When Telephones Arrived in the Northwoods

Apr 14, 2021

Telephone company workmen install a telephone pole in 1908.
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society

Modern telecommunication systems provide the means to contact friends, relatives, and businesses whenever and wherever we want, but historically this is a recent development.  New electronic communication systems often had a dramatic impact on communities, and this can be seen in the Northwoods.  

The modern cellphone was invented in 1973 but was not commercially available before the 1980s, and not widespread until new cell tower construction made service generally accessible to rural areas.  Before that, people relied on landlines for means of communication.  The telephone itself was invented in 1876, and the Bell Telephone Company the year after.

The Wisconsin Telephone Company was founded in Milwaukee in 1882, and telephone service quickly extended across the southern part of the state but not to the largely unsettled Northwoods.  Telegraph service, which was the more proven technology, arrived as soon as towns and lumber camps were established, but telephone service had to wait a couple of decades.

In truth, people in rural areas like the Northwoods were often skeptical of new-fangled devices like the telephone.  After all, telegraph messages could be transmitted anywhere in the U.S. and Europe in the nineteenth century, and by the first couple of years of the twentieth century telegraph cable had also been strung across the Pacific Ocean.  Consequently, many Northwoods residents believed the money needed to build the infrastructure necessary for a telephone system could be better spent elsewhere.

In Kenosha, to take one example, Alderman Charles Gonnerman objected so vehemently to the Wisconsin Telephone Company’s expansion that he took an axe and physically chopped down telephone poles on the street where he lived. Violent resistance like Gonnerman’s may often slow progress, but it rarely stops it, and by the turn of the century, most people in Wisconsin, particularly business leaders, were willing to invest in establishing a telephone system.

In Rhinelander, serious discussions of a local telephone exchange began early in 1901.  In April 1901, the Rhinelander Mutual Telephone Company organized under the guidance of A.W. Bryant of Grand Rapids, Wisconsin.  Bryant was a contractor whose business was to lay telephone lines and build exchanges in smaller communities where the Wisconsin Telephone Company had not yet reached.  He organized a group of 108 local business leaders in the hopes of modernizing the communications network in Rhinelander and other Northwoods communities.

Naturally, the establishment of a new company captured the attention of the Wisconsin Telephone Company, which was already in Merrill and moving rapidly northward.  The company wanted to stave off any competition that it could and moved quickly to establish telephone service in the Northwoods.  The company promised a toll line to Merrill “just as fast as material and men could be gotten together.”

The Wisconsin Telephone Company was a much larger organization with access to far more resources than the upstart Rhinelander Mutual Telephone Company, so the bigger company’s services arrived first.  Undaunted, the Rhinelander Mutual Telephone Company plowed ahead, and in November 1901 was able to boast of a local network of phones connecting nationally by means of the Chicago Electric Telephone Company.

It was a marvel of modern technology that no one in 1901 took for granted because even in the remote Northwoods people could for the first time choose between two providers and hear the voices of distant loved ones.