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  A HISTORY OF PINE BELT TELEPHONE COMPANY, INC

 

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    BY
      JAMES D. NETTLES, MD P.O. BOX 279 3984 COUNTY ROAD 32
ARLINGTON, AL 36722-0278
July 2, 1990
Revised by
John C. Nettles
June 17, 1999


A HISTORY OF PINE BELT TELEPHONE COMPANY, INC. July 2, 1990

Pine Belt Telephone Company, Inc is headquartered in Arlington, Alabama, a small country
community situated in the western half of Wilcox County. Pine Belt has exchanges in Arlington,
Dixons Mills, Sweet Water, and Nanafalia. The total service area covers approximately 800 square
miles of rolling hills, abundant forests and fertile farm land. The area is bounded by the Alabama
River in the east and the Tombigbee River in the west. Like many other rural telephone
companies, Pine Belt has a colorful background, one which often provides for many hours of
reminiscing and story telling about the "good old days". You see, Pine Belt Telephone Company
came to be as a result of several factors. The first factor was one man's strong desire to keep
abreast of his profession - medicine. Secondly, that same man has an undying curiosity and
infatuation with electronic gadgetry. Thirdly, that man married a city girl and moved with her and
their 4 month old child, back to the community where he grew up, which at that time had very
limited telephone services, even for 1952.
Arlington Alabama, from 1901 until 1931, was served by a local magneto telephone system. It
was at the end of this period that the economic depression that had such a tight grip on the entire
nation, took its toll on the area, and like many others the system fell into a state of severe disrepair.
In 1946, Sam Nettles, a local sawmill operator, with the money from his pocket, built one open
wire line from Pine Hill, Alabama, a nearby municipality with an operational telephone company,
and connected his sawmill to the switchboard there. As well, he extended lines to his home and
the homes of his family. This one line made up the entire communication network for Arlington,
and served the area until the Pine Belt story began.
In 1952, Dr. James D. Nettles moved to the area to begin seeking his longtime goal of being a
country doctor. It was then that he learned that one more extension on the line his brother Sam had
built in 1946 was all that the existing facility could accommodate. Thus, he was faced with either
having a telephone in his house or in his office but not in both. Well, in order to appease his wife,
and by applying some American know how, he devised a method using a "knife" switch, whereby
he could have telephone service in his office during the day and by a flick of the switch at the end
of the day, he could transfer the service to his house when the office was closed. In theory, this
was a grand idea. But, as you can probably imagine, problems developed. It seems that on a "few"
occasions, the doctor's office personnel would forget to switch to the house line at night prior to
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locking up for the evening. Mrs. Nettles is normally a very tolerant and patient person. She grew
up in Mobile, was educated at the University of Alabama and had trained as a medical
technologist in Birmingham. Though she had come to terms with the fact that Arlington was
certainly not the mecca of social and economic activity in the state, she found the idea of having
virtually no contact with the rest of the world for 24 hours at a time, to be a little more than she had
bargained for. Accordingly, Dr. Nettles quickly surmised that he could be a better physician
if he could accomplish two things - one, communicate freely with the rest of the world, and two,
keep his wife happy. Thus, this country doctor with a city wife, a compulsive curiosity, and dire
needs to be able to talk to the rest of the world, started a journey into communications and
telephony.
In 1955 Dr. Nettles purchased a 2-way mobile radio system in an attempt to achieve better
communications with his house and his office. Dr. Nettles has always believed in making house
calls whenever he is needed. Since, at that time in his career, only a very few of the homes he had
to visit had telephone service, the radio system was an ideal enhancement while he was making
calls. However, it quickly became evident that this point-to-point method of communicating was
rather restrictive. At that time, the Federal Communications Commission required that all 2-way
radio equipment be calibrated annually. The closest service shop to have this done was in
Birmingham which is 135 miles north of Arlington. A Mr. Jerome Tanner was the man with the
license, expertise and equipment to do this. One day while at Mr. Tanner's business, Dr. Nettles
noticed a Kellogg Relaymatic switchboard that Mr. Tanner was working on. Dr. Nettles' curiosity
got the best of him and he refused to leave that day without finding out what the item was, how it
worked, and what were its applications. Well, the board was one that was configured for and used
in factories.
Dr. Nettles then got the idea that a 100 line board, similar to the one he had seem in Mr. Tanner's
shop would serve the Arlington area well and that he could find someone, perhaps a physically
handicapped or shut-in, to man the board as required for handling long distance messages. He then
did some investigation and found that he could buy 6 pair rural distribution wire from Superior
Cable Company of Hickory, N.C. which seemed ideal for connecting the houses with the board.
With this knowledge in hand, he approached the owner/operator of the Pine Hill magneto system
and asked her if he could connect his planned Arlington system to her board with some of this 6
pair wire. This idea was turned down though.
With the problem of no means of communications other than the radio still at hand, Dr. Nettles
continued to pursue the idea, hoping to find a better way to serve the area. Shortly thereafter he
purchased a 100 line board similar to the one he had recently seen in Tanner's office and 70
telephones from a liquidation sale out of Reading, Pennsylvania when Vanity Fair moved their
main plant to Monroeville, Alabama. There were still limitations though that quickly surfaced.
Primarily, the board had no long distance circuitry and a very low loop line resistance.
In the process of constructing the outside plant to connect this new contraption to the houses, Dr.
Nettles also quickly realized that he knew very little about the required plan specifications. The
employees of Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph were on strike at the time, and through some
contacts, Dr. Nettles was able to acquire the part-time services of several men, Eddie Blackwell,
Gordon Deas, John Andrews, and 3 brothers named Snipes (when they weren't on the picket line
Nettles Family
8
that is). These six men built approximately 10 miles of aerial plant, using surplus army field wire,
marine cable, and any other salvageable materials that were affordable, along with some of the 6
pair rural distribution wire.
The nature of the project has many humorous overtones and one that is especially worth
mentioning concerns the relation between Dr. Nettles' two professions, Medicine and Telephony.
Dr. Nettles operated a 10 bed maternity clinic. Between delivering babies, he tended to his infant
telephone company. One day, while dickering with a man from Chicago about some of the
telephone equipment, he had to excuse himself from the conversation, telling the man that he
would call him back because he had a very urgent labor problem to take care of. When Dr. Nettles
called back, the man seemed baffled and asked just what kind of labor problems could one have
with only a handful of part time employees. Upon learning that the type of labor that Dr. Nettles
had to deal with actually meant a woman having a baby and not employees on strike, the man was
quite amused.
After several months of operations, it became evident that additional improvements were needed.
So Dr. Nettles then purchased from Kellogg-ITT a 100 line Relaymatic Board with the required
long distance circuitry built in. At about that same time Fidel Castro had confiscated from ITT
over
$80,000,000 in assets in Cuba and ITT was happy to sell their equipment to any one in order to try
to recoup as much of their loss as possible. Basically, Dr. Nettles was able to purchase a
completely new board on a telephone conversation with terms of $200 per month plus 5% interest
on the unpaid balance. As formulated, it turned out that this was equal to 4-1/2% per annum,
which seemed like a pretty good deal even then.
When the dial board arrived, ITT-Kellogg said that because of their workload, it would be at least
6 months before they could send anyone to install it. Being somewhat impatient and also being
somewhat pressed for improvements over the "knife switch" arrangement for connections outside
of the immediate area, Dr. Nettles decided that he could just install the equipment himself. He got
Charles Wasden of neighboring Monroeville Telephone Company to demonstrate how to wire one
complete circuit. With this and figuring that with instructions and blue prints, it shouldn't be too
hard, the doctor, with a new love for telephones proceeded. Well, nowhere in the instructions did
it say that the frame was to be bolted to the floor. However, it looked as though it would hang very
nicely on the wall and thus that was where it was put. The only complaint was that the numbers on
the relays were a bit difficult to read being that they were printed sideways now. When Jim Pound
and Dennis Davies, the technicians from Kellogg-ITT, came to inspect the installation, Dr. Nettles
asked them who was the crazy man that made it so difficult to read the numbers by printing them
sideways like that. Upon seeing the setup the technicians laughed and said that they were not so
sure if the man responsible for the printing was crazy or not, but they were a little suspicious about
the man who did the installing. These two probably got many laughs from that event
for years and years.
The year was then 1957 and it was at this time that Dr. Nettles actually began doing business as
Arlington Telephone Company. Dr. Nettles and crew cut over to the new dial board and at the
initiation of operations there were 37 subscribers connected to it. The doctor's wife, Rose Mary
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9
being somewhat less than impressed with the old system and quite glad to see the improvements
being made, was more than happy to work as the office manager in order to help insure that this
venture was successful. Also, there was an elderly black man named Nunny York who was
responsible for the outside plant repairs and maintenance.
Three circuits were constructed to connect this new board to Southern Bell's toll center at Selma
which is about 45 miles northeast of Arlington. Two of the circuits were physical wire lines and
the third was a composite circuit. When the time came to connect them, there was some
controversy between Dr. Nettles and Bell as to whether the operators would be able to perform all
of the duties of operator intercept on the Arlington board because of the method of wiring. Dr.
Nettles had his board configured so that the operator in Selma could intercept any local call by
plugging in to one of the Arlington long distance lines and dialing "00" followed by the customers
number. The Bell engineers declared that this would not work and Dr. Nettles said that it would.
After several discussions about the matter and a little hair pulling, Bell "gave permission" to Dr.
Nettles to go to Selma and assist the Bell personnel in reconfiguring their setup and then
physically demonstrate that it would work. This configuration remained until the system
was rebuilt in 1960 to the REA & Bell specifications.
In October 1958, Dr. Nettles reorganized the business as Pine Belt Telephone Company, Inc.
