The Dream and the Reality: The People’s Progressive Telephone Company

by Helen B. Gardner, a freelance writer living in Gunlock, Utah. Dr. Bowler, her brother, is a professor at Southern Utah University.

1912-1917

The Dream and the Reality: The People’s Progressive Telephone CompanyThe year was 1912. At his ranch home in Central, Utah, sat listening to an itinerant dry goods drummer tell the story of how many companies were being formed in northern Utah. Lines like silver ribbons, the man told Holt, were being strung across the state to connect homes and businesses. The telephone was a most wondrous invention.

Telephones were not unheard of in this remote and isolated high desert area of southwestern Utah, but Holt and his rancher friends were a day’s ride on horseback or wagon to reach one. St. George, Utah, 30 miles to the south, was the home of the Southern Utah Telephone Company. It boasted a one-line connection to Salt Lake City, 400 miles to the north. The road linking Central to St. George was at that time nothing more than two ruts worn into sagebrush-covered flats and winding around barren hillsides covered with large lava rocks.

A vision began forming in Holt’s mind of placing telephones in every home in that isolated part of southwestern Utah. A dynamic and energetic man, he was the ideal person for the drummer to converse with about the telephone. Holt was known for his progressive ways and his willingness to try something new; moreover, he was a man of action. He decided the country needed telephone service. Here was the means to bind together the hard-to-reach ranches and small hamlets existing on the lip of the harsh Great Basin.

The first man Holt contacted was , who lived in Gunlock. This village, 12 miles southwest of Central, sat in a canyon on the banks of the small, winding, lazy Santa Clara River. Bowler was postmaster of the town, justice of the peace, and choir director and superintendent of the Sunday School for his beloved Mormon Church. A well-respected man, educated and erudite, he had left a life in England vastly different from the one he found in southwestern Utah where his church bade him settle. Invariably the teacher, Bowler felt his musical ability and love of books warring constantly with the coarse work of grubbing and clearing sagebrush flats for farm land to raise food to feed both his family and his animals. Isolation weighed heavily upon this man of letters.

Bowler listened with fascination as Holt repeated the drummer’s stories. Together they began to plan, both caught up in the dream of binding this wild land with telephone lines. Holt proposed that they contact men they trusted and form a telephone company. The time for such a venture was now, Holt told his friend. Bowler offered his life savings of $600 as part of the start-up capital for the company. He also agreed to become an officer, acting as secretary-treasurer because of his knowledge of finance and his fine penmanship.

Holt and Bowler asked four other men – relatives or neighbors – to join in forming the company. One man, John H. Bowler, was a son of James Samuel Page Bowler and owned a ranch five miles north of Gunlock on Magotsu Creek. He was also an astute businessman, having been taught well by his father.

In addition, Holt approached his neighbor and another trusted friend Marcellus E. Bracken. “Cell” was the healer in the area. He set broken bones, poulticed bruises and contusions, and knew just the right amount of laudanum to give. His wife had died giving birth to their youngest son, and Cell was raising nine children alone. Noted for his steadfastness and dependability, he was a homebody.

Another participant, A. H, “Bert” Truman, was a son-in-law of James Bowler and a brother-in-law of John H. Bowler. Truman’s holdings were three miles north of John Bowler on Magotsu Creek. A gregarious man who loved nothing better than a good laugh and a social evening. Truman also held the undisputed title of the “best damn cowboy and cattleman in the country.” The prospect of being able to communicate with his relatives and neighbors by telephone was exciting to him.

Robert Chadburn, a Scotsman, was the next man enlisted by the group. He was a gardener and orchardist and a brother-in-law of Henry Holt. He lived downriver from Central on a homestead bordering the Santa Clara River. Truman’s farm reflected his skill as a farmer, his thrifty nature, and the careful stewardship of his holdings. A quiet man, he felt the isolation, but not as much as his wife, Dinah. Her nature craved the company of others. For her sake, he was willing to leave his beloved farm to build the telephone company. He would commit the time needed to complete this brave new venture.

All these men were respected in the vast area of farms, small towns, and ranches that dotted this rough and forbidding part of Utah. They provided a perfect mix of the traits needed to build a communications network through the hills, valleys, desert, and mountains.

On June 25, 1912, the group gathered at the home of Henry. His daughter Blanche, who was then seven years old, recalled later that

“the electricity in the air at the time was contagious. The men all sat round the kitchen table. There was a lot of planning and jubilation in the room. At one point, ‘Uncle Bert’ [Truman] jumped up and danced a jig around the table. We [children] could hardly wait for everything to get started.”

Holt proposed that the company begin its lines at Enterprise, about 15 miles north of Central. He suggested that the line branch east to Pine Valley and Newcastle residents and then south to Central, connecting all the ranches in between. From there the telephone line would stretch over the hills to Gunlock, Veyo, and ranches in that area. The lines of the fledgling company would skirt St. George since Southern Utah Telephone Company, owned by E. H. Snow, was already operating there. The switchboard connecting the miles of new lines would be placed in Holt’s home in Central. It was an ambitious plan.

