Saturday, July 23, 2011

Rural Telecom History: What's Your Story?

A few weeks ago I came across a hidden gem that is probably not well known outside of the Iowa RLEC circle- Lines Between Two Rivers: A History of Telephony in Iowa. This 600-page book was compiled in 1991 by the Iowa Telecom Association (ITA), and dedicated “to those Telephone Company Pioneers who gave their blood, sweat and tears in order to provide an outstanding telephone system to the citizens of the great State of Iowa.” I actually learned about it from a footnote in ITA comments, and I immediately looked for it online where I found a used copy via It looks like the copy I ended up with came from the Keosauqua Public Library and was marked “Discard” which makes me feel lucky to have ended up with it. In the back, it says that it was a gift for Van Buren Telephone (also in Keosauqua) in August, 1992. There are a few copies available on Amazon still, so I encourage you to grab one if this book sounds interesting (price ranges from $34-$95). If you love history and particularly telecom history (like me), definitely get it. 

Lines Between Two Rivers include short histories of every rural telephone company in Iowa—almost 150 companies in 1991. The stories were submitted by the companies, and include extremely interesting and amazing tales of the early days of telephony going back to the late 1800s. I’ve been trying to read a couple stories every night, so it will probably take me awhile to get through the entire book. Meanwhile, I thought maybe I would put my B.A. in History to good use by investigating and publishing historical accounts from other rural telephone companies outside of Iowa. RLEC readers: I would like to hear stories about how your company was started, the early challenges that it faced, how it grew, technology milestones, and how you managed to stay in the business for 100+ years. I know there have to be some great stories about battles with AT&T in the old days—my own company’s history has proved that, as well as some stories in my favorite book The Master Switch. I’m really interested in family-owned RLECs and the “extremely rural” companies that laid it all on the line (literally) to provide telephone service in the most daunting geographic areas of the country. I’d love to see pictures, maps, old bills, anything! Please e-mail me at if you would like me to share your RLEC’s history on Rural TeleCommentary. In addition to your history, I would like to know your future—how is your company going to evolve in order to stay in business as our industry faces increasing and intimidating regulatory, financial and competitive challenges?

I think that posting histories of rural telecom companies will tie into my advocacy efforts here on Rural TeleCommentary by helping to personalize the companies—I know I have readers “inside the Beltway” who have possibly never visited a truly rural area and who would (maybe) love to learn more about the background of the RLEC industry. I hear criticism of DC-based telecom regulators and lobbyists all the time; that they don’t really know what a rural area means because they never go any further than the Greater DC Area. Why not help them understand rural telecom better by depicting the challenges RLECs have gone through to bring telephone and broadband service to the most rural and remote people in America? I also have a more sinister goal here, which is hopefully not too grim of an analogy, but I see this as a way to “humanize the victim.” People are told that if they are ever in the unfortunate situation of being kidnapped or attacked, they should blurt out information about themselves (I’ve seen it on TV anyway, and Silence of the Lambs), in order for the attacker to see them as real people. RLECs are under attack from the FCC and now Congress, as well as competitors, so maybe if we let them know that we are more than just wasteful, inefficient pieces of technology scattered around rural backwaters, they will be more understanding. It’s a long shot, but it might be fun to try at least. 

Meanwhile, here are some excerpts from Lines Between Two Rivers that I have been particularly impressed with. 

  • Ace Telephone Association (now Ace Communications, Houston, MN) came together as a collection of smaller farmers’ telephone companies in 1949 to improve telephone service in the area: “The biggest single reason for the local enthusiasm at this meeting was the recent amendment of the REA Act of 1936.” Apparently, not much has changed since 1950 regarding business incentives to build communications networks in rural areas: “The tremendous cost of bringing telephone service to the hilly, rural, area in southeastern Minnesota and northeastern Iowa had taken all the initiative out of the private telephone companies as well as the Bell system.” My favorite part of Ace’s story was that the switchboards were actually located in the home of the operator, and “manned 24 hours a day and seven days a week.” Area residents would actually come to the operator’s home to make calls—can you imagine? That is definitely true customer service. 

  • Amana Society Service Company indeed has a rich history, which I assumed it might. The Amana Colonies were settled in the 1855 by German Pietists, and telephone service came fairly shortly thereafter: “When news of Bell’s 1876 invention reached the community, they could see the practicality of telephones in the villages. The Amana people decided to build their own telephone system. They often copied or modified national brands for their own use, rather than purchasing them. So, in 1880, after studying the subject of telephony, Friedrich Hahn Sr. (1843-1917) of Middle Amana, a cabinet and clock maker, build a magneto telephone. He built the walnut cabinet, as well as the generator, switch hook, ringer movements and induction coils inside the cabinet.” He built all of this himself! Next time I am in Iowa (October probably) I am definitely going to make a point of visiting the Amana Colonies Heritage Society Museum to check out this phone, and eat some delicious German food.

    •  Arcadia Telephone Cooperative (Arcadia, IA) started in 1884, and in the early 1900’s their telephone switch was located in the front room of a funeral parlor.  

      • Ayrshire Farmers Mutual Telephone (Ayrshire Communications, Ayrshire, IA) struggled during the Great Depression: “Wages of employees were reduced and much emphasis was put on past bills. Also a new rule was made, ‘When toll bill reaches the amount of $2.00 service will be discontinued until too bill is paid.’” Things turned around eventually, and the company “entered the 80’s with a very comfortable feeling—digital office, all buried, one party service, owned toll facilities to and beyond our boundary lines, recently converted to a cost company so the revenues were good. Yes, a real tranquil time!” Ayrshire noted that after the AT&T breakup, they were “bombarded with consultant classes, seminars, etc., all hoping to re-educate the company staff members to a new and different telephone world.” 

        • Barnes City Cooperative Telephone Co. (which appears to be no longer in existence) described the multi-faceted role of the telephone operator: “It was not unusual for the telephone operator in the days of the magneto or common batter switchboard to be the central point of information about how to cook certain things or have recipes to share about baking, etc.” During WWII, the operator also had to deliver the news to families when a soldier died in the war.  

          • Butler-Bremer Mutual Telephone Company (Butler-Bremer Communications, Plainfield, IA) shared an interesting story about small vs. Bell in the 1930s. The company’s secretary for 30 years, Senator J. Kendall “Buster” Lynes, “formulated the strategy which enabled the company to virtually force the Northwestern Bell Telephone Company to sell its telephone equipment in Tripoli to the Butler-Bremer Mutual Telephone Company. This is probably one of the only cases on record of such an occurrence—the giant of the telephone industry being defeated by a tiny David!” 

            •  The location of early switchboards was really interesting. So far I have read of switchboards being located in candy stores, ice cream parlors, grocery stores, funeral homes, banks, feed mills, meat markets, the operator’s home, post offices, and basically anywhere you can think of in a small rural town.

            I will definitely continue to share exceptional stories from Lines Between Two Rivers here as I read through the book. I hope that some of my readers take the time to submit their own stories because I think it would make a really great addition to Rural TeleCommentary.
            Hopefully everyone has survived the heat wave this week!

            Cassandra Heyne


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