In 1970 after graduating from high school, I went to work for the Peninsula Telephone Company, a job that consisted of riding around in the telephone truck with owner Jack Solomonson, listening to his stories of the people and the peninsula he loved.
Jack was quite a character. For decades, he interacted with every family on the Old Mission Peninsula. His sense of humor and gift for gab was enjoyed by all. He passed away some years ago, and I miss him to this day.
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Jack and his family served the Old Mission Peninsula’s communication needs faithfully and proficiently for more than 60 years, from 1949 to 2010.
Read on for my interview with Jack’s wife Vi and their daughter Mary Jo Lance, who gave us a glimpse into what it was like operating The Peninsula Telephone Company all those years.
Tim: How, when and where did you meet Jack?
Vi: I was working at Michigan Bell in Traverse City. He was installing equipment there for Western Electric. It’s strange that I never knew him in high school or anything, but that is where we met – at my office.
Tim: Were you in the same class in school?
Vi: No, I went to St. Francis and graduated in 1946, and he went to [Traverse City] Central and graduated in 1944.
Tim: Were you both born and raised here?
Vi: No, Jack was born in Holland, Michigan. His folks lived there, and Harry, his father, worked in a bakery. They kept moving towards Traverse City and once here, he had ovens in his house and made pies for the Traverse City restaurants.
Tim: How did the phone company come about? Were you married by then?
Vi: After we married, we moved to Chicago. Jack was going to school there, and he and Burley Manigold were good friends. When I got pregnant, I wanted to come home, so Burley told him they needed a manager for the telephone company on the peninsula. So, that is how we ended up there.
Tim: Why was a manager needed? Who was running the phone company at that time?
Vi: His name was Jack Ortman. He and his wife and family lived in the house that we moved into [just north of Mapleton], but he was not happy there and was hired by a telephone equipment company.
Tim: And so you moved into their house?
Vi: Yes, it had a big sign above the porch that said “Peninsula Telephone Company” and another sign embedded into a tree in the front yard that said “Western Union.”
Tim: And that was Western Union why?
Vi: Way back in the day, that was the stagecoach stop, so when you wanted to send a telegram, you went to the telephone company.
Tim: Because that was the only place with a wire?
Tim: I understand that the switchboard was in your living room. What was that like?
Vi: Hectic! I believe that’s why the Ortmans moved.
Tim: What would a day be like for you with a switchboard in your living room?
Vi: Mrs. Wood – Lillian – was our telephone operator. She had been working for the Ortmans and continued on with us. She was there from eight to five. [Lillian was married to Stanley Wood, who drove a snowplow on the Old Mission Peninsula and was mentioned in our interview with Marty Reay here.]
Tim: In your living room, running the switchboard.
Vi: Yeah, It was a bit much, so we eventually moved the switchboard from the living room into a little adjoining office.
Tim: Was the switchboard on 24 hours a day? Would you have to get up at 3 a.m. sometimes?
Vi: No, unless there was an emergency, people were not supposed to call after 10 o’clock at night.
Tim: How did you know somebody was calling? Was there a ring or a bell?
Vi: There was a light that came on above the line that was calling. At night, you would turn on the alarm, and it would ring and wake you up.
Tim: Were people pretty good about not calling late at night?
Tim: So if the phone rang in the middle of the night, I guess things haven’t changed much, it was probably bad news.
Vi: Yes, it was an emergency. And, of course, at that time with all the volunteer firemen, it was my job to call each of the lines they were on and tell them where the fire or the ambulance call was.
Tim: So you moved into the phone company and became part of the community. What was it like moving into Mapleton? What was Mapleton like back then?
Vi: The people were very friendly. Jack’s brother came and helped him paint and clean up the house. The first night we were there, Jack’s mother and dad brought a pie to have dinner with us and help us get settled in.
Tim: Just down the road was the Mapleton Garage [now the Bad Dog Deli and Peninsula Grill], and at that time, they were selling new Studebaker cars and Ferguson tractors. Who was operating the garage at that time?
Vi: The Rasmussens and Bob Seaberg.
Tim: And of course, there was Watson’s store across the road. You were probably friends with Claude and Gwennie who ran the store. [Read about the time we met Gwen’s niece here.]
Vi: Oh yeah, they were very nice people. I would go down and work at the store for them when they had to go to town to get supplies. And when Dave Kroupa took over the garage across the road, I did his books for him.
Mary Jo: Did you ever see the stage coach that was in the barn behind the store?
Tim: I remember being in there once with Jack and seeing it