It was 1915 and Simuel and Retha Hammonds had what everybody wanted a party line.
When Sim was offered the job of manager of the Concord Rural Telephone Exchange Company, he said, “Yes,” clueless that his decision would make a legend out of his wife, Retha.
It’s been so long ago that almost no one is still around to recount the start-up, but apparently, Concord’s first phone company was operated out of a bedroom of a small house.
“My mother remembered them moving the switchboard from a little, tiny white house on Second Street up to the new house on Third Avenue,” said Retha’s grandson, Alton Jackson, recently.
Official phone poles were expensive and most residents didn’t want to pay for one, so Sim had to be inventive in getting the lines from the switchboard to the village.
“He put phone lines anywhere he could,” said long-time Concord resident Jim Brashier, who said he remembers seeing phone lines “stapled to trees and fence posts and draped over bushes.”
While Sim was out hanging phone lines, Retha stayed indoors, listening for the switchboard to ring. “She took messages when she couldn’t connect a caller to the right party, and the story of her telling a young man that his girlfriend was out on a date with someone else is legendary,” Jackson said.
But before she ever manned the phone lines … before she became notorious [whether it was deserved or not is up to debate] for listening in on phone
calls, she’d already had quite a life.
“She was born in 1889 in Washburn, in Grainger County, Tenn.,” her great-granddaughter, Heather Rose Nagel, said recently. Three years later, siblings began to arrive: George, James, Roscoe, Herbert and Escor, and then a sister, Beatrice.
Nagel, “the default record keeper for the family,” said she has made some interesting discoveries: Retha’s ancestors were on the second boat to come to Jamestown, Va., and her third-great-grandfather came to Green County, Tenn., from Pennsylvania in the 1780s to spread Quakerism.
“I first met her when I was six years old,” Nagel said.
“What I remember about her is you could never leave her presence without her giving you a quarter or a dime,” she added.
Retha’s grandchildren remember even more.
“They made her quit school after third grade,” said Donna Smith Ore, the youngest of the 19 grandchildren. “She may have quit to help take care of the children.
“Mamaw always used to tell us that her daddy sold her,” Ore said, “but then I think somehow she said she was married too, when she was 13. I was always told that she was almost an indentured slave to this person. They married her to a man who ran a laundry and he may have even been a little abusive. She was a strong woman and she wasn’t going to have any of that. She was 4-[foot]-10 or 4-[foot]-11 and she didn’t take anything off anybody.”
“It didn’t take her long to realize that he only wanted her to cook for him and his mother. She left him,” Jackson said. “When she came home [to Knoxville] from that man, she got off the train and went up the steps to the lobby level and said the most handsome man she’d ever seen was standing on the top of the steps and that was Sim.”
In 1912, she and the tall – about 6-[foot]-2 – Sim were married.
Retha was busy. She gave birth to 10 children, beginning with Howard in 1913. Twins John and Thomas followed in 1915, then daughter, Lagonda in 1917, Maude in 1920, Bertha in 1922, Mary Katherine in 1925, and triplets Bunle, Earl, and Eva in 1927. Sadly, only six of her children lived to adulthood.
“Retha never left her house,” Jackson said. “The only reason she ever left home was to visit
a doctor or a family member. There were no shopping trips or vacations.”
Ore and Jackson’s sister, Loretta Smith Sowers, remembers her grandmother as a warm, loving person who “gave strangers hugs.”
She said at first everyone had an “Andy Griffith-type” wooden phone on their wall, then eventually black tabletop phones, but none of them could dial out. They’d pick it up and Retha came on the line.
“Retha knew everything and probably overheard a lot of phone calls, but I don’t think it was that uncommon,” Sowers said. “We used to share phone lines and if you wanted you could hear their conversations, you could. When it rained, we lost our phone connection. They were so fragile then. It didn’t take a whole lot. If the wires were down, they would have to reattach them.”
Granddaughter, Sarah Doyle, recalled the switchboard.
“I loved going to mamaw and granddaddy Hammonds’,” she said. “Mamaw would let me sit with her when she was working the switchboard. Sometimes I would plug in the wrong number or even worse, unplug someone while they were still talking. Mamaw didn’t get upset. She would say, ‘Oh, they can call back if
it’s important.’” She added an amusing family secret: “mamaw would unplug people if she thought they had talked too long or she even listened in and passed around gossip.”
“Retha was Dr. Cobb’s default receptionist,” Jackson said. “From her house on Third Street, she could lean back in her chair and look out the window and see if he was there. If his car wasn’t there, she probably knew where he was.
“Another one of the favorite stories I’ve heard around Concord,” he said, “was that a man was trying to call his wife. He was at work in Knoxville. They were complaining about the static on the line. He suggested she step out on the stoop and holler toward Knoxville. A voice come on the line and said, ‘Yeah! Why don’t you try that!’”
But Jackson said he’s not convinced it was his grandmother’s voice.
“I can only assume since some of these people in Concord had party lines with three, four or five parties on the line, and that since Retha was busy raising six kids, she’s not going to be at the switchboard unless that thing rang. I suspect the voice they heard was one of their neighbors on the line.”
“You didn’t call a doctor or a lawyer without calling Retha first,” he added. “The day she died all these people came to the funeral and I know there was one question on everybody’s mind: ‘Did Retha write a book?’”
Sowers said that when they sold the phone company to Concord Telephone Exchange (now occupied by TDS) in 1950?, Sim burned a pile of wooden box phones in the backyard.