NTCA 1954-2004: looking back on a proud history and ahead to a promising future.

Position:National Telephone Cooperative Association

This article contains excerpts of NTCA's oral history as told by Jim Bass, the association's past board president and present general counsel. Bass shared his memories of NTCA's early years during an interview conducted June 18, 1998.

One could say the telephone is arguably the greatest invention of all time. After all, where would we be without it? Alexander Graham Bell probably had no idea to what extent his invention revolutionized the way people communicate in the late 1800s, and changed the lives of millions of people throughout the United States. But sadly, some were left behind.

Nearly a century ago, rural Americans were left to fend for themselves. Large Bell telephone systems that sprang up in cities and towns throughout the United States bypassed rural communities, viewing them as unprofitable and too much of a hassle to connect to their networks.

Rather than go without telephone service, farmers and local business leaders opted to take matters into their own hands and form their own telephone companies in rural areas.


During the 1920s and early 1930s, as I recall, there were over 2,000 locally owned telephone companies. Every town and community just about had its own telephone company .... I've heard that only 35% to 38% of the rural population had any service [during that time]. Only those that had someone who was really interested ... took the initiative to go out and keep the service operating. The average person, like the farmer on the outskirts of an area, may or may not be served. Unless he had a real need for that service, no one took the initiative to run that line out.


Small telephone cooperatives and commercial companies cropped up throughout the 1920s and 1930s in rural America. While some prospered and reached success, others fell by the wayside, crippled by inexperienced workers, inadequate facilities and poor record keeping.

By the 1940s, it was clear something needed to be done. On October 28, 1949, President Harry S. Truman signed the telephone amendment to the Rural Electrification Act (REA) into law. The act made long-term, low-interest loans available to rural telephone systems throughout the country. While this was a victory for rural Americans, the amendment received mixed reviews.

The Bell systems, which had overlooked rural communities for years, did not want to relinquish their formal territory. Some industry leaders even questioned whether there was any interest in serving rural communities.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) soon emerged as the amendment's biggest advocate. The association provided leadership and guidance to hundreds of rural groups seeking to form their own telephone cooperatives.

Soon, hundreds of cooperatives began popping up around the country. It seemed each member system had a story about local farmers who went door-to-door asking that community members sign up and support their efforts to form a cooperative.


One of the things that became a battleground between the local systems and the REA in the early days was "the equity" the local people had to put into forming the cooperatives. During the early part of the program, the early 1950s, they had a rather high equity of $100 to join. Back in those days, there were not a lot of people who could do that. Ten dollars or $15 was okay, but don't go asking me for $100.



Progress was somewhat slow but steady for the telephone cooperative movement. In January 1954, a small group of telephone members decided a separate association was needed to focus exclusively on rural telephone providers.

A group of people who were concerned about the telephone program got together, and these people organized a telephone committee. This committee was instructed to institute the formation of a national organization to be known as the National Rural Telephone Association.

When the group met in Miami Beach in January 1954, they, of course, recognized the need for an effective national service organization that would provide this national voice, realizing that many activities and services could be provided and developed by a national organization that local organizations could never get.

On June 1, 1954, the National Telephone Cooperative Association (NTCA), now called the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, was formed by eight member systems located throughout the country. NTCA's mission: to represent the rural telephone industry before Congress and ensure adequate REA loan funds to meet the needs of phone systems across rural America.

NTCA's beginnings were humble. The association had no budget, little income, few expenses and just one person on staff. Membership recruitment was a main priority, as there was strength in numbers. Membership dues for a telephone company were $500.

It wasn't long before membership demand for REA funds to upgrade their systems and service offerings began to exceed resources.


Back then, eight-party service was a norm. But all of a sudden, eight-party service was not good enough. We had to have four-party, then two-party and then single-party service .... We had to have more funds just to expand and to upgrade that service. And I think NTCA did a lot. We constantly were on the Hill, not only testifying, but also meeting with people ... to make sure they 'got it.'

In December 1957, the association hired its first full-time employee, Mort Langstaff, who previously had worked in general accounting for the government. As NTCA's executive manager, he was tasked with administering the annual and regional meetings, publishing the newsletter Phone Call, writing and delivering congressional testimony and even emptying the wastebaskets at the end of the day.


