Perth’s first telephone remembered

The gravesite of Perth dentist Dr. J.F. Kennedy, and his wife, the former Sarah Henderson, in Elmwood Cemetery. Photo Credit: Terry O’Hearn
Posted on: June 21, 2018

Terry O’Hearn

Perth’s first telephone system has an interesting story behind it that has sometimes been told incorrectly in the past, and some elements of the related events and connections can be confusing. In this column we will attempt to present the facts with as much clarity as possible.

The location of the telephone system was in what is still known as “The Farmer Block” at 11-15 D’Arcy Street. In the 1870s the original 1846 section of the building was occupied as a home by dentist Dr. J.F. Kennedy, who had his offices nearby on Foster Street, next door to the building then known as the Hicks Hotel. An advertisement in The Perth Courier of March 10, 1882, under “J.F. Kennedy, L.D.S., Dentist Office”, touts the fact that “Nitrous Oxide Gas (can be) administered for the extraction of teeth.”

Dentist Dr. J.F. Kennedy was married to the former Sarah D. Henderson, daughter of the Rev. Thomas Henderson. They married in 1864. Rev. Henderson was a close friend of Alexander Melville Bell, father of Alexander Graham Bell. The younger Bell is credited with inventing the telephone, and according to the Smithsonian Institution, that first call to his helper Watson was made on March 10, 1876.

A Perth Courier story of July 21, 2011, expands further on the history of The Farmer Block: “The Farmer Block at 11-15 D’Arcy St. was home to a popular music hall in the mid-19th century, and was the location for the world’s first private telephone. In 1967, Centennial year, owner Colin Farmer installed two historic plaques, one commemorating the music hall, the other recognizing the building’s link to the early history of the telephone. The second plaque states that ‘Alexander Melville Bell, father of the inventor of the telephone, visited here frequently.’

“At that time, in the 1870s, the original 1846 section of the building was the home of a dentist, Dr. J.F. Kennedy. Bell supplied Kennedy with primitive phones which he used to call home from his dental office on Foster Street.” It was said to be the first private telephone, outside of the Bell family, in the world. The year of that installation is thought to be 1877, less than a year after the invention.

Over the years, several locals have come forward with stories about the novelty of that first telephone. The Perth Courier of March 6, 1947, carried this story: “Perth boasts at least one link with the late Alexander Graham Bell, whose centennial was observed on Mar. 3, The Courier learned in an interview with Mrs. John A. Stewart, Drummond St., this week. ‘About seventy years ago, in the early eighties, I remember my father taking me over to the home of Dr. Joseph Kennedy on D’Arcy St.,’ Mrs. Stewart said. ‘Dr. Kennedy was Perth’s only dentist at that time. …The man who put in the phone was Alexander Graham Bell,’ she said.” That was the same Jessie Stewart we talked about in last month’s column, whose given name was bestowed on that stately Silver Maple tree in Stewart Park.

The famed United States national institution known as the Library of Congress makes available a digital image of a letter from Alexander Graham Bell to Alexander Melville Bell, dated October 17, 1897: “What are your movements? And can we not connect somewhere? You know how welcome you would be here — if you cared to come. Are you going to stay up in Perth or Harrowsmith all the time? Will you be there if I join you in the middle of November. I leave here Friday November 5 for Halifax — where I give a public Address concerning Parents’ Educational Association.  …These are my plans. What are yours? Can we connect anywhere? Your loving son, Alexander Graham Bell. Prof. A. M. Bell, care of Dr. Kennedy, Perth — Ontario.”

We have come a long way from those wondrous days of the first small communications through the ether to today’s constant and voluminous chatter using smartphones and other electronic devices, but the debate goes on about whether new technology is harmful. The fact remains that the minds of the human race will always seek to create, invent, develop, and improve. Perhaps one of the more perceptive quotes comes from Nikola Tesla: “All that was great in the past was ridiculed, condemned, combated, suppressed–only to emerge all the more powerfully, all the more triumphantly from the struggle.”

If you have any comments or suggestions, please email me at: