How It All Began
The following excerpt is from an article written by Don Lipper for the California Contact Magazine. A few corrections and additions have been made at the request of Robert H. Edgar and can be found in italics.
By age 12, he was stringing wire all over his boyhood Home of Sutter and in Villa Grande where he spent summers on the Russian River. He’d wire phones to his friends, neighbors, to the beach where the kids hung out.
“My dad couldn’t keep me off the poles,” remembers Edgar. “He was afraid I’d fall, so on my 12th birthday he gave me brand new climbers.”
Soon the teenage Edgar became the area’s go-to guy for telephones. There was a one-wire telephone system that ran over country areas. During the Depression, the company folded but Edgar’s friends bought the wire and he ran it and kept it going to ranches 12 miles apart.
Wherever he went, Edgar was stringing wire. “I just grew up into it,” says Edgar. “My dad wanted me to be in his business — ball and roller bearings-but I didn’t care for it. I liked the telephone business.”
“I had two passions, one was the railroad and the other telephones.”
In 1942 he knew he was going to get drafted into the armed forces. “I wanted to make sure that I got into the signal corps” remembers Edgar. “I enlisted and found out never to believe what a recruitment officer tells you. I ended up cleaning kitchens.”
Edgar finally got into the signal corps and went to signal corp training at Camp Crowder Missouri just south of Neosho. Edgar was eventually shipped off to the Pacific.
When he finally made it back home he went to work for Pacific telephone company again just as he had done before going into the service. He did freelance installations in Davis and Old Sacramento. Then one day he read in the Sacramento Bee that there was a meeting in the city hall of Dorris (in Siskiyou County near the Oregon border). Residents were complaining about the poor quality of their phone system. The system’s owner, Mrs. Billie Starr, did not even bother to show up for the meeting.
“Mrs. Starr bought the company for one dollar in 1934, but it turns out that wasn’t a bargain,” says Edgar. “In the fall of that year, the saw mill burned down half the town to the ground.”
Edgar put chains on his car and drove up to check out the phone company. It had 65 customers, including 14 farms that shared a single line. “In the local newspaper there was an old gal who wrote the news and she got 90 percent of the story by listening on that multiparty line,” says Edgar.
When Edgar brought his wife Marion up to check out the community, she wasn’t too impressed.
“Although Dorris was a busy, good payroll town with five bars, seven filling stations and lots of saw mill work, I told my wife that we’d try it for two years and if it didn’t work out we’d move back to Sacramento,” explains Edgar.
“That was 1950. It’s been a long two years.”
“This is what I wanted to do. I wanted my own telephone company for as long as I can remember.”
The town wanted 24-hour service, so the Edgars had the switchboard installed in their home. After the operators left for the evening, Edgar was the late night operator. “Every time someone wanted to make a call in the middle of the night, a bell would go off and I would place the call,” remembers Edgar.
Bob & Marion Edgar
Edgar started building up the company by buying surplus equipment from other phone companies, even the Army. He became famous for stretching a dollar while he was stretching wire. For example, with a small one-ton truck, he could load small telephone poles on it, dig a hole and then use the truck to back the pole into the hole by himself. When he got a used electrical switchboard from a Washington telephone company, he converted the areas phones from the hand crank magneto-phones to conventional phones. The company went from 65 customers to 265 in the first year.
Every few years Edgar would upgrade the system to provide his customers with as up-to-date a phone system as possible. The company continued to grow through the 60s and 70s. Then in 1984 a neighboring phone company, the Oregon-based United Telephone of the Northwest, was battling the California Public Utilities commission about rate increases.
“California only allowed them to make a 12 percent return, but Oregon allowed them to make 14 percent. They decided that with 1,100 customers in Tulelake and Newell, why spend money in California when they can spend in Oregon and get better profit on it?” notes Edgar.
So Edgar purchased the California-Oregon Telephone Company (which later changed its name to Cal-Ore) for about $1 million. In 1984, by the time the sale was finally approved by various regulatory agencies, the newly christened Cal-Ore was ready to embark on a $3.5 million upgrade to the phone system through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Electrification Administration and Rural Telephone Bank.
Today Cal-Ore has 25 employees, 2,700 customers and covers an 850-square mile area. Cal-Ore has gotten very involved with the local community. “We’ve donated land for a library. If organizations need room to build a parade float they can come to us,” says Ormsbee. “We try to be a good neighbor.”
“We help out where we can,” says Edgar. “I remember one time I went down to the city council for a meeting, next thing I knew I was on the council. Then next thing I knew I was mayor!”
“But we’ve enjoyed it very much here. We’ve had a good life,” says Edgar. “We raised four kids here (Brian, Scott, Sue and Robert W. Edgar.)
“When Marion and I first came to Dorris it was one of these towns where you’d say ‘My God, why would anyone want to live here?’” says Edgar. “Now when we leave, we can’t get back soon enough.”
“We could not have made such a success out of the telephone company if it hadn’t been for all of the cooperation we got from the good people of the Butte Valley and Tulelake areas. They all knew we were trying to give them better service and they appreciated it.”
commented by Robert H. Edgar on April 27, 2007