By Robert Lucke
Export 5-5123. When that exchange came into the Bear Paw Mountains, folks thought they had really hit the big time in telephone service. No matter that some families had four to eight party lines. It didn't matter, either, that there was an automatic line cut off so that people talking more than five minutes were talking to themselves.
That "new" system in the south country, which replaced lines that were in some cases strung on fence posts, was hailed as the single biggest improvement next to electricity itself.
Years before in Havre, improvements were just as dramatic. Imagine an operator saying "number please," instead of ringing a neighbor with a series of dots and dashes over the system. In Havre, people got phone numbers like 151, 191, 22, and 700. Not only that, but there was the friendly operator just sitting in the telephone office on Second Street waiting to connect the telephone user with the rest of the world.
Phone service early on in Havre was slow in getting connected with the outside world. Just being able to call from Havre to Chinook and points east, as well as west, was hailed as a major achievement in communication.
The turn of the century heralded telephone service in Havre according to the book "Grit, Guts and Gusto:"
"The first telephone system in Havre was owned by the old Havre Electric Company. This consisted of an electric distributing system, steam heating system, telephone system and an office building in Havre. These assets were conveyed to the Montana Power Company on June 25, 1914. The steam electric plant and distribution system had been constructed during 1902 and 1903. According to one source, the telephone system was conveyed by The Montana Power Company in November of 1918. Information received from Mountain Bell indicates that this common battery system was purchased by Mountain States Telephone in 1915.
"The original exchange was located in the Montana Power building on Second Street near Fourth Avenue. In 1922, according to a report by O.R. Newman, Montana plant superintendent, the organization at Havre consisted of a manager who received $43 per week and one lineman at $6 per day. The quarters in the one-story brick building rented for $75 per month, plus the cost of electricity, one half the janitor expense, water and heat."
Virtually the same things that were happening in Havre were happening all over the state of Montana, according to US West.
"By 1950, there were more than 100,000 phones in service in Montana. While local dial calls were introduced in a few Montana cities about 1930, many local calls were handled by operators until the late 1950s and '60s. New automated switching offices were installed during that period, allowing customers to dial local calls themselves.
Direct Distance Dialing, introduced in the 1960s, also allowed customers to dial their own long-distance calls for the first time.
In the early 1960s the Touch Tone phone was introduced. Today, few youngsters have ever used a rotary dial telephone. Originally introduced to speed dialing, the Touch Tone phone pad has become a key pad for a wide range of computer functions, ranging from calling card billing, to accessing voice mail, to checking bank account information or ordering products from a catalog.
In 1980, Mountain Bell (now US West) installed its 500,000th telephone in Montana.
Meanwhile, in rural areas of Montana, Rural Electric Association (REA) co-operatives were venturing into the telephone business, too. That is what happened in Hill County when Triangle Telephone, a part of Hill County Electric Co-op, started stringing line both north and south of Havre. It was hailed as a great achievement since the days of those lines strung on fence posts. One rancher at the head waters of Clear Creek complained that he was the only person to repair the Clear Creek fence post line because none of his neighbors lived nearly as far out of town as he did. The phone was most important to him. Imagine when he did not have to keep lines in repair anymore and a new line came right up to his ranch house, connecting him not only with his neighbors but with the whole world.
And what of the future? US West says, "The next decade will see phone, video and Internet services offered by competing companies using a range of technology from phone lines, to wireless connections, to cable TV lines, to satellite links.
"A century ago, our ancestors were fascinated by the new technologies around them, although they didn't know exactly where those technologies would lead. Today, it's much the same, only no one is going to wait 50 years to find out."