Dial OLive for Rochester History: When the Telephone Came to Town

The Pew Research Center estimates that 97 percent of U.S. adults now own a cell phone, and the number of cell phones in this country will soon surpass 300 million. But in late nineteenth century Rochester, it was easy to count the precise number of telephones in use. There was exactly one.

The Michigan Bell telephone exchange office on Walnut Street, ca. 1940 (Courtesy of Ray Russell Postcard Collection, Rochester Hills Public Library)

Alexander Graham Bell patented his telephone instrument in 1876 and demonstrated it for an amazed public at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in the same year. In 1877, after Bell gave two of his devices to friends in Grand Rapids, Michigan, these instruments became the first telephones in Michigan. The interest generated by the Grand Rapids telephones spread quickly to Detroit; and by the end of 1877 several Detroit police stations and the offices of the Detroit Free Press had installed telephones.

Here in Oakland County, the telephone made its first appearance in 1878. Almon Starr, who owned a brickyard near Crooks and Thirteen Mile Roads, was present at the Philadelphia exhibition of Bell’s telephone. In May 1878, the Birmingham Eccentric reported that Starr’s son had built a telephone line linking his house with his father’s. Royal Oak had the first telephone exchange in the county by the fall of 1879, and an exchange in Pontiac followed soon thereafter.

An 1883 letter published in the Rochester Era offered telephone service to Rochester residents.

In Rochester, druggist John T. Norton was an early advocate of bringing telephone service to the community. He and Rochester Era publisher Will Fox corresponded with an agent for the fledgling Michigan Bell system, and in June 1883, Rochester was invited to join the system at a cost of $800. The price was apparently a bit steep, and it took a few months for the plan to come to fruition. The Rochester Era reported in February 1884 that a deal had been struck at a cost of $500. All subscribers to the telephone system would be given tickets equal in value to the amount of their subscriptions; the tickets, in turn, could be redeemed for telephone calls. The system was roughly analogous to the way we might purchase minutes for cell phones today.

Because of Norton’s efforts and those of Rochester businessman Marcus Carlton, who secured all of the subscriptions to fund the project, a telephone line was built between Rochester and Pontiac. The sole telephone device was located in Norton’s drugstore, and subscribers had to go to the store to make or receive calls.

The primitive arrangement with the single telephone unit did not last long. Enthusiasm for the new form of communication spread quickly as more and more businessmen jumped on the bandwagon and installed their own telephones. In those early days of telephone development, there were many competing companies with overlapping areas of service. In Oakland County, New State Telephone Company was organized in 1897, and Rochester’s village council granted it a franchise in the same year. The franchise ordinance specified that subscribers who signed on for a term of five years could be charged no more than $18 per year for a residential phone, or $24 per year for a business phone. Bert Norton, son of druggist John T. Norton, operated the first Rochester exchange established by New State Telephone Company from 1897 until 1907. In 1911, Michigan Bell Telephone Company absorbed New State as consolidation of the smaller operations got underway.

While more residents and merchants in the village became telephone subscribers in the early twentieth century, phone service to the farms of rural Avon Township advanced at a slower pace. One exception was along Tienken Road, where eight farm families joined together to build an extension from the Rochester exchange called the Ross Farm Line.

By 1937, as Rochester emerged from the Great Depression, Michigan Bell saw a huge increase in demand for telephone service in the community. There were approximately 750 telephone customers in Rochester and Avon in 1937, an increase of almost 100 percent over the previous year. Rochester’s exchange now warranted modernization and expansion, and Michigan Bell announced that it would build a new exchange building on the southeast corner of Third and Walnut Streets. (This building is now the home of the Homer Wing American Legion Post.)

The expansion meant that Rochester would receive direct-dial service for the first time. Since they were accustomed to having all of their calls connected by an operator, Rochester residents had to be instructed in the use of dial devices by the phone crews who installed the new telephones in their homes and businesses.

