The history of Brooklyn Mutual Telecommunications Cooperative

The Brooklyn Mutual Telecommunications Cooperative is one of the oldest telephone companies west of the Mississippi River. Just a very short time after Alexander Graham Bell invented the phone, the “telephone” came to Brooklyn.

The first part of this history is taken from the centennial book published in 1950 and printed in the Brooklyn Chronicle October 14, 1954. Much of the romance centered around the progress of the lighting systems of the town and was duplicated in the installation and improvements woven around the first telephones. Legends about the ‘first’ telephones seem to simmer down to two different ones. Some say that John C. Ballantyne, who had a drug store in the building now occupied by the Poweshiek County Savings Bank, strung a telephone line from his business to his home on the corner just south of the southwest corner of Landes Park. In this way, it was possible for him to communicate with Mrs. Ballantyne who was not well.

Others claim that the first telephone line was installed a little before March 21, 1878. According to the issue of the local newspaper of that date, the exciting story goes like this: “THE TELEPHONE AT BROOKLYN. It works like a charm. As stated in a short paragraph last week, Brooklyn has a telephone, a veritable talking machine. Prof. Carpenter, of Indianola, brought down the bells and telephone tubes last Thursday, and till a late hour Thursday night, he, with several others, were engaged in getting the thing in working order. The wires were already stretched, and all that was necessary was to attach the telephones and bells. This was done, and after some little delay in getting them into working order, communication was secured between the office and the residence of Dr. John Conaway, a distance of over a mile. When all was ready, the bell was run and “Hello, Dan” came up to the office in a clearly distinguished voice of Prof. Carpenter. The challenge was answered, and a lively conversation took place for quite a while, to the mutual amusement and pleasure of the parties at both ends of the wire.

Soon the experiments took on a comical phase, and several comical songs were exchanged, and as distinctly understood as though both parties had occupied the same room. The Professor then sang “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow”, etc., which was clearly heard, and his voice easily recognized. The Professor went away on Friday, feeling well satisfied with the results.

On Tuesday night, quite a little party assembled at the Doctor’s office, and more conversation was had, and songs sung, to the perfect satisfaction of all present. The violin and some other instruments were played upon, and the music was transmitted perfectly. The working of the machine is almost perfection, and it stands out as one of the greatest wonders of the age. This first telephone line was about one mile in length. It is said that William Butts, a life-long citizen of Brooklyn, was one of the first to talk on this line."

In 1900, the first telephone switchboard was installed in the Jake Snyder store on the corner of Des Moines and Mill Streets. In the same year, the first rural line was installed to the Dr. I.N. Busby residence north of town.

By 1902, the first rural lines south of town were built by Walter Fraser and Joe Niswander. In 1903, the town had gradually moved southward, and since most of the businesses were located on Jackson and Front Street, the telephone switchboard was moved to the R.J. Breckenridge Store. A short time later, in 1903, the switchboard again was moved. This time it was installed in the upstairs rooms of the William Richmond store in the building south of the Broadway Opera House. In this same year, the first full time operator, Mrs. Joe Watkins, was hired. Mr. Watkins was engaged at the same time to keep the telephone wires in good repair. Margaret Keefe also went into service at this time.

At the time of the move in 1903, the operators still stood up to
operate the board. The telephone patrons, in their desire to make working conditions more comfortable, took up a collection to buy a chair for their operator. This was greatly appreciated. Through the years, there have been loyal, faithful, and pleasant telephone operators. The writer expresses the gratitude of the townspeople to them. Mrs. Hazel Warfel has had the longest term as operator, having served the town faithfully for thirty-one years.

In 1917, there were 350 town subscribers and 343 in the rural districts. At present, there are approximately 1400 subscribers, town and country, “Until 1917, the subscribers were responsible for the purchase of their own lines and instruments. They were also responsible for installing their own telephones. However, on September 16, 1917, subscribers met and organized the Brooklyn Mutual Telephone Company with the conditions that it be a non-profit organization. Money was to be collected to buy telephones, and the rates charged were to help pay for the upkeep of the lines and to keep the instruments in good
working order. The then existing telephone lines and company valued
at $25.00. If the instrument was not worth being appraised at $25.00,
the customer was asked to sign up for the new telephone, he was charged a higher rate for telephone service.”

