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phone company marks 125th anniversary
By RYAN OLSON
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
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
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
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., http://www.ontonagon-telephone.com