New digs for a new season
A century ago, this was a much-needed phone exchange.
The beginning of the school year is a time for fresh starts.
So it seemed fitting, earlier this month, to get the keys for a new office.
When I launched The Sprawl in September of 2017 as a pop-up journalism experiment, I was operating out of a coworking space in the old Bre-X building in Hillhurst. Later, I moved into a cry room at a church in my neighbourhood (since demolished). Then a desk at a non-profit (an arrangement that ended when the pandemic hit). Then a small arts hub in East Village (since closed).
And I have been in and out of working from home in between all those spots.
If you count my working from home, this is The Sprawl's sixth office in as many years.
These days I am increasingly picky about where I set up shop. I don’t really need a standalone office. I don’t want a sleek coworking spot. And I don’t want to go anywhere near anything resembling a “tech incubator.”
Instead, I’ve been looking for some interesting little nook to set up in, a place with history and creative potential.
And I’ve found one! I’ll be operating out of Whisky Jack Letterpress, a print shop in Hillhurst owned by local writer and physician Monica Kidd. As I write this, I am surrounded by old presses and wooden cases of metal type—the tools once used for printing the news.
In other words, it's perfect.
I am surrounded by old presses and wooden cases of metal type — the tools once used for printing the news.
After setting up my stuff this week, I figured I should learn a bit about where, exactly, I was.
I kept telling people my new office was kitty corner from Chicken On The Way, but a few people referred to my new digs on the northwest corner of 14 Street N.W. and Kensington Road as “the old AGT building.”
Not having grown up in Calgary, I have never known this spot as an AGT building. I moved to Calgary after the Progressive Conservative provincial government, in the 1990s, privatized Alberta Government Telephones (AGT)—the publicly-owned utility which served Albertans for nearly a century.
The old AGT building? Here was a good chance to dust off the ol’ research skills.
I started rooting around in newspaper archives (damn, I’ve missed that!) and plucked Singing Wires: The Telephone in Alberta, Tony Cashman’s 1972 history of AGT, off the shelf.
In 1922, this building opened as an “automatic telephone exchange,” a technology that was a big deal at the time.
In the early days of telephones, connections for each phone call were made with the intermediary help of a human hand. An operator had to manually plug cables into the correct sockets so the sound of human voices could be “exchanged” from one location to another.
Automatic exchange technology changed that. When this plant opened 101 years ago, the Calgary Herald marvelled at equipment “controlled, not by a host of attendants, but by one single man.”
A Herald reporter got a tour of the new plant in the fall of 1922, when only one in four Calgarians had a phone. “On every side was a most remarkable mechanical arrangement,” reported the paper. “Tick, tick, tick, went the machine.... It was someone ‘ringing up.’ The little metallic sound might be the forerunner of some gladsome message.”
For telephone officials, that ticking sound in Hillhurst was a welcome one. The city's main exchange downtown had been overwhelmed by Calgary's rapid growth, and neighbourhood substations like this one eased the burden downtown.
Residents of Sunnyside, Parkdale and "Grand Trunk" (since renamed West Hillhurst) were now served by the new building.
Today, the old AGT building is home to a vacuum cleaner shop, a gym, a hair salon, a printshop—and now, The Sprawl. (Incidentally, I am only three doors down from my very first Sprawl office. Back where I started. I think the universe is trying to tell me something.)
I couldn’t find mention of this specific building in Cashman's AGT book, but a familiar name did jump out at me: Bob Edwards, editor and publisher of the Calgary Eye Opener newspaper.
This is a bit of a tangent, but this week I learned that in 1907, Edwards made AGT’s first toll call. Edwards spoke to the park superintendent in Banff via a newly-built phone line that ran from Calgary into the mountains.
Longtime readers of The Sprawl will know that I have been inspired by Edwards’ unconventional publishing model. He loved Calgary, hated business and couldn’t keep up a regular publishing schedule to save his life. (This was owing, in large part, to booze.)
The part I like is this: He published when he had stuff to publish. If he didn’t, he didn’t print. Subscribers stuck with him regardless. His work was worth the wait.
Cashman's book notes that after Edwards made that phone call to Banff in March of 1907, Edwards ceased publication for awhile.
That June, the newspaperman returned.
“The editor of this paper has been laid up by a severe illness for the past five weeks and is far from himself yet,” Edwards wrote. “Readers of this paper are therefore asked to overlook the shortcomings of this exceedingly bum issue.”
With Edwards, “severe illness” may have been a wink-wink reference to a bender of some kind. But it might be someting else. I like to think that Bob—in his forties, and five years into the Eye Opener's up-and-down tenure—took a breather for the long-term sustainability of his publication.
It remains to be seen whether The Sprawl produces “exceedingly bum” journalism in the coming months. But, for what it’s worth, the Eye Opener went on to publish for 15 years after Edwards returned in the summer of 1907.
Jeremy Klaszus is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Sprawl. This dispatch was originally sent as a newsletter on September 2. Sign up below to get the latest from The Sprawl when we publish!