As a child, I can remember listening to my mother speaking on the telephone. I wasn't eavesdropping exactly. I couldn't. I didn't understand German, and that's the language Mom typically used when speaking to her sister or older members of her family. This was especially true when she didn't want young ears to understand her conversation.
German was my mom's first language. Growing up in her home, Low German was spoken. In fact, Mom couldn't speak English when she entered first grade at St. Mary's School. She depended upon a neighborhood girl to relay the lessons Sister taught them in class. Not the best arrangement for learning.
Times change. Telephone conversations in German when my mom was alive, and even today, weren't frowned upon. While they might have been considered unusual, they didn't and don't bear the stigma speaking German did during and just after World War I.
In March 1919 there were four independent telephone companies serving rural Cape Girardeau County: Kage district, Gordonville, Dutchtown and Pocahontas. The name of the latter was the Farmers' Mutual Telephone Company, and it didn't allow German to be spoken over its line. This was probably a holdover from the days of the war, when the German language was outlawed in many ways in America.
But that month, a controversy arose over this rule and how it was applied to certain subscribers. Lawyers got involved, and eventually the State Public Service Commission. Here's how the Southeast Missourian covered the issues.
Published March 10, 1919:
USE OF GERMAN OVER PHONE LINES TO BE CONSIDERED
JACKSON -- On next Wednesday the State Public Utilities Commission will hold a hearing in Cape Girardeau, in which it will endeavor to straighten out the contentions among the telephone companies in the north end of the county, principally around Pocahontas. Several grievances are to be laid before the commission, among them the proposition for permission to use German language over the lines. This proposition has caused a great deal of feeling among the users of the independent lines, and it is expected that an agreement of some sort can be reached under the rulings of the commission.
Quite a large number of patrons of independent lines will be in Cape Girardeau on that day.
Published March 13, 1919:
TELEPHONE CASES BEING HEARD BY COMMISSIONER BEE
Special Commissioner C.B. Bee of the State Public Service Commission arrived here this morning to hear the case of Arthur Kieninger, a subscriber to the Farmers' Mutual Telephone Company of Pocahontas, against that company in regard to the discrimination of the officers in permitting certain subscribers to talk the German language over the line and in refusing him to do so, and also to hear the case of the Bell Telephone Company in regard to placing a toll on the use of the Jackson-Cape Girardeau line.
Mr. Bee called to the attention of a reporter for The Missourian this morning a mistake which had been made by the Western Union Telegraph Company in transmitting a message he sent here to James A. Barks, attorney in one of the cases. The telegram as received b y Mr. Barks stated that Mr. Bee would be here Tuesday morning at 9 o'clock, instead of Wednesday morning as had originally been set, but should have read Thursday morning. The original telegram stated Thursday morning very plainly, but the telegraph operator made it read Tuesday morning, consequently the disappointment of the Pocahontas people in assembling here Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Pocahontas case was taken up first, with Arthur Kieninger as the first witness. Kieninger testified that he is a subscriber of what is known as the Farmers' Mutual Company of Pocahontas, and that he had been refused permission to talk over the line at all, either in the German or English language.
He admitted when questioned by the attorney for the telephone line that he had violated a rule adopted last summer by the officers of the company, which was to the effect that the German language could not be talked over the line unless a special permit is given them. He did not have such a permit, he said, and after he talked German three times over the line he was denied the use of the line further. This rule was adopted in July 1918, and in November of the same year his phone was cut out.
Kieninger said that although he was born and raised in this county he could not speak the English language fluently and occasionally had to talk German because he could not make the person he was talking to understand him.
When the lawyers finished their examination of Kieninger, Commissioner Bee asked him if he had any objections to the rule that was made and he replied that he did not, his only objection being that certain persons were allowed to talk any language they wanted over the line while he was not permitted to talk over the line at all.
Ed Wunderlich was the next witness, he being a subscriber on the line out of New Wells. He said he was denied the use of the phone line one time last fall while talking to the mill at Pocahontas. Mr. Wunderlich said he can speak both languages, but can talk the German language better, so was using that language in his conversation in order to make his point understood. He did not know about the action taken to stop the use of German talk over the line, he said. He was cut off the line, he said, from November till January.
Ernest Hemmann was the third witness. He was secretary-treasurer of the Farmers' Mutual line and said he had frequently talked German over the line and was never interfered with. He said he had been told that Kieninger and several others had been cut off the switchboard in Pocahontas because of speaking German. Hemmann was present at the time the rule was adopted abolishing German talk over the line, but he said he knew the rule was not carried out in all cases.
The hearing of the complaint of several subscribers of the Farmers' Mutual Telephone Company of Pocahontas against that company asking that discrimination in the using of German talk over the telephone line be discontinued came to a sudden end at 2 o'clock this afternoon when Commissioner Bee suggested to both sides that they get together and settle the matter amicably.
At this suggestion Attorney Oliver for the directors of the company announced that the directors were willing to restore services to all the subscribers providing they would observe the rule in the future. Attorney Barks, representing Kieninger and several others who had been cut out of service, then held a short consultation with his clients and announced that such action met with their favor, so Commissioner Bee announced that the matter was settled amicably and equitably to all concerned and that the hearing had ended...
