By Dorothy Isted
Special to the Pioneer

The Little Blue House on 13 Ave. in Invermere has intrigued many passersby. Its iconic roofline hints at a commercial life from another era. It was built a century ago and started out as the Telephone Office in Invermere, situated where Konig Meats is now located on 7th Avenue, or, as it was then known, Bruce Avenue.

What valley residents know as Telus started out life as the East Kootenay Telephone Company in 1920. B.C. Telephone purchased it in 1929. In 1998 BC Tel merged with Telus Corp of Alberta, which resulted in one of the largest private sector employers in B.C.

A 56-year-old retired surgeon from England, Philip Turnor, who had come to the valley in 1911 as part of the Columbia Valley Fruit Irrigation venture, became the first agent for the fledgling company. Having quickly discovered that he was unsuited to farming, he moved into Invermere from the Toby Benches. The new business offered a very modern convenience: telephones on party lines. A party line was how it was. If the phone in your house rang three long and one short tone, you knew that was your number, and you answered. If it rang two shorts and one long, you knew that belongs to the Browns down the road, and you ignored it. Unless you were the town’s biggest gossip, and then you’d stealthily pick up your receiver and listen in.

Harry Saunders emigrated from England as a 17-year-old in 1901. He worked for B.C. Telephone in the Okanagan. They sent him to the valley, around 1919, to build phone lines. Here he met Dorothy Turner, whom he married in 1920. He was later offered the job of district lineman, responsible for the Canal Flats to Golden lines. He was well known as “Harry Saunders, the telephone lineman.”

Once the Telephone Office began operations in 1920, other than their agent and linesmen, operators were required. Dr. Turnor hired his daughter Effie as an operator. She became the agent when he retired in 1936. Effie then accepted a promotion to Saltspring Island in 1950.

Some of the women who were employed as operators were Isabel (Kimm) Thouret, Dorothy Koralweicz, Joanne (Watt) Thouret, Julie McIntosh, Ev McGilvery, Irene Kebe, Clara Boyle. Calls needing to be made were routed through the operators. People would pick up their receivers and get the operator, tell them the number they wanted, and the operator would put the call through. Long distance calls required several involved steps by the operators. In 1951, shifts ran from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 pm.

Ten digit numbers were introduced around 2007. For a long time beforehand, people only had to dial seven digits for local calls. Initially, phone numbers were much shorter. Oldtimers in the valley recall that Ronacher’s Sawmill’s phone number was #1. In the 1940’s there was an ad for a Chev Sedan and the owner in Canal Flats could be reached by calling 2Q. Long distance calls were rare and expensive. Dial phones were introduced in 1964.

Ed Thouret was raised on his family’s 1200 acre ranch, part of which is now covered by Radium condos and golf courses. The 91-year-old, now living in Cranbrook with his wife Isabel, was hired by B.C. Telephone in 1952. He was interested in one of the young part-time operators, high school student Isabel Kimm, which got him interested in the work. Isabel recalls working with Mr. Saunders and said, “He was wonderful to the girls. He would come in in the morning and look at us and say, ‘Have you had your breakfast?’ If not, he’d go out and get [us] a coffee and a bun.”

Harry Saunders was exposed to measles as a baby, which left him deaf. Ed said, “He used to have an apparatus on his chest for hearing, like those four-inch hand units that used to hang on the side of the old telephones.”

Ed was trained by Red Walker, from Nelson, who inherited Harry’s job when he retired. They worked mainly in Invermere, going up to Golden every two weeks. Ed remembers that between Invermere and Golden, there were only 13 phones. But then Golden got busier, and he bid on a job there. The apprenticeship to become a full-fledged telephone repairman was a long six years. He came close to finishing his apprenticeship, but not quite. However, no one else wanted the job so they gave it to him.

Ed still has a picture of the telephone repair truck decked out for an Invermere parade. They put a switchboard on it with Red Walker’s daughter, also an operator, sitting on top of the switchboard. The repair truck was a half-ton with a rack on the top, with tools and parts to fix phones. The men had an area covering Spillimacheen to Skookumchuk. He recalls, “We had to plant our own 25-foot pole, digging the holes and planting the poles.”

The telephone building consisted of the operators and switchboards in front, with a storeroom in the center and the back was the office for the district repairmen.

After the new telephone office was built in 1964, at its current location by Sobey’s, Plasso’s Real Estate occupied the old office. Sometime in the sixties or early seventies, local man Gunner Jorgensen was offered the building by the late Bill McIntosh. Gunner moved it to the land he owned, which had once been the home of Hope Brewer, reportedly the first Caucasian baby born in the Columbia Valley. Nothing was done for ten years.

Then Gunner’s daughter, Connie Leverkus, who had taken two years of drafting training and really liked old buildings, decided to renovate it. She added two dormers in what had only before been an attic with a ceiling hatch for access. Gunner, a gifted blacksmith and welder, built the iron balustrade going upstairs, and added beautiful metal decorative touches. The building was placed on a basement and the result was a three bedroom, two bathroom home of about 1700 square feet.

For about five years, it was run as a vacation rental property and then changed hands a few times until the current owner, Denise Harvey, purchased it in 2017. Initially, the building was white with green trim.  Because there was no insulation and the windows needing replacing, the inside looks new but with a definite early 20th century feel. However, the main floor bathroom door is original. Denise said she loved the building from the time she first saw it, and once she saw inside, she loved it even more.