Work began soon after the initial meeting. On July 12, 1912, Holt contacted Western Electric Company in Salt Lake City and ordered the following material: 22 miles of telephone wire; 1,250 feet of iron wire; 500 feet of inside wire; 6 protectors; insulator staples; 675 painted oak brackets; 675 glass insulators; 6 telephone sets; 6 ground rods; and 18 batteries. The cost of the order was $132.28.

Although the men involved all had stock and ranches to maintain, they nevertheless dropped everything and began digging post holes and stringing telephone lines to tie together the remote hamlets and ranches of southwestern Utah. Progress would come to this part of the country, they told one another, and they would be the catalyst for this wonderful new way of communications.

Each man had invested all the cash he had. As news of the project spread, people began bringing money to the men. Initial capital investment totaled $1,330. Stock was offered at $1 per share. There were 75 stockholders at the end of the first year, and amounts invested ranged from $7 to $600. More often than not, these amounts represented the entire life savings of these struggling settlers.

On April 13, 1913, one day before the last mile of the first 52 miles of telephone lines was finished, corporation papers were filed with the state of Utah.
The switchboard connecting towns was installed in Holt’s parlor, which meant jobs for his daughters Blanche, LaVerne, Vilate, and Ruby. Henry formally hired them at $1 per month, divided among the four sisters, and charged them to take constant care of the calls coming in and cautioning them to always make the proper connections. At age seven, Blanche was too short to reach the connecting jacks. She stood on a chair to plug in the connection that joined two towns together.

The first annual stockholders’ meeting on May 24, 1913, opened to a full house at Holt’s home in Central. Financial and statistical reports were read and approved. Subscribers present voiced opinions on the management of the telephone company. Some discussion of costs and rates was held, and a proposal to obtain the Mesquite/Bunkerville Telephone Company was introduced. Officers for the coming year were elected.

The switchboard was installed in Henry Holt’s parlor, which meant jobs for his daughters Blanch, LaVerne, Vilate and Ruby. Henry formally hired them at $1 per month.

Ranchers and townspeople alike felt grateful for this new communications link. Prior to the formation of PPTC, the nearest telephone to the outside world was in St. George. The day that PPTC’s telephone service officially began, it was rumored that Dinah Chadburn spent the entire day making calls. Blanche remembered that Aunt Dine would ring central and asked to be connected first to one person and then another. She would say, ‘Just connect me with anyone. I just want to talk.'”

The logistics of keeping the new telephone lines operational were awesome. Ultimately 260 miles of lines had to be maintained, and much of it could only be reached on horseback. The country bordering the Utah/Nevada line was remote and very rough. The PPTC line traversed the mountains and desert west of Gunlock and crossed into Nevada near the plateau/desert created by the Beaver Dam Wash drainage area. After leaving Mesquite and Bunkerville, the line closely followed the banks of the Virgin River, going southwest toward Moapa, Nevada, where the company ended its line. The men responsible for maintaining this line lived with the certainty of having some part of it grounded and shorted out nearly every day. They were seldom disappointed.

In some places lines were simply fastened to branches of the indigenous juniper trees whose stubby, sturdy branches were sometimes barely long enough to provide the length needed to keep the lines clear of static-causing interference. On some stretches, cairns of rocks were erected. A juniper branch or a small cedar post was placed between the rocks to keep the “pole” upright and hold the wire high enough to keep it from grounding. These crude monuments served for years. Makeshift equipment like this did little for the clarity of voice as people tried to communicate. PPTC patrons occasionally grumbled about the problems.

The PPTC did not receive the revenues projected when the company was founded. In addition, maintenance costs were much higher than expected. Subscribers used the lines to capacity, but they did not pay their monthly telephone bills. Mounting costs and dwindling revenues constantly challenged the company. The board decided to install phones at cost in every home wanting a telephone and allow the subscribers the use of it until the $25 installation fee was paid at the rate of $1 per month. Almost everyone within the PPTC coverage area had a telephone installed, and the line load increased accordingly.

The company continued to deal with challenges. At a January 1914 board meeting, Holt reported on a trip he had made to Enterprise at the northern end of the line. Some subscribers were monopolizing the lines, he stated. A motion was made and carried limiting each call to five minutes. Subscribers were to be notified of this new rule. John H. Bowler reported that some subscribers were making unauthorized purchases for telephone repairs. Officials passed a motion stating that anybody who did that would be responsible for those materials. Bowler also proposed that “improper language shall not be allowed on our lines.” The motion carried.

Collections was a constant problem. Money was not coming in. The company had succeeded in providing isolated families with communication, but it was hurting for operating capital. The lack of consistent follow-up by the managers was believed to be one of the main problems in collecting from subscribers. The money crunch had a negative effect on all company operations.

Officers of PPTC began to dream of connecting their company with Southern Utah Telephone Company in St. George. It was a logical expansion. Overtures to connect the two systems met with solid resistance from E. H. Snow, the owner of SUTC. He expressed no concern about residents of remote areas not being able to call the world outside of PPTC telephone lines. St. George was the hub of the area, and when ranchers drove to town they generally spent money. If the two telephone companies connected, some businessmen in St. George believed that there would be fewer visitors to St. George from the outlying districts. Merchants might suffer.