Published March 25, 1919:
ORDER RECEIVED IN POCAHONTAS TELEPHONE CASE
Attorney James Barks has received from the State Public Service Commission a copy of the order in the Pocahontas teleph0ne case, the order reading that the Farmers' Mutual Telephone Company of Pocahontas must restore to service all telephones that were disconnected with the switchboard last fall because the rule in regard to the talking of English only over the line was violated, that all discrimination must cease and that the persons who were cut off live up to the rules in the future. The order is to go into effect April 1.
As Commissioner Bee was hearing this case two weeks ago he suggested to the directors of the telephone company and the people who had made complaint to the commission that they get together and settle the matter agreeably and the lawyer for the company then announced that the company would be willing to restore those who had been cut out of service providing they would live up to all rules in the future. Both sides agreed to this and the hearing ended.
This mutual goodwill and cooperation, however, was only temporary. In June the Pocahontas telephone company was back in the news, and the troubles seem to have expanded beyond whether a subscriber was heard to speak German over the line.
Published June 4, 1919:
COUNTY PHONE LINES TO TELL THEIR TROUBLES
State Public Utilities Commission to Be Arbiter in Controversy.
JACKSON -- The State Public Utilities Commission has promised to give a public hearing in the near future to settle the differences between the Farmers' Mutual Telephone Company and the Pocahontas Telephone Company in the northern part of the county. The Pocahontas Telephone Company has applied to the secretary of state for a certificate of incorporation and the Farmers' Mutual Telephone Company is opposing the issuance of the same on the grounds that the establishment of a new concern is not a public necessity, and the patrons of the proposed new concern are adequately served by the old and established, but not incorporated, company. The Pocahontas concern argues that the service afforded the Farmers' company is wholly and entirely inadequate and unsatisfactory, in fact, it gives no service at all when it comes to connecting with the Bell at Jackson.
The law firm of Oliver & Oliver represents the old company and Honorable Wilson Cramer has the side of the new concern in the controversy.
It is said that the feeling among the citizens of that community is better towards one another, and that, regardless of what ruling the Utilities Commission may make, the doom of the rural company is sealed, as a wholesale desertion from the rural company will be the result, if the incorporation of the Pocahontas Telephone Company is not countenanced.
It is further said that the use of the German language over the wires or the prohibiting of the use thereof is a great factor in the controversy, but neither the complaint as sent to the commission by Oliver & Oliver nor the reply thereto by Mr. Cramer mention that side of the question.
The certificate of incorporation has been issued by the secretary of state, and is in the hands of the board of directors of the Pocahontas Telephone Company, but the consent of the Utilities Commission is necessary before operations can be begun.
Published June 11, 1919:
TELEPHONE CASE SETTLED TODAY BY AGREEMENT
Subscribers of New Line and Pocahontas Line End Their Controversy.
The State Public Service Commission hearing in the Farmers' Mutual Telephone C0mpany of Pocahontas against the Pocahontas Telephone Company, a new corporation, came to a sudden end this morning when attorneys for the two concern s announced to Commissioner Bean that an agreement had been reached whereby further proceedings would not be necessary.
Mr. Bean then called on the attorneys for both sides asking them if the agreement had been entered into and when advised by both that it had, he announced that an order would be made shortly by the commission.
Testimony had been taken in the case all day Tuesday and was to be resumed this morning, but in the meantime the agreement was reached. The agreement as handed to the commission is as follows:
It is hereby agreed by all the subscribers of the Pocahontas division of the Farmers' Mutual Telephone system that an order may be entered in Case No. 2021 now at issue, ordering the Pocahontas division of the Farmers' Mutual Telephone system to rescind its order, rule or regulation adopted July 13, 1918, prohibiting the speaking of the German language over any of the lines or through the switchboard of said division at Pocahontas. The same to go in effect Sept. 1, 1919; that the Cape Girardeau Bell Telephone Company be ordered to make connection with the Pocahontas switchboard of the Pocahontas division of the Farmers' Mutual system, the said Pocahontas division to purchase at actual cost the line now constructed from the Cape Girardeau and Northern Railroad tracks to the town of Pocahontas and same to be used in making the connection with the Cape Girardeau Telephone Company at Oak Ridge, with the Oak Ridge division of the Farmers' Mutual system to be discontinued after the connection is made to the Pocahontas switchboard of same Mutual system and that the standard contract of the Cape Girardeau Bell Telephone Company for rural service be entered into with said Pocahontas division of the Mutual system, the division of toll charges on calls from said system to Jackson to be divided on a fifty-fifty basis and all calls to Cape Girardeau to be divided, two-thirds to the Cape Girardeau Bell Telephone Company and one-third to the Farmers' Mutual Telephone Company.
The respective divisions of the Pocahontas division of the Farmers' Mutual Telephone Company or system shall submit to their subscribers at the regular quarterly meeting of the respective divisions, on June 28, 19191, the question of whether the Pocahontas division shall purchase at cost certain cable now owned by the Pocahontas Telephone Company and install same in the town of Pocahontas. In the event a majority of the division of said Pocahontas division agree to purchase said cable, it shall be purchased at cost by said Pocahontas division from the Pocahontas Telephone Company.
That all subscribers of the Pocahontas division of the Mutual system who have been fined for a violation of the rules of said system for talking the German language shall have said fines remitted, but all violations of said rule subsequent to this order and prior to Sept. 1, shall be subject to the fine provided in the rules and regulations of the division. That all subscribers of the Pocahontas division who have been cut off or disconnected from service with the switchboard shall be again connected upon payment of all back dues.