For over 100 years, the Riviera Telephone Company has been serving residents of south Texas. For the last 83 years, it has been served by just one family.
On June 10, 1937, Alton B. and Erma Colston purchased the Riviera Telephone Exchange from John May. Since then, the company has been owned and operated by four generations of the Coltson family. Despite very humble beginnings the company has expanded to become a leader in phone and communications technology, including broadband. The company services a 1000 square mile coverage area, including the counties or Kleberg, Kenedy and Brooks along with the communities of Riviera, Loyola Beach, Sirita and Armstrong.
“There is no story if it wasn’t for Erma Colston Reidle Williamson,’’ said Billy Colston III, the current general manager and a vice-president of Riviera Telephone Company. ‘’She purchased the company from John May in 1937 for a small amount of cash and let’s say some other unusual collateral.”
In 1937, the company was known as the Riviera Telephone Exchange. At the time, Erma and her husband were the proprietors of a small breakfast place, an ice house and a small butcher shop among other things. When John May decided to the sell the Exchange with its 35 to 40 customers in 1937, Erma bought him out for $1000 and some livestock.
“It wasn’t a large company when she bought the company,” said Bill Colston, Jr. “But she was a stubborn business woman at a time when women were not owners of businesses. She would handle all the business out of her house here in Riviera, and served as the operator, business manager, bill collector and all the other duties that come along with running a business. She was the fabric and heart and soul of the company, and if it wasn’t for her we would not be in this business today.”
The story of Erma and the Colston family heritage in the telephone business is an interesting one.
After purchasing the company in 1937, Erma and Alton were operating a telephone company and other small businesses. Later, Alton left the family and Erma took over the business. She let Alton have the cash when he left, but she kept the business and was the driving force in the company until the next generation of family came along to help run the operation.
Erma took over the operation during the Great Depression and operated the business during World War II. When people couldn’t pay their bill, she would accept chickens and other items for payment, which she would turn around and sell at her other businesses for more profit.
In 1943/44, she remarried Mr. William Reidle and the company began to take off as the post-war years saw a great expansion of business and a flight to the suburbs and more rural areas to live in.
“We all grew up in this business and did just about every job you can think of,” said Leslie Colston, the current president of the company. ‘’We dug ditches, climbed poles, hung wire--you name it.
“Erma did it, and if it was good enough for her it was certainly good enough for all of us as we started working for the company.”
In the early years, Erma ran a switching station out of the house she lived i--which is now the current location of the state-of-the art Riviera Telephone Company Building. Erma also served as the operator at the time, and in those days people had to place all their calls through the operator and the switch board. Erma and her family were on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year during those years, which make for some interesting and amusing family stories.
“You couldn’t just direct dial people like you can today,” said Bill Jr. “You had to make sure the line was clear, and then you could make a phone call through the operator. If it was long distance, you would have to place a call with the operator then hang up while she talked to other operators making the switches and then through a series of manual switches the calls could be made.”
“We still have the original switching machine in our new building,” said Billy Colston III. “It is in our lobby, and we are proud of its heritage in our community and in our family.”
Over the years, the company has evolved and even been a leader in providing communication services and delivery.
In the 1950s, Riviera Telephone Company was one of the first rural telephone services to go to direct rotary dialing. In 1965, the company was one of the first to bury all of its telephone lines underground--which was a fortuitous thing for this area. In 1968, when hurricane Beulah hit the coast, the company did not suffer catastrophic damage to its infrastructure thanks to the foresight of Bill Jr. and Leslie.
After Beulah, the amount of customers in the Riviera Telephone Company service area increased thanks in part to the underground lines being protected from the storm.
In 1975, the “old” Riviera Telephone Company was built across the street from Erma’s original house location. In 1985, the company hired an architect and the company doubled its building size. In 1988, the company installed a digital switch, which allowed the company to provide call waiting and other services in the rural area of south Texas.
It was in the Eighties when the area started to grow with new retirement and vacation homes, and the population in south Texas took off. After a few decades, and the advent of broadband and cell phones, it was apparent the company needed a new facility.
“I was hunting with my Dad (Bill Jr.) and we were sitting in a blind,” Billy recalled. “I said ‘Dad, I’ve been thinking about our building’ and he instantly replied ‘We need a new building don’t we?’
“Yes sir, that’s when we started looking at either remodeling or finding a new location.”
The Colston’s had re-acquired the original property where Erma’s house had stood, and the decision was made to build the new facility there around the oak trees, especially the famous oak tree that Erma had planted after Bill Jr. had taken a field trip to San Antonio.
“I bought some acorns back to her from our school field trip, and she planted them,” Bill Jr. said with a smile. “
The big oak out front grew from one of those acorns. We built this building around that oak.”
Today, the Riviera Telephone Company is housed in a beautiful state-of-the-art facility. A world class break room, a new board room, world-class lighting and sound inhibitors are incorporated throughout the building. It is a gem of a facility, and one that stands as a beacon for development in Riviera.
The officers today are: Leslie Coltson, President; Bill Jr., Vice President; Judy Colston (Bill Jr.’s wife), Treasurer; and Billy Colston, vice president and general manager.
Everyone is proud of the business and the new building.
Leslie is proud of the digital switch implementation in 1988 while Judy is happy she got “to raise my kids in my office.”
Bill Jr., who is mostly retired now, says “The philosophy, stability and culture of service in this company is what I’m proudest of. We owe it to the people we serve and we want to exceed their expectations.”
“This team and our employees carry the torch and expectation of customer service to a new level,” said Billy. “The staff here is dedicated to community service and donates lots of time to the community. It gives me nerdy goosebumps.”
Leslie and his wife Barbara have three children name Allen (McKinney police officer), Bill (RN in Conroe), and Kenny Cox (Physical Therapist in Dallas).
Bill Jr. and Judy’s children are: Marsha Babic (an RN with Plano ISD), Joe and Billy.
Billy and his wife Michelle have three kids: Austin (TAMU senior), Jake (Riviera Kaufer student) and Piper (in the early college program).