A bell and phone cord sit on a table for display.
This bell, in the collection of the Rochester Hills Museum, was used to signal the opening of Rochester’s direct-dial exchange (Courtesy of the Archives of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm)

The big day came on January 14, 1938. All local telephone activity ceased for fifteen minutes while the old system was cut over to the new direct-dial equipment. Bert Norton was given the honor of closing the switch to deactivate the old exchange in a moment of ceremony that marked a milestone in the community’s telephone history. An artifact of this event—a wooden bell that was used to signal the switch from manual to direct-dial service in Rochester—has been preserved in the collection of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm.

Population growth soon brought multiple telephone exchanges to the area. Across the nation, the Bell system was implementing a standard seven-digit phone number. This system specified a three-digit exchange prefix followed by a four-digit subscriber identification number, in which prefixes commonly represented the letters on the dial that corresponded to the name of the exchange office. This new system took effect in Rochester in January 1950. In the village and environs, where the exchange prefixes of 651 or 652 were used, the local exchange became known as OLive, since the letters O and L were represented by the numbers 6 and 5 on the dial. In the southern part of Avon Township, the 852 and 853 prefixes were known as ULysses, since the numbers 8 and 5 represented U and L on the dial.

This 1959 newspaper ad for Pixley Funeral Home features the phone number OLive 1-9641. This number is still in use by the funeral home today.

Meanwhile, national demand necessitated the creation of an area code system. Area codes began rolling out in 1951 and Rochester was assigned to the 313 area code that covered all of southeast Michigan, but it was not until 1958 that this new system became important to local telephone subscribers. On April 20, 1958, Rochester telephone customers welcomed the arrival of direct-dial long-distance telephone service. Michigan Bell opened a new, automated switching facility on Tienken Road, and for the first time in history, residents of Rochester could make all of their local and long-distance telephone calls without operator assistance.

Oakland County was assigned to the 810 area code in 1993 and transitioned to the 248 area code in 1997, which the Rochester area still uses today.

Do you remember your childhood telephone number in Rochester? Did you use a party line? Please share your telephone memories in the comments.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. I really enjoy your little articles about local history.
    Can you shed any light about the ultimate destination of the W.P.A. mural in the old Roch. Admin. bldg?
    lYN

    • Deborah J. Larsen says

      I have no information about the fate of the murals, except that RCS has convened a committee of citizen stakeholders to discuss the future use of the building/property.

  2. Ilene Hyder says

    Our number was OL10714. Party lines were interesting. You could keep up with what was going on in your neighborhood. 😁

  3. Robert A. Lytle says

    Debbie: Another great article on our town’s history. Could you confirm something about the early phone numbers. For a time, many of them were two digits. When more phones were installed the phone company simply added 11 to the end of the 2 digits. For example Rochester Elevator became 7711, Dillman & Upton went from 94 to 9411, Norton or Schoolcraft or Fetters Drugstore (whichever it was at the time) went from 85 to 8511, Webber Cleaners (OL1-3011), Blanchard’s Apparel (OL1-4911), Carpenter’s Mens Apparel is Ol1-5811 and George Burr Haardware (OL1-5311.. Then, with time, they each became OL1- and the last 4 digits. I have an old card table that has advertising for many OL-1 and OL-2 businesses with the last 2 digits being 11–Bebout’s Restaurant, (OL-2-1811), Crissman’s Pharmacy (OL2-8311), Shearer’s Beauty Shop (OL2-1911. I’m sure there are other examples of older businesses that did not choose to buy advertising on the card tables.

    • Deborah J. Larsen says

      Hi Bob,
      Glad you enjoyed the story. My guess would be that “11” was added to the phone numbers when the nationwide Bell system started to mandate the four-digit subscriber number pattern. Rather than issue completely new numbers or generate random digits to add to the existing two-digit numbers, it would have been easier just to tell the public to add the “11” to the end of the number they already had memorized.

Leave a Reply to Lyn Cancel reply

*