 

On April 28, 1913, after many meetings and persistent requests from PPTC to SUTC and the city of St. George, an ordinance granting a franchise to PPTC to operate within the city was passed. The franchise, granted for a period of 25 years, included some stringent requirements. The company could not connect lines to those already in place, and it was allowed to place telephone poles only on designated streets. The franchise contained specifications for length of poles, type of wood used, number of cross arms, distance between cross arms, and distance between poles. The franchise also stipulated that the city could have the use of one phone for the use of city business with free connections to all PPTC service areas. Despite the effort spent in obtaining the franchise, lack of revenue and the stifling franchise requirements prevented the company from taking much action.

In the meantime, billing and service problems continued. One Pine Valley resident wrote a letter representative of the challenges:

“Received my phone bill,” wrote H. O. Gardner. “And I think my bill was paid up in the first of March. Your Pa will know. I think he had a receipt from the bank for some time in February. Will enclose $3.00. Phone has been out of commission for a long time. Can’t use it at all now, only would like to have it fixed as soon as possible.”

During a board meeting on April 21, 1915, a new slate of officers took control of the company. There is no record of discord within the company, but with this new group of officers the founders of the company, with the exception of Truman, were no longer in positions directing the course the company would follow.

The company continued to struggle to survive. Fierce winter storms brought many lines down. Few men were willing to ride the weary desert miles to make the necessary repairs. Moreover, records indicate that the company had almost no money available for repairs or other expenses.

Milton A. Bowler, at the urging of his father, John H., rode without pay as often as possible through the desolate hills and desert between Gunlock, Utah, and Mesquite, Nevada. In bitter winter weather he and his horse, fighting cold and fatigue, would trace and repair more than 50 miles of telephone lines. He often found that a sagebrush stick was all he had to repair the line with, John though not an officer at that time, still had in the company and felt responsible for its welfare. When he could he rode with his son to help with line repair.

On June 15, 1915, by a decision of the board, the ranches were cut off the main line by a switch. The ranchers now had to repair their own lines if they wanted telephone service.

There were more changes in company officers, but the PPTC was floundering. The drive and vitality of the founders was missing. Collections suffered badly, no salaries were being paid, and money was owed to Western Electric Company for wire.

The company struggled on, with lack of money and collection problems being the main topics of discussion recorded in the minutes. The date of June 17, 1917, was published for the annual stockholders’ meeting. When this conflicted with an LDS Church conference, June 23 was set as the date instead. No one came except the board of directors. Nothing was done. The incumbent board decided to “hold the present board in position until a change can be effected.” Those were the last recorded minutes found for the People’s Progressive Telephone Company.

Founded with such high hopes and altruistic motives, PPTC was a valiant effort that lasted five years. Without the financial support of those subscribers upon whom the founders had depended and built their dreams, the company failed.

The area of southwestern Utah encompassed by the PPTC was home to poverty. Many residents were poor beyond most standards. Their courage and indomitable will kept them alive. With limited capital and manpower, the PPTC found it nearly impossible to keep its miles of lines repaired and operational. The distances were great, the terrain rough, and although those who lived there needed and wanted the telephone, many could not pay the monthly rent.

“People just didn’t pay their bills because they had no money,” explained Blanche Bowler, “And the managers and directors just didn’t have the heart to take out the phones if the bills were not paid.”

Lewis Pulsipher, a stockholder in Mesquite, acquired the Nevada portion of PPTC. Those lines became and still operate as the Rio Virgin Telephone Company. As late as 1945, ranches and homes in and around Gunlock, Veyo, Central, and Enterprise maintained and used PPTC phones and lines. Older residents of the PPTC service area say that Southern Utah Telephone Company took over PPTC lines. There is no written record, but that seems to be the case. Later, these older residents assert, Mountain States Telephone Company (later Mountain Bell, then USWest) acquired former SUTC customers.

As late as 1946, Henry Holt still shed tears when he spoke of the People’s Progressive Telephone Company. So did John. H. Bowler. Their tears refreshed the memory and washed away the dream.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Pioneer Magazine.

Notes

  1. Interview with Henry D. Holt, Fallon, Nevada, 1946; recorded in the journal of his granddaughter Helen B. Gardner.
  2. Interview with Blanche Holt Bowler, Gunlock, Utah, 1988.
  3. Minutes of People’s Progressive Telephone Co., June 15, 1912, to September 6, 1913.
  4. Invoices from Western Electric Co. and American Steel and Wire, PPTC Papers.
  5. Holt Interview.
  6. PPTC Minutes, April 1913.
  7. B.H. Bowler interview.
  8. PPTC Minutes, May 24, 1913.
  9. B.H. Bowler interview.
  10. Interview with Milton A. Bowler, Gunlock, Nevada, 1979.
  11. PPTC Minutes, September 6, 1913.
  12. Holt interview.
  13. PPTC Minutes, December 6, 1913.
  14. Gardner to J.H. Bowler, June 12, 1914, PPTC papers.
  15. PPTC Minutes, April 21, 1915.
  16. M.A. Bowler interview.
  17. Invoice and letter in PPTC Papers.
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