Personal Connections

Author: Grace Shackman

When switchboard operators ran the show

In the days when telephones had human connections, the most feared person in Dexter was Min Daley. As the village’s switchboard operator, she had the goods on everyone. From her perch on the second floor of the Gates Building, Daley kept an eye on everything in town, and she could listen in on anyone’s phone calls. She even slept in a small room behind the switchboard office, and if there was a blaze, she roused the volunteer firefighters.

Information is power, and Daley had it. She could answer such questions as “What stores are still open?” and “Has the band concert begun?” She could tell wives whether their husbands had left work for the day, and she knew where the doctor could be reached. It was hard to hide anything from Min Daley.
In these days of the Internet, it’s hard to imagine one person wielding the authority of Daley, who was Dexter’s ears and eyes from 1906 to 1938. Maybe she really didn’t listen in on very many calls, but just knowing she could do so made townspeople wary of her. When telephones were a place’s only means of speedy communication, the switchboard operator was the information gatekeeper.

It’s also hard to imagine a time when communication was so intimate. Before connections were automated, operators were so vital to village business and social life that they usually operated from thrones of a sort. In Manchester the phone switchboard was in a small second-floor office in the Arbeiter Building (now the site of a laundry and pizza store). In Chelsea switchboard operators sat above Oscar Schneider’s grocery store, now the Chelsea Market. In Saline a small Greek Revival house at 200 South Ann Arbor Street was devoted to telephone operation. These were the power centers of their communities for many years.

Phone service began in western Washtenaw County in the early 1880s, just a few years after Alexander Graham Bell’s famous 1876 conversation in Boston with his assistant Thomas Watson. The first local phones were like Bell’s, one-to-one devices linking two places--such as an office and a home, or two locations of a business, like a mill by a river and the mill’s downtown office.

The first phone in Saline was set up in 1881 by Beverly Davenport to connect his store at Ann Arbor Street and Michigan Avenue with his home on East Henry Street. “Not only can a conversation be carried on with perfect ease, but also while in the store we could distinctly hear the music of the piano Mrs. D. was playing,” reported the Saline Observer. Some lines were set up purely for social reasons. Chelsea’s John Keusch recalls that his mother had a line connecting her with a friend a block away.

Rural residents were the first to get phone lines with multiple users. “Local service was not demanded by small villages that could sling the local dirt over the back fence,” explained Archie Wilkinson, a prime mover in the Chelsea telephone system, in a 1920s reminiscence. “The demand came from the farmers.” As Manchester historian Howard Parr relates, “An influential farmer might go to his neighbors and ask if they wanted to chip in for poles and wires.” Some of these early lines, set up along country roads, were shared by a dozen or more families.

The next step was to establish toll lines between communities. About 1882, Chelsea’s George Glazier began selling coupons for toll service to Dexter. When he had enough money he set up an office over his drugstore on the northwest corner of Main and Middle streets. “You went up the stairs, had operator call party you wanted by name, and then a messenger would be sent out to locate party and bring them to central station” in Dexter, wrote Wilkinson. It wasn’t until 1895 that the Glazier Stove Company installed its own telephone. Later the phone office was relocated above Schneider’s grocery.

Thomas Keech, who had organized the first phone system in Ann Arbor, instigated phone service linking Manchester, Dexter, and Saline. In 1882 Keech asked Mat Blosser, publisher of the Manchester Enterprise, to help sell scrip good for phone rentals and messages. By May 1883 they had sold enough to set up a line between Manchester and Chelsea. Blosser at first managed it out of his newspaper office. Soon they moved the exchange to an office next door in the Arbeiter Building and hired their first operator, Jennie Moore, who later married Keech.

In Dexter, Keech persuaded Thomas Birkett, owner of the local flour mill, to link Dexter with the other long distance lines in his system. A public phone was installed in the Irving Keal drug and medicine store on Main Street, with Keal acting as the first phone manager. As in Manchester and Chelsea, the company helped meet the cost by selling coupons, to be redeemed when the service was completed. The phone office was later moved to the Gates Building.

Keech and Clark Cornwell of Ypsilanti owned a phone line between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and in 1881 they approached Saline to hook up to their service. Keech’s companies would grow into the Michigan State Telephone Company, later Michigan Bell. In its early days, the company was challenged by a number of small local companies and an Ann Arbor–based regional company called Washtenaw Home Phone. By 1913 Bell had bought everyone out and had become the sole provider, except in Saline, which was served by the Saline Telephone Company, a private company formed by Edward Hauser.

Hauser, a Saline wool dealer, started his own line between Saline and Bridgewater to save him the time and trouble of frequent buggy trips to make deals with farmers. In 1902 he set up an exchange in an office in the Union Block on Michigan Avenue. In 1933 he moved the phone office to the house at 200 South Ann Arbor Street. When Hauser died, he left the company to his sister, Ella Henne; her son, Ed Henne, became its manager. His office and the switchboard were in the two front rooms. A workroom in the back had benches for about four repairmen, a small room upstairs served as the lounge, and the garage stored phone equipment.

