Marshfield, January 1899: The birth of the Marshfield Telephone Exchange
By Kris Leonhardt
Just days after obtaining his patent, Alexander Graham Bell made his famous telephone call saying, “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you.”
Though seen as a luxury at the time, the new invention proliferated all over the New England states and within a year would reach Wisconsin when Charles Haskins created the first exchanges in Appleton and Milwaukee.
The growing novelty would spread around the state and nation rapidly in the 1880s, appealing to doctors, bankers, and other professionals and businessmen that could afford them. By the end of the decade, approximately 60 Wisconsin municipalities had phone service.
As a result the Wisconsin Telephone Company—later known as Wisconsin Bell, Inc.—was born. The company, a division of Bell Telephone Company, would enjoy a period of great success for several years. However, when Bell’s patent ran out, small telephone companies and cooperatives began to pop up everywhere.
Though making the device more affordable to the common population, communication was restricted to the switchboards of the smaller companies or cooperatives. To communicate outside of the company’s switchboard, the co-ops and small companies needed to fall back on Bell again.
During this period, the Marshfield Telephone Exchange was created to connect businesses and prominent families of the city. By January of 1899, the residents of the city had discovered the advantages, and subscribers were being added weekly. By midmonth the exchange had reached its 100th line.
Of the 100 lines, less than half were residences in the city. Most connected business and professionals. Six of the lines were toll lines to reach the municipalities of McMillan, Stratford, Auburndale, Hewitt, Bakerville, and Greenwood. In addition, the Greenwood line would give access to Medford and Neillsville as well as points between those locations.
The exchange had two operators at the time, a day operator in Annie Williams and a night operator in Herman Hoerl. Hoerl was just 17 years of age when he became the night operator. He would later become a lineman before returning to the company as manager in 1907, a position he held until his death.
Both Williams and Hoerl were noted for their attentiveness and kindness in dealing with the daily phone calls. W.M. Martin was also celebrated as a courteous manager, who kept all equipment in working order.
That summer the exchange would expand considerably, reaching well into the area’s farming community.
In the next years, the Marshfield Telephone Exchange, along with the Wisconsin Telephone Company, would grow and develop, implementing a dial system and providing long distance service to Chicago and later New York.
Dial telephones saw their largest introduction into family homes in the 1950s. As multiple customers grew on community (party) lines, so did the need for privacy and the switch to private lines.
The invention of the mobile phone would later change the dynamics of telephone communication, but there is no doubt that Bell’s creation, the landline phone, introduced the world to long distance communication and united the globe with a simple “hello.”