This 3-dimensional retrospective art was commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association--showcasing its history, growth, and leadership in representing, promoting and advocating the interests of the rural telecommunications industry.


  1. NTCA 50th Anniversary logo

  2. Gold telephone handset

  3. Globe, text inset: Connecting the Heartland of America with the World

  4. President Harry S. Truman signs into law the Telephone Amendment to the Rural Electrification Act, October 28, 1949

  5. Telephone Central Office, ca. 1920s

  6. Model of telephone pole, ca. 1950s

  7. Communications Act of 1934

  8. 3-D model of candlestick phone, ca. 1920s

  9. Manual operator switchboard, courtesy of Perry-Spencer Rural Telephone Cooperative (St. Meinrad, Ind.)

  10. Magneto wall phone

  11. Linemen working on a telephone pole with a Rural Electric Administration (now Rural Utilities Service) truck in the background, ca. 1950s

  12. Operator Central, ca. 1956, from 2004 NTCA Commercial Company Calendar

  13. During a June 1954 organizational meeting of the newly formed National Telephone Cooperative Association, the early leaders adopted bylaws and elected officers.

  14. First NTCA board of directors: Seated L-R--George Jackson (North Dakota), Merrill Plummer (Montana), S. Riggs Sheppard (Texas), Carol Claggett (Missouri); Standing L-R--Glenn Bergland (Iowa), E.R. Britt (Georgia), Richard Dell, NRECA, ca. 1954

  15. Mort Langstaff, NTCA's first full-time employee, addresses the 1959 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

  16. Citizens attending a cooperative organization meeting sign up for utility service, photo courtesy USDA

  17. Residents celebrate in Chancellor, Va., the activation of the first REA-financed telephone system by Fredericksburg and Wilderness Telephone Co., photo courtesy USDA

  18. NTCA's first logo

  19. BEK Telephone Mutual Aid Corp. (now BEK Communications Cooperative) in Steele, N.D., holds NTCA Membership Certificate No. 1.

  20. Director's years of service recognition lapel pin

  21. In December 1950, Manager Jim Wright (right) signs up Mr. and Mrs. E.J. Lassetter for membership in Cap Rock Telephone Cooperative (Spur, Texas). The Lassetters believed in the co-op so much that they leased the land for its headquarters building for $1 for 99 years, photo courtesy USDA.

  22. Independent Telephone window sign, ca. 1950s

  23. E.R. Britt (right), the first president of NTCA, presents James L. Bass with a gift from the NTCA membership as Bass steps down as NTCA president at the 1965 Annual Meeting in Dallas, Texas. Bass served as president from 1961-1964 and currently serves as NTCA general counsel.

  24. Certificate of Deposit, Blackfoot Telephone Cooperative, Missoula, Mont., ca. 1959

  25. 1966 Annual Meeting, Denver, Colo.

  26. Ribbon

  27. 10th Annual Meeting, Mayflower Hotel, Tennessee Congressional Breakfast, January 1964

  28. Insulator - Rather than an insulating covering, the early telephone lines were fastened to telephone poles with insulators made of glass like this one.

  29. Phone Call magazine cover featuring newly elected Congressman Ed Jones (D-Tenn.), April 1969. Rep. Jones was the NTCA Region 3 Director at the time.

  30. Telephone (now Telecommunications) Education Committee Organization, the political action committee of NTCA, donor lapel pin

  31. Phone Call magazine cover featuring the 22-person Minnesota delegation of NTCA members, who traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby on Capitol Hill, May 1969

  32. 3-D model of Capitol Building

  33. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) logo--the FCC is the federal government agency charged with regulating the telecom industry

  34. Pink Princess telephone, ca. 1959

  35. Manager Jimmy R, White, XIT Rural Telephone Cooperative (Dalhart, Texas) testifies before Congress, 1984

  36. During a ceremony in the White House Cabinet Room after the signing of the Rural Telephone Bank amendment of the Rural Electrification Act on May 7, 1971, NTCA presents President Richard Nixon with a 1902 Kellogg antique magneto telephone. (L-R) Rep. Ancher Nelsen (R-Minn.); NTCA President Eldon Snowden, McDonough Telephone Cooperative...

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