In Saline and other communities, the switchboard was linked to the lines of all the local users. People in most homes used wooden wall-mounted “magneto” telephones, so called because the power to start the connection came from a hand-cranked generator. People who wanted to make calls turned the crank to ring the operator, who used a switchboard to plug them into the line of the desired party. Often the operator recognized the caller’s voice. One person remembers calling as a child and asking the operator only “Can I talk to my grandmother?” That was enough to get connected to Granny. That personal service is quite a contrast to today, when you can’t even get someone in directory assistance who’s familiar with your own state.

Two one-volt batteries stored in the bottom of the magneto phones provided the power to send the caller’s voice over the lines. Another type of phone, the “candlestick,” so called because of its tall, thin shape, was more often used in stores and offices. Its batteries could be stored separately and were often kept in a box under a desk or counter. In both models, the batteries had to be replaced periodically. As a child in Manchester, Howard Parr used to take the carbon rods out of old phone batteries and use the rods as crayons to write on the sidewalk.

Party lines were common, especially in rural areas. Incoming calls could be heard at every home on the line, but the ring was different for each family. Sometimes, as a prank or to eavesdrop, somebody in another house would also pick up the phone.

Since all the neighbors knew one another, it wasn’t too hard to identify who was listening in. Parr says users would pay attention to various clues, such as “a grandfather clock striking while they were listening, or an asthmatic--we’d hear them puffing.” John Keusch of Chelsea recalls that at his grandparents’ farm “sometimes a third party would join in the conversation,” much to the annoyance of those talking. In the end, “we’d laugh about things. We were all neighbors--it worked out,” recalls Ruth Kuebler of Freedom Township.

Saline residents paid extra to reach other communities on the toll lines that Bell had installed. Kuebler, who grew up on a farm linked with the Saline system, remembers that to avoid long-distance costs her family would drive to a neighbor’s house to make calls to Ann Arbor, or to a different neighbor’s to make calls to Manchester. Neighbors outside the Saline area would come to their house to make calls to people in the Saline system.

In villages the party lines were less personal, because users were not necessarily neighbors. Many villagers went without phones for a long time. “If we had to find out something, we went somewhere to find out,” recalls Norma McAllister of Dexter.

Despite those holdouts, local telephone managers and switchboard operators soon became the towns’ most vital figures. They handled emergencies, calling doctors and police and ringing fire alarms.

In Saline, Ed Henne was a well-loved figure. Running the office during the Great Depression, “he was lenient if people didn’t pay their bills on time,” recalls Doris Henne, his daughter. She says that her dad often took in stray dogs at the office and found homes for them. When he died in 1939 at age fifty-one, the Saline schools closed for his funeral.

Min Daley was Dexter’s lifeblood; in turn, Daley’s whole life was the phone company. She never married. Daley could be very helpful; she’d even take messages for people when they were not home. But she was widely suspected of listening in on calls. “Everyone thought she did. The opportunity was there,” recalls Davenport. “People were afraid of her. They didn’t know what she knew or what she passed on.”

But Daley wasn’t infallible. Louise Mann, who worked as an operator in the late 1930s, recalls, “She once was telling everyone a man died, and then we saw that man walking across the street.”

Like the operators, the telephone repairmen were well-known figures in their communities. Chelsea’s William Van Orman was dubbed “Mr. Telephone.” “People in Chelsea never called the repair department in Ann Arbor--they’d call Dad at home,” recalls his son, Wayne Van Orman, who has a vivid memory from his youth of holding a flashlight one rainy night while his dad shimmied up a pole to splice a broken wire.

Western Washtenaw County villages began switching to dial phones in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The technology, developed in 1919, had been in use in Ann Arbor since 1925, when it was installed in the phone company’s new Beaux-Arts building at 315–323 West Washington. It was a big job to change systems: larger buildings were needed for the automatic equipment, and all the magneto phones had to be replaced with dial versions.

“We’d go from house to house to house putting in new phones,” recalls Bob Kuhn, who worked on the switchover in Milan. The change was always made in the middle of the night, with the phone company workers returning in the morning to pick up the old phones. For many people, this was their last personal contact with their phone companies. From then on, a dial tone rather than a voice greeted customers.

Today, even with the advanced technologies of voice mail, e-mail, and the Internet, getting quick and easy contact with a central source of information can be a daunting task. In the old days in the small towns, all you had to do was pick up the phone and you were connected.

When dial phones arrived in Dexter, Min Daley retired, but she was left with a memento of all the years she’d run the show in town. The company gave her the switchboard to keep in her home.