“In 1937 the telephone company started the plan of rebuilding the entire pole and wire system. Ten years later a common battery switchboard was installed, but only north Brooklyn telephones were transferred to the common battery. At the time of organization of the Brooklyn Mutual Telephone Company, the following men were the first Board of Directors: William Frizzell, President; J.E. Talbott, Secretary; N.N. Spillett has been the manager for 19 years.” N.N. Spillett continued as Manager until 1954.

About 1,500 people attended an open house when they dedicated
the new business and switchroom on October 15, 1954. The open house was featured on WMT-TV during the noon news. Some of the employees working in the 1950’s and 1960’s were operators Mrs. Hazel Warfel, Mrs. John Lievens, Grace Miller, Josephine Hanson, Mrs. Fred Iezek, Mrs. Ross Hall, and Mrs. Raymond Byerly. Office help included Faith Hess, Pat Carlson, and Marcella Saylor. Fred Fowler started in 1949, and worked until 1966. Others included Jim Archibald, Raymond Stoker, Charles Hansen (1966 to 1996), William McCulla, Vice President; Clinton Ryan, Secretary; Harvey Jones, George L. Paul, and Rex Bramer.

The Telephone Company has 102.37 miles of wire and cable, with a valuation of $33,690. Mr. Bert Peterson was the Manager in the 1960’s and was succeeded by Cliff Jeffery in 1969. The 1991 Manager,
William H. Kelley was previously employed by the Hicks and Ragland Engineering Company from Lubbock, Texas, where he had worked on the design of many telephone companies. Neva Zigler had worked in
the office from 1971 to 1993.

In 1972, a severe ice storm hit the Brooklyn area and the telephone company lost many piles. The company had ordered a lot of cable for replacing the open wire and multi-party lines and the crews fastened this new cable on top of the ground to the “downed” open wire leads, and by using the proper coil on it, service was restored. The crews returned later and placed the cable underground. When the open wire was replaced to almost 100% buried party line, the farmers were given the opportunity to keep the wire and poles that were on their property, as they were no longer needed by the company. Each farmer was asked to sign an agreement to take down the wires and roll it up, remove the poles, and in general, leave the ground in good shape.

In 1973, mobile telephone service was started by the Brooklyn Mutual Telephone Company. There were various other additions and improvements throughout the 1970’s and the early 1980’s, the company installed a new digital system. A new addition to the office and equipment building coincided with the new equipment. 

On the January 27, 1977 annual meeting, Mr. Dean Chapman, a prominent speaker and Methodist minister, was invited to speak. His subject was “Travel With the Wind”. It was a very appropriate subject, as one to the worst blizzards in memory, accompanied by 50 mile per hour winds, whipped through Central Iowa. Mr. Chapman had to stay overnight with Mr. And Mrs. Kelley before he could return to Des Moines later the next day. In spite of the storm, a large crowd turned out for the annual meeting. Silver dollars were given to each attendee. Officers and Directors elected were Norm DeGeeter, President; Jerry Dale, Vice President; Max Young, Secretary; Rollin Harder, Treasurer; Ron Everist and August Van Renterghem.

The Brooklyn Mutual Telephone Company Board of Directors has voted to support a Citizens Scholarship program that will assist local high school students. This is just another way for the company to show their appreciation to the Brooklyn area. The company has strived to bring the ‘state of the art’ telephone service to the Brooklyn area and is proud of its past and is looking forward to the future. This short history of the telephone business does not include all of the names of the many fine employees, past and present, and past members of the Board of Directors, but hopefully readers will have some nostalgia about how telephones come to Brooklyn and how the Brooklyn Mutual Telephone Company looks to the future.

129 Jackson St  |  PO Box 513  |  Brooklyn, IA 52211-0513

P: 641.522.9211  |  F:  641.522.5001

Trouble After Hours:  877.610.0330

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