The telephone was first displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. One year later, experimental use of the telephone took place in Grand Rapids. Professor Alexander Graham Bell gave the Grand Rapids Plaster Company two instruments to try, and they were installed between the company office and the mill on October 30, 1877.
In 1879, the Lowell Journal reported, “Hatch and Craw’s two flour mills are now connected by an acoustic telephone which works first rate. Telephonic communication between the village and the depot will probably be had in a few days.”
Michigan Bell Telephone Company was established in 1882 and exchanges were set up in the cities. City people could have telephones in their homes and offices. In 1893, when the Bell patent expired, independent companies were allowed to form. The Citizen’s Telephone Company of Grand Rapids extended service to a network of cities, villages and farms including the Lowell area.
Advertisements in 1908 proclaimed, “a short talk over Citizens’ long-distance line will save you time and a long journey!” Another ad in 1913 from the Citizens Telephone Service stated, “an immediate answer by telephone is far superior to correspondence or travel. Don’t travel, don’t write — TALK!”
Telephone connections finally reached farms south of Lowell in 1914. However, a person could call only those people who also had telephones from the same company. In 1923, the two telephone companies merged so that everyone with a telephone could call anyplace in the United States.
The ‘Hello Girls’ became well known to the telephone community. They operated the switchboards necessary to connect phone calls. The office was located on the second floor of 214 West Main. In 1921, the operators were rescued from the smoke of a fire in their building but returned an hour later to resume telephone service. The operators were important to the town. They knew of the emergencies and summoned the doctor, police or firemen. Some of these ‘Hello Girls’ in Lowell included Agnes Perry, Alice Dennie, Clara Kingdom, Lela First, Rose Wingeier, Mayme Nelson, Marion Needham, Shirley Seese, Phyllis Walker, Shirley Richmond, Olive Wood, Donna Miller, Bernadeen Norton, Louise Ryder, Freda Story, Olive Kropf, Myrtle Rulason and Dorothy VandenHout.
In 1930 it was announced that Lowell had 735 phones and those phones were making 3000 calls each day!
Lowell celebrated the change from manual exchanges to automated direct dial in January of 1953. “Lowell Bids Goodbye to ‘Hello Girls’” was the Lowell Ledger headline on January 8, 1953. The operators employed to connect the lines in the old system were transferred to Hastings, Ionia, and Grand Rapids.
It wasn’t long before every home had a telephone, and telephone booths could be found in convenient places to assist those on the go. Today, few residential land lines exist, while most everyone has a phone in their pocket or purse. The telephone booths are almost all gone. Lowell does have one telephone booth, and it can be seen inside the Main Street Inn.
Mattie Rulason, Alice Denny and Agnes Perry in phone office
Louise Ryder, Freda Story, Agnes Perry, Mrs. Whitfield, Olive Kropf and Mattie Rulason, phone operators
Citizens Telephone Company Book