Upper Peninsula gets first telephones
Who introduced the first telephones to Michigan and the Upper Peninsula? At least five claimants have surfaced, and there could be more. Because they can’t all be right, it was important to dig deep in search of the true telephone pioneer.
First, Michigan Bell chose Grand Rapids as the home of Michigan’s first telephone in 1877. Second, Furman University’s history site believes Michigan’s first phone was installed in Detroit that same year. Third, a Mining Journal article selected Ontonagon County as the place, a year earlier than Grand Rapids and Detroit.
As for the U.P. milestone, there are three claimants. One, of course, is the above mentioned Ontonagon County event—after all, if it was Michigan’s first phone, it also was the U.P.’s first. However, another Mining Journal article conferred the honor on James R. Dee of Houghton who, they said, “fathered the telephone in the Upper Peninsula.” In still another story, the paper reversed itself and bestowed the honor on J.W. Spear of Marquette who also, it seemed, introduced the telephone to the U.P.
First, according to the Michigan Bell Web site, the honor of owning Michigan’s first phone “goes to a Grand Rapids plaster company whose president was a personal friend of Alexander Graham Bell, who sent him a pair of prototype telephones.” A public demonstration was held in Grand Rapids on August 4, 1877. Within weeks, lines were installed by the Michigan Telephone and Construction Company to serve new patrons in Detroit: a pharmacy and its lab, and the Detroit Police Department.
Second, Furman University’s claim about Detroit is not documented elsewhere; it appears on a site that contributors can change existing facts and it probably refers to the above-mentioned Detroit lines built after the Grand Rapids experiment.
Next are the U.P. hopefuls, one of which claims both state and Upper Peninsula honors. A July 1917 Mining Journal article, quoting Bell Telephone News, credited well-known Marquette County merchant J.W. Spear, Jr. with introducing the phone to the peninsula with an ingenious setup. With a successful general store in Negaunee and a grocery in Marquette, he thought his apparatus might link them.
The paper said he broke out window panes in his Marquette store and his home and ran a string between the two sites. The string was tied to the small ends of lampshades in each building, attached to buttons sewn on pieces of buckskin. “That was the first telephone of the Upper Peninsula, so far as is known,” claimed the article.
There was no date given for this event, but it may have been 1877. “We talked over the string for three years, tapping on it to call the party at the other end. We used that kind of telephone until 1879, when a man from Detroit built me a private line, as I now had three stores,” Spear said.
“This line was put out of commission by a storm, and for a long time I was unable to find a man who understood telephones. At last I heard [of] James R. Dee of Houghton, so I had him come down. [In 1882], I sold out my private line of seven telephones so that I might have access to all telephones in the community.”
In all fairness, Spear’s invention was not a telephone, but an elaborate precursor of the two-cups-and-a-string devices assembled by countless tinkerers. On the other hand, Spear was the only claimant who actually made his own instrument.
The same Mining Journal that credited Spear previously had anointed James R. Dee (Spear’s telephone expert) as the “father of the telephone in the upper peninsula” in a 1917 write-up. In addition, the Portage Lake Mining Gazette of October 25, 1877 reported that Dee was “experimenting with one of Professor A. Graham Bell’s telephones between his office, Hancock, Franklin and the Douglass House,” and five months later the Gazette announced that Dee had “received his first installment of telephones…” Grand Rapids, Detroit, J.W. Spear and James Dee were too late to make the cut.
And the winner is…
So we turn to the last contender, a merchant from the tiny town of Rockland in Ontonagon County. He was Linus Stannard, who was present when Alexander Graham Bell first demonstrated his marvelous gadget.
Bell’s first success with his “harmonic telegraph” instrument occurred in June 1875 when he was able to hear the transmitted sound of a clock spring. The following March, a week after his twenty-ninth birthday, he reached a major milestone toward a real working telephone. With his assistant Thomas Watson waiting in another room—Bell with a transmitter and Watson with a receiver—Bell uttered the words revered in communications history: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”
Three months later—June 25, 1876—Bell appeared at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition to discuss and demonstrate his invention before a small group of about fifty people, including Brazil’s Emperor Dom Pedro, a smattering of distinguished scientists, and…Linus Stannard of tiny Rockland, Michigan. To show off the newfangled device, Bell recited a Hamlet soliloquy over a wire from a building 100 yards away. According to Robert Bruce’s Bell biography, the startled Brazilian emperor said, “My God, it talks!” (He later ordered 100 phones for his country.)