Shortly thereafter, he acquired the ownership of the Sweet Water Telephone Company of Sweet
Water, Alabama which served the southern portion of Marengo County and a small part of Clarke
County. Pine Belt's present exchanges and company boundaries, for all intents and purposes,
remain today as they did in 1958 following this merger.
During the first 11 months of operations there were 4,337 long distant messages that were either
sent paid or received collect by Arlington Telephone Company. These calls produced total
revenues of $3,447.31 of which $1,888.31 was netted by Arlington. In contrast, for the calendar
year 1989, there were 735,460 messages that grossed $865,627 in toll revenues for the company.
By the end of 1964, Pine Belt had completed its first REA construction project and at that time
had 197 miles of buried cable and wire, 106 miles of aerial cable and 758 subscribers. There were
automatic dial boards installed and serving the three exchanges in Arlington, Dixons Mills, and
Sweet Water. With the completion of a later REA construction project in 1969, a fourth automatic
dial board was installed at Nanafalia and an exchange was created there.
In 1979, Pine Belt eliminated the last of its multi-party service. Pine Belt today has 539 miles of
buried cable with virtually no aerial cable except where absolutely necessary to cross creeks,
swampy land, etc.... The offices are equipped to serve 2,300 access lines with a total of 1,908
working as of December 1989. Pine Belt is currently in the process of updating all four exchanges
and will be installing digital switchboard and fiber optic routes to connect them within the next
year. The company has also made the big step into the information age and has been working to
computerize its administrative and business operations with good succes.
Dr. Nettles and his wife, Rose Mary, own all the stock in the company and they and their children
comprise the entire board of directors. The company employs 13 and provides employment
Nettles Family
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benefits competitive with the ones that you would expect to find at any large corporation. Also,
Pine Belt, like many other local exchange companies nationwide, is looking to the future and is
involved in the development of cellular services in the rural areas. As such, Pine Belt is a partner
in South Alabama Cellular Communication which has been designated as the tentative selectee in
two markets in Alabama, RSA's 4 & 6. Innovation and the ability to adapt to change was critical
in the development Pine Belt Telephone Company, Inc. Dr. Nettles' never ending perseverance
and constant efforts to seek a better way helped also. Like most rural telephone systems, Pine Belt
is proud of its history and the area it serves. Likewise, Pine Belt continues to do all that it can to
bring the conveniences and benefits of modern communications systems to the people of the area.
Some of the more significant efforts include the development of a cellular telephone system for
Marengo and Choctaw counties and the acquisition and operation of a DirecTV satellite television
franchise for Marengo and Clarke counties, both of which started in 1994.
In 1997, we started a local dial-up Internet Access system for the communities and towns of
Arlington, Dixons Mills, Sweet Water, Nanafalia, Butler, Linden, Demopolis, Thomasville,
Camden, Pine Hill and Catherine. And currently, we are in the process of developing digital
cellular services, sometimes called personal communications service (PCS), for the Selma Basic
Trading Area which includes the counties of Dallas, Perry and Wilcox.
Over the years, Pine Belt has been blessed with the service of many loyal, hard working and
honest individuals. Some of these are listed below.
Name
Status
First Year of Employment
James D. Nettles, Sr., founder
Deceased
1958
Bettye B. Wilkinson
Deceased
1966
John Garfield Carr
Deceased
1973
Wallace Hudson
Retired
1967
Alice S. Carmicheal
Retired
1977
Rose Mary S. Nettles
Nettles Family
11
Active
1958
Rodney D. Roe
Active
1960
Johnny M. Evans
Active
1973
Grace P. Ludeman
Active
1973
Randy C. Vick
Active
1978
Malcolm T. Smyly
Active
1982
John C. Nettles
Active
1988
William S. Hayes
Active
1991
Craig B. Smith
Active
1991
Gena Parker
Active
1992
Sherry S. McGilberry
Active
1993
Cindy S. Overstreet
Active
Nettles Family
12
1994
Jason T. Maness
Active
1994
Stephen E. Collins
Active
1995
Willie Battle
Active
1995
Paul A. Etheredge
Active
1996
Robert B. Horton
Active
1996
LaGreta Hudson
Active
1996
Charles M. Willard
Active
1996
Lynn Pearson
Active
1997
Camilla Jordan
Active
1997
Dana Jackson
Active
1997
Angie C. Lewis
Active
1997
Clayton Parker
Active
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13
1997
Brandon Ludeman
Active
1997
Clifford Scarbrough
Active
1997
James C. Roe
Active
1998
Sandy Hayes
Active
1998
Celeste Collins
Active
1998
William B. Smith
Active
1999
Don Tatum
Active
1999
Previous Employees Worthy of Mention Include:
Harold W. Leonard
Roger T. Maness
Charlie Evans
Gene Agee
Beth Etheridge
Joe Lewis, Jr.
John Husdon
David Stubbs
Thomas Agee
Jeff Smith
James Wilkinson
Pete Wilkerson
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