Clare County Review & Marion Press Columns

Postcard from the Pines: Number Please

Someone recently posted photos of two, recently discovered, Marion telephone books, from the spring of 1961. This brought quite a bit of discussion, much of it involving remembered numbers, and the immortal party line. Almost everyone shared a party line, particularly rural subscribers.
Almost non-existent today, and certainly an old thing by today’s standards, the phone book was a well used staple in every home. In the reality of mid-century Marion, the phone book was a popular and well used book in many households. It carried the latest up to date local information there was, from the number you wanted to call, to said person’s address, if you were seeking to send mail. In fact, it listed the name and address of each and every telephone in the RIverside 3 exchange, and beyond. Phone books were a GPS in hard-copy form, updated each spring. For every small town across America, the coming of the telephone meant progress for all.
The first telephone company became a reality for Marion, Michigan in 1899. In fact by 1910 there were two phone companies competing in town, and several rural telephone co-ops. Through buyouts and mergers, Marion and the surrounding townships were increasingly able to talk with one another and by 1917 Michigan Bell Telephone (now known as AT&T) came to town. Offices were in a building on the site of the present Marion Twp Hall. This location, and the next, on the second floor of the Marion State Bank at the opposite corner, may be easily located in old photographs by following the path of heavily laden telephone poles along Main Street.
Marion’s communication system saw various updates to the switchboard and operator system through the years. Easier access to a greater area was improved in 1949 when the first toll free service was installed. Early in 1956 Ma Bell announced a major update to the system and by the end of that year, folks in Marion could easily make a local call to McBain. Ma Bell dropped an impressive $300,000 to link Marion, McBain and Manton to the Cadillac area that summer.
The RIverside or RI 3 exchange, the 743 prefix we still know today, premiered on December 1, 1956, and along with it the dial-it-yourself system. The local switchboard, which had been “manned” by an operator here since 1899, was shut down and the new system simultaneously switched to ‘automatic’. Automation had come to Marion.
On that date the long used ‘crank’ telephone on the wall became obsolete, an instant antique. The classic black desk phone, with a numbered rotary dial, became the norm. Innovation had come right into our houses. It is interesting to note that there was no charge for this upgrade, and should customers wish an extension phone installed in a bedroom or kitchen at this time, the usual $2.25 service fee would be waived. Colored phones would however cost more.
Most baby boomers are just old enough to remember these changes to the telephone system in mid century Marion. The party line and crank telephones were on the way out, but so was our friend, the local operator.
From 1927, when she was hired as manager, until the dial system went into effect in late 1956, Doris Mobley (Mrs. Charlie) was ‘the Phone Company’ to folks in Marion. With offices and switchboard in comfortable rooms above the Marion Bank, Mrs. Mobley and her small staff took care of Marion’s telephone business for just shy of 30 years. They always knew where the doctor could be reached or the ambulance, the undertaker or your Aunt Fanny. The telephone office initiated the fire alarm. They knew how to direct your call if you only gave them a name.
Mrs. Mobley was given a party honoring her for her years of service to Marion patrons and Michigan Bell. Then the Mobley’s retired to their home on Pickard Street and continued to enjoy life in Marion.
Today’s ‘telephone office’ is a nondescript, windowless building on First Street, and/or one of the nearby cell phone towers. The ‘staff’ is electronic and no operator has ever been necessary there.
We did not have a clue about the future of telecommunications on that December day in 1956. We dialed our own numbers and thought it could never get better than this.

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