“…speak slowly and distinctly in a moderate tone…”

An unidentified women stands in front of the Michigan Bell Telephone Company building in Manistee circa the 1920s. The building was constructed in 1906 and stands on the corner of Water and Oak streets. (Courtesy Photo/Manistee County Historical Museum)

By MARK FEDDER

Manistee County Historical Museum

PART 1 of 2

In today’s world of instant communication and social media, it may be difficult to consider how big of a boon it was to the people of the 19th century once telephones became more commonly utilized. By the mid-1870s, this new technology had quickly spread across the nation, allowing people the opportunity to speak to each other without being in the same space. By the latter part of the decade, telephones had found their way to Manistee and, like any place around the world, instigated a technological transformation that today continues to influence our daily lives.

During the early 1870s, an Italian-American inventor by the name of Antonio Meucci began to pioneer the usage of transmitting voices via wire. While his primary focus was on the use of electricity in medicine, Meucci began to develop various prototypes of rudimentary transmitters and receivers so one person could speak to another from a distance. However, his notoriety was short lived when illness and money problems sidelined him.

Around the same time, a Scottish born inventor named Alexander Graham Bell had further developed the use of sound technology. On March 7, 1876, Bell was credited with the first patent of a telephone device that soon led to a sizeable change in how people communicated around the world.

As this brand-new technology spread its way across the country, it eventually found its way to Michigan. In 1879, Manistee resident T.J. Grannis, a former division telegraph superintendent for the Grand Trunk Railroad, realized the importance of telephone service and persuaded 12 local individuals to install speaking telephones in either their homes or places of business.

Those twelve original subscribers were a who’s who of Manistee during that particular time period and they are listed as: B.P. Barnes, R.R. Blacker, George M. Burr, John Canfield, J.W. Duncan, C.D. Gardner, G.A. Hart, Patrick Noud, R.G. Peters, T.J. Ramsdell, Louis Sands and A.O. Wheeler.

After rudimentary telephone lines were put up, the first call was made from C.D. Gardner’s jewelry store on the corner of Oak and River streets to John Canfield’s store on the corner of Water and Spruce streets.

In the early days of telephone usage in Manistee, the Manistee Bell Telephone Company operated an office out of the Engelmann Block on River Street while also operating the main switchboard out of Gardner’s building. That company eventually became The Michigan Telephone Company which was incorporated in 1904. As time passed, each year saw a rise of telephones users in Manistee. Approximate numbers show that in 1890 there were 150, in 1900 there were 600, and by the mid- to late 1900s, there were 1,000.

Due to the increase in subscribers throughout the area, it was announced in February 1906 that the telephone company would be constructing a new two-story building on the corner of Water and Oak streets that would house the offices as well as the local telephone switchboard. An article published in the Manistee Daily Advocate on Feb. 14, 1906, provides a description of the proposed building and the company’s plans to better service the people of Manistee. Portions of that article follow:

“The new building will be two stories in height, with a basement, and will be fifty by sixty feet in size, leaving a ten foot driveway on the south and east sides of the building.

“The interior of the structure will be divided into various rooms, the first floor containing the manager’s office; public waiting room, bookkeeping department, and apparatus room in the basement will be the heating plant, storage battery and work shop.

“The second floor will be given over to the operator’s room and operator’s retiring room. Each room will be finished in the most approved style now known to telephone exchanges, new furniture being used throughout the building. It was said that the building was one of the first buildings erected solely for telephone purposed.

“Perhaps the feature of the service which will appeal more directly to the subscribers will be a new system of handling the calls. What is known in telephone circles as a relay multiple, common battery switchboard will be installed. This will also reduce the present working force by about one-half. Another advantage lies in the fact that the new system provides an absolute cut-out at the general exchange, the operator being unable to hear a word of the conversation carried on between any two parties, while at present the operator can hardly avoid hearing some part of every conversation carried on over the telephone.”

In 1924, the Michigan State Telephone Company became the Michigan Bell Telephone Company. By the 1930s, the various counties within the region-wide telephone exchange were separated, making Manistee the headquarters of its own area that included Scottville, Fountain, Free Soil, and Onekama.

With more calls coming in, additional operators were needed to handle the volume of telephone users. When placing a call to the operator, people were expected to follow the proper procedure to make sure that the right number was understood by the operator as, at that time, calls were made using either a series of numbers or a series of letters and numbers (i.e. 119-W).

The rules of how to properly use the telephone when making a call were published in the Manistee Phone Directory which was issued in July 1932. The process was to be followed as such:

“Always obtain the correct number from the current issue of the telephone directory before you make a call. If the desired listing is not in the directory, call ‘Information.’ Pronounce telephone numbers in the order printed, for example, Four-five-oh seven. Your voice will carry much better if you speak slowly and distinctly in a moderate tone, and directly into the transmitter, with your lips about an inch from the mouthpiece and it will not be necessary for the operator to repeat the number to you.

“It will also help prevent misunderstanding if numerals 9, 5, 4, and 0, are pronounced very carefully. There is a tendency for the voice to drop when the last digit is being given. If the last digit is emphasized by rising inflection misunderstanding will be avoided.”

Between the mid-1940s and the mid-1950s, telephone use in Manistee County nearly doubled as 1946 numbers show approximately 2,450 users compared to over 4,500 by 1956. In early 1956, plans for a modern building to be constructed on Oak Street directly behind the 1906 building were announced. Four months after commencing construction on the new building, a fire in January 1957 broke out in the freshly formed structure, delaying the project by a number of weeks.

By August 1957, it was announced that the new structure was at last complete. At the same time it was also revealed that new equipment would be changing the main system from the operator/switchboard method to a new, manual dialing system which would be installed in the new building and be ready by the spring of 1958.

Next week, we will take a look at the installation of the new dial exchange and the inaugural dial that heralded another age of telephone usage in Manistee.

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