. She continued operating the post office, along with the telephone switchboard. She held the position of first telephone operator for six years.
First Telephone Office
In 1912, the telephone company incorporated with 335 stockholders. The first stand-alone telephone office was actually built from the original Molalla school building, built in 1875. The building was 21 feet by 31 feet and was 12 feet in height. It could hold 41 students and a teacher. It had been moved to downtown from east Molalla, near the Y corner, by Peter and Tilda Boyles. There it served as a residence for some years. In January, 1913, it was sold to the Molalla Telephone Company to use as a residence and phone office for the new managers, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Hibbard. Mr. and Mrs. Hibbard operated the telephone office for twenty years before retiring to a small farm west of Molalla.
In March of 1913, the Molalla Pioneer announced that Molalla had "one of the best rural telephone systems in the state". The new property was paid for and the phone company was out of debt. There were 240 members of the incorporated company. The telephone company was run by a board of five directors. In December, 1914, the annual meeting was held. To become a member of the company, you had to "sign the by-laws, pay $7.50 to the treasurer and construct and maintain your apportionment of the telephone line in your particular division". There was also a complaint that "cross talk renders the line useless much of the time. Since we have in the electric juice, it is much worse because we have the roar of the power lines to contend with." At the December, 1922, meeting they decided that the Molalla Telephone Company would own and maintain all the lines "now constructed and hereafter to be constructed from the central office to their ends". The expense was to be paid by all members of the company.
In 1944, the magneto board was replaced by a common battery board. In 1954, the battery board was replaced by a Stromberg Carlson Xy dial system. In 1963, the telephone office was moved to 176 Grange Avenue. The XY dial system was replaced in 1981 by Northern Telecom’s digital system. In 1958, the company became a cooperative. In 1964, the board of directors hired the first company manager, Alfred Shaver. Alfred was a grandson of both the Shaver and Robbins pioneer families from Molalla. Alfred Shaver retired in 1964. Alfred Larsen then served as general manager until 1984. From 1984 to 1992, Gilbert Stenger served as general manager.
To keep up with the times, the telephone company’s name has been changed to the Molalla Communications Company. In 1988, they moved to the office they are in today at 211 Robbins Street. In 1944, there were about 350 members; today there are over 5,000.
For more on Levi Wayne Robbins, please see The Levi Wayne & Iona Robbins House on Misc. Streets/Places.
Photo #1: The Molalla Telephone Co. Building today is in excellent condition. Author’s photo, 2019.
Photo #2: Freight wagon belonging to Robbins’ Bros. Store. In driver’s seat: Homer Robbins with Wayne Robbins beside him. In back of wagon left to right: George Case, Frank Dicken, John Dungan, Dudley Boyles, Lloyd Shaver, Arthur Kayler and Otis Engle. Ca. 1910. Photo from the Bulletin, January 3, 1973.
Photo #3: The first Molalla School building was moved, from east Molalla, into town and converted to a residence. In 1913, it was sold to the Molalla Mutual Telephone Association and they converted it into the first stand-alone telephone office. Photo courtesy of Mildred Harless.
Photo #4: The old Molalla Telephone Company’s switchboard is on display at the Dibble House Museum in Molalla. Go for a visit and enjoy checking out the names on it. They are open 1 – 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Author’s photo, 2019.
“Annie Clifford”, Oregon City Courier, January 25, 1907
“Annie Clifford”, Morning Oregonian, January 28, 1914
“Annie Clifford”, Aurora Observer, January 11, 1923
“Annie Clifford’s Home”, History Mystery, Molalla Pioneer, September 7, 2016
“Annual Telephone Meeting Called”, Molalla Pioneer, December 9, 1914
“Christmas Surprise Gift for the Hibbards”, Molalla Pioneer, December 27, 1934
“From Indians to Telephones”, by Ann Becker, Molalla Pioneer, June 28, 1973
“History of the Molalla Telephone”, Paper by Alfred Shaver, composed from an old letter written by Levi Wayne Robbins to Alfred’s sister, Zella Muller. Shaver story dated 1990
“Local Telephone Prosperous”, Molalla Pioneer, March 7, 1913
“Molalla Telephone”, Clackamas County Deed Records – Book 130, Page 178
“Molalla Telephone Company Building”, Molalla Self-Guided Tour, by Judith Sanders Chapman & Lois Helvey Ray, 2009
“Molalla’s First School”, by Gail J. McCormick, Our Proud Past, V. I, page 223, 1993
“Robbins Bros. Store”, by Gail J. McCormick, Our Proud Past, V. I, Page 142, 1993
“Telephone Company Meets at Grange Hall”, Molalla Pioneer, December 28, 1922
“Telephones”, Molalla Pioneer July 27, 2016
@ 2019 Gail J. McCormick