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The Dawn of the Telephone

Ma Bell Comes to Kalamazoo

Victorian Kalamazoo saw the advent and growth of many new technologies, with the development of phone service being one of the most important civic changes. The Bell Telephone Company had been founded in 1877 in New Haven, Connecticut, a mere three years prior to coming to Kalamazoo and setting up the village’s first public exchange, located on the Northwest corner of Main and Burdick streets. Reportedly, the first private usage of a telephone in Kalamazoo was a year after Bell formed in 1878, with the local participants being a William H. McCourtie of Merrill & McCourtie, a flour mill business. And while a few skeptics speculated that the first usage was a choreographed fake, over the coming years, the emergence of phone usage in Kalamazoo grew at a healthy but measured pace. Some of the opposition to the new technology came from those who argued that the poles and lines were a further degradation of their beautiful city streets. By 1896, the Kalamazoo Telephone Company was established to compete with Bell after their patents had expired. In an advertisement that appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette in 1894, the young company promised to provide a “first class service” to its customers:

“The era of cheaper telephone service is rapidly approaching and the indications are that Kalamazoo will not be left out in the opportunity to reap the benefits from such a service. The Kalamazoo Telephone Company with a capital stock of $30,000 will soon petition the city council for a franchise to run their lines and set poles through the streets. Mr. William A. Doyle who is at the head of the company has already secured three year contracts from 250 subscribers. The rate per year is $36 for business houses, and $28 for residences.” (KG, 8 April 1894)

Unfortunately for customers who subscribed to one or the other’s services, one could only speak with someone who was subscribed to the same company as the caller. This nuance led to the neighborly sharing of telephones when confronted with this particular obstacle. After its aggressive price-cutting strategy failed to weaken the mighty Bell, the Kalamazoo Telephone Company dissolved, later reforming under the name of the Kalamazoo Mutual Telephone Company. In 1900, after several dismal years, the local firm sold to the Michigan Telephone Company.

Office of the Bell Telephone Company in Kalamazoo, c.1905

Many of the first to have telephones were local businesses, including the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway Company, The Daily Telegraph, Kalamazoo Paper Company, Lawrence and Chapin Iron Works, The Burdick House, Ranney and Company and Spring Tooth Harrow Company. On New Year’s Day of 1895, the community celebrated the opening of the long distance line to Detroit via Battle Creek and Lansing. Historian Larry Massie stated that phone numbers were assigned by the order of subscribers, meaning that the Kalamazoo Paper Company’s number was “1” for some time thereafter. But with so few subscribers in the early days of telephone service, most operators could easily memorize each number and its corresponding subscriber. By 1929, Kalamazoo was home to 16,588 telephones with an average of 102,000 calls per day.

Kalamazoo Gazette, 10-18-1925

Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, July 2022

Sources
Articles

“Kalamazoo’s First Phone Facilities Erected Clandestinely After Dark”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 24 September 1949

“Phone Calls Total 31,800,000 in ’29”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 January 1930

“Spend $1,400,000 To Give City Dial Phone Service”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 October 1925

Books

Kalamazoo: The Place Behind the Products: An Illustrated History, Larry B. Massie, (H 977.418 M417a)

Local History Room Files

Subject File: Public Utilities

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