By: Bobbie Erdman
Berlin was the center of one of the first systems of telephone lines ever built in Wisconsin. The fascinating new instrument that ‘talked’ was introduced to the community in 1878 by Charles G. Starks, publisher and editor of the Berlin Evening Journal.
His interest in this new art of making the human voice heard beyond shouting distance, and his efforts to make the telephone a part of the community’s life, earned him the title of ‘father of the telephone in Berlin.’
Starks leased the telephones from an agent in Janesville just two years after its invention by Alexander Graham Bell in Boston, Mass. The first telephones connected Starks’ newspaper office (at that time on Pearl St.) with the homes of Charles Davis and A.W. Davenport. According to one account, ‘Many folks would go to the little print office to call up the Davis’ and Davenports just to hear the voices come over the wires.’ The telephone lines, it is said, consisted of stove pipe wire strung on housetops and trees.
During the following year, 1879, Starks became Berlin’s toll agent and took on the ambitious task of building telephone lines within Berlin and to neighboring towns. He strung some 35 miles of long distance circuits to Auroraville, Eureka, Green Lake, Pine River and Poy Sippi. By the end of 1879, there were about 25 local subscribers.
The first telephone exchange was located in the Field Block on Huron St. In 1883 the first operator, John Gorman, was hired. Other early operators included Mrs. A.C. Watts and Miss Jenny Biggert. As the operation grew the young telephone business included Miss Nora Willis, Harry Davis, A. F. Adams, and Rodney Barnes. Starks sold the property and facilities of the Berlin exchange to the newly organized Wisconsin Telephone Company in 1883. He continued to serve as local exchange manager however.
1894 saw the exchange acquired by the Waushara Telephone Company which had be organized by John Moffat of Poy Sippi, D. J. Walbridge, H. C. Truesdell and Starks.
But by 1911 the Wisconsin Telephone Co. again assumed full operation of the local phone system. By this time there were more than 300 telephone subscribers here.
In 1914, the hand-cranked magneto telephone passed into history. Taking its place was the new common battery telephone system with the central office established on the second floor in the Buell block on Huron St. (above the Farmers & Merchant’s Bank).
Operators left their post only one time in the 1950’s when they had to be evacuated because a fire swept through the bank. Operators were very important to communications during the tornado strike on April 3, 1956, we are told.
Berlin’s 2,000th telephone was installed in August of 1961. It took nearly 66 years, from 1878 to 1946, to reach the 1,000 telephone mark but it took only 15 years to add the second 1,000 telephones. By 1963 there were almost 3,000 telephones served by the Berlin exchange.
April 15, 1962 witnessed the introduction of dial telephone service, with equipment installed at the company’s new building at 144 N. Pearl St. This project cost over $1,135,000. In that year the Wisconsin Telephone Co employed 50 people at Berlin with Richard Sherman as local commercial manager; Gordon Tellock, exchange foreman, and Mrs. Mary Parker, chief operator.
As time went on less and less ‘operator-assisted’ calls were needed and the company began consolidating the smaller exchanges into larger offices. The Berlin office was officially closed and transferred to Appleton in March of 1975.
The first subscribers in the late 1800’, early 1900s couldn’t possibly imagine sending copies of papers over the phone lines; or pictures; or knowing who was calling without picking up the phone; or having conversations with multiple people at the same time, from other countries even, or connecting to the world through the Internet or……….on and on and on.
(info taken from articles in the Berlin Journal and the Oshkosh Northwestern)