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Ontonagon phone company marks 125th anniversary

The Daily Mining Gazette, Houghton
September 30, 2002

ONTONAGON, Mich. (AP) — If you wanted to reach out and touch someone 125 years ago, the only place to make a call in Michigan was Rockland.

The state's first telephones were installed in 1877 by Rockland resident Linus Stannard. Today, the phone company serves more than 4,500 customers within 960 square miles of Ontonagon County.

The Ontonagon County Telephone Co., the successor to that early effort, marked its 125th anniversary with an open house in Ontonagon recently.

"We're Michigan's first telephone company," said Dorothy Sharkey, the company's general manager. "I think it's something - most businesses don't survive 125 years."

According to the company's history, Stannard was inspired to install a telephone system after seeing a demonstration at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The first system was installed between Stannard's home and general store to the home of Ben Chynoweth.

Despite many people who were at first skeptical and laughed at the new system, iron wires strung on cedar poles reached Ontonagon in 1878.

The company was incorporated in 1879 as the "Ontonagon Telegraph Co." From that handful of people who had telephone back then, the phone is a necessity today.

"I can't imagine what life would be like without it," Sharkey said.

The company grew as more residents had their homes wired for telephone service. In 1907, Ontonagon residents were connected to the rest of the world with a long-distance connection at Bruce Crossing to Iron Mountain.

The company's headquarters moved from Rockland to Ontonagon in 1932. The company reached 5,000 customers in 1980. Today, the company oversees 4,200 phone lines in nine exchanges covering Ontonagon County. The company has 13 employees and four more at its subsidiary, Midway Telephone Co.

At the open house, many people reminisced about the party lines - shared telephone lines. Party lines were phased out in 1976. Operators were used until direct dialing began in 1962.

"You could hear people pick up when you started talking," said Suzie Picotte, who lives in Ontonagon during the summer.

Sharkey said she remembers the distinctive two long tones and one short that indicated that an incoming phone call was for her family. She said her mother and her sister would speak Finnish to deter eavesdroppers from listening in on a conversation.

Phyllis Radtke, who now lives in Fond du Lac, Wis., said telephones have changed since she was young.

"In the 1950s, it was a very big thing when I was in Chicago to call Ontonagon," she said.

Radtke said long-distance phone calls then were often a luxury. Today, it's not uncommon for her to dial up friends living overseas.

The phone company was a family company for most of its existence. The Reynolds family held a majority stake in the company until its sale in 1989. The company traded hands several times before Munising-based Hiawatha Communications bought the business in 1998.

No longer offering just telephone service, Ontonagon County Telephone Co. now offers connections to the Internet - both dial-up and high-speed Digital Subscriber Lines, or DSL. DSL uses existing phone lines for both data and voice transmission.

Looking to the future, Sharkey said there are many unknowns, but she believes the phone company will always be here.

"We're definitely going to be very creative in what we offer," she said.

On the Net:
Ontonagon County Telephone Co.,

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Material from The Daily Mining Gazette © 2001-2004, Ogden News Publishing of Mich.