BECAUSE OF ITS expense and spam, I’m ready to shed our household’s telephone landline. “It’s about time — LOL,” my nephew Chris chides me. He’s probably right, but as a history writer, maybe I get some leeway. 

No question: Landlines were once a big deal. More than a century before so-called smartphones and other technology, and in an era of telegraphs and handwritten letters, a telephone tethered to other phones through switchboards in country homes and wires strung along roadways from pole to pole was … well, revolutionary. People hearing real voices in real time over really long distances? Imagine that. 

Our “Then” photo hints at how vital this was for tiny towns such as Fall City, 25 miles and two lakes east of Seattle. With laundry rippling on a backyard clothesline and a manual lawnmower leaning against the side porch, this lived-in home also displayed three signs (can you spot them?) that it was communications central. 

Fledgling telephones in Fall City date to 1900. By 1905, residents banded together, with $300 from lawyer-lumberman Newton Harshman and wife, Julia, to connect phone lines from their stores to the local Northern Pacific Depot. In 1912, the Harshmans moved the switchboard to the 1904 home in our “Then” photo, first occupied by Martin and Parthena Prescott, at River and Mill streets along the Snoqualmie River. 

Newton died in 1929, and Julia in 1933, when her Fall City Telephone Company sported 250 customers. Keeping the business afloat were their daughter, Gertrude Harshman, and her husband, George Satterlee, until 1947, when a new dial system soon would eliminate the need for a switchboard and operators. 

The house was restored as office space, became a county landmark in 1984 and later hosted a Montessori school. Last fall, after 13 years of planning and hands-on fix-up, the building (known as the Prescott-Harshman House and owned by Judy and Emily Nelson of nearby Preston) took on a retail persona that hearkens to its chatty roots. 

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Slide the arrow to look at Then versus Now

THEN: Signs saying “Telephone Office” and, in faded letters, “Fall City Telephone,” along with the old Bell system logo, adorn this 1904 home along the Snoqualmie River in unincorporated Fall City. (Puget Sound Regional Branch, Washington State Archives) vs. NOW: With smartphones to their ears, celebrating Prescott-Harshman House’s receipt of the John Spellman historic-preservation award for adaptive reuse are (from left) Aroma Coffee Co. proprietors Kelsey Wilson, Sara Cox and Emily Ridout; Fall City Historical Society members Cindy Parks, Donna Driver-Kummen and Paula Spence; along with Sarah Steen, King County landmarks coordinator; and her niece, Ellie Steen. (Clay Eals)

Run by three local women, Aroma Coffee Co. aims to build connections — even with takeout-only during the pandemic — at the busy intersection, now 335th Place Southeast and Redmond-Fall City Road (Highway 202). 

“More communication is always going to be buzzing through here, and it’s very exciting,” observes Metropolitan King County Council member Kathy Lambert. So, too, is the county’s 2020 John Spellman historic-preservation award for adaptive reuse, bestowed to the Prescott-Harshman House in December. 

Like the rest of us, Aroma yearns for a post-virus day when friends and neighbors can gather in homey quarters for eye-to-eye conversation over a hot drink. Now, that’ll be revolutionary.