Ellis Courter, writing in Michigan Geology, a publication of the state Office of Geological Survey, described Stannard’s reaction where he “spotted a man with a tube stuck in each ear talking into a mouth piece which he held in his hand.” He questioned Bell closely: Is this real? How far can it reach? How much does it cost? Stannard imagined using the device in his Rockland store to talk with people in nearby towns. “And with this vision,” wrote Courter, “the idea of the Ontonagon Telephone Company was born.”
The late L.W. Reynolds, Jr., great-grandson of Stannard and long-time president of the Ontonagon firm, always claimed his ancestor received only the third Bell franchise in the United States. Reynolds’ daughter Julie Carroll of Appleton remembers family stories about Stannard meeting Bell at the Centennial and ordering several phones upon his return to Rockland. This squares with the 1955 Mining Journal claim that Michigan’s first telephone was installed “in Ontonagon [County] in 1876 just after the Philadelphia Centennial.”
A plaque at the Rockland History Museum cites March 1877 as the date of Stannard’s hookup, but either way, Linus Stannard appears to have received and used the first telephones in the Upper Peninsula and the state of Michigan. Several other sources confirm the fact.
How it grew
Stannard was a Connecticut native who came to Rockland in 1861 to manage a general store, which he later owned and operated until 1892, when the store and most of the town went up in flames.
A 1930 Detroit News article traced the evolution of that first Michigan phone company inspired by the “strange contraptions” that Stannard got from Bell. “Having depended on his legs and his horse to deliver messages and discuss business, Stannard was convinced the gadget was practical and would ease the life of him and his neighbors,” wrote the News.
The phones were placed in Stannard’s home and store, and in the home of Ben Chynoweth, another merchant. The exact date is unknown, but fell between Stannard’s return from Philadelphia in 1876 and the following March. The News reported that the highlight of the Rockland social season was “to gather in the Stannard and Chynoweth homes in the evening to talk back and forth over telephone.”
It was in September 1877 that Stannard, his son George, Ben Chynoweth, merchant Laurence Collins of Greenland and dock owner James Mercer of Ontonagon drew up articles of association for their telephone business (its state charter came two years later). Collins and Mercer began stringing twenty miles of wire lines on cedar poles from Rockland to Greenland to Ontonagon during the winter of 1877-78. Mercer then strung more wires on and through trees from his home to his docks on the Ontonagon River, so he could alert his Rockland agent when supplies for the mines had arrived in the harbor. Until he had the last laugh, his detractors called the tree-and-wire setup “Mercer’s Folly.”
The Detroit News story recalled how Mercer toyed with people on his phone. He once called his own house, asked for his hired hand Antoine, and began talking to him through the thin air. Antoine dropped the receiver, cried “Mon Dieu, it talks!” and tore out of the house.
Telephones soon became commercial and household necessities. Early phones were leased in pairs to subscribers who had to put up lines and poles to connect with others. Several sources point to 1879 for Marquette County’s first phone usage. In that year, W.W. Bittell strung wires and phones among eighteen subscribers, including Mining Journal offices. One report said J.C. Gerling installed the first county phones on January 27, 1879, at a powder mill between Ishpeming and Negaunee, but another story claimed that the paper’s first hookups came two years later when the office was connected with its Ishpeming correspondent.
Meanwhile, the venerable Ontonagon County Telephone Company keeps rolling. Now owned by Hiawatha Communications, Inc. of Munising, it’s still in business, 133 years after its founding in Rockland.
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to the Ontonagon and Rockland History Museums, Ontonagon County Telephone Company, Peter White Public Library, Bell Telephone Co., Julie Carroll and Bill Chabot
Special thanks to Larry Chabot for compiling this information and for granting us permission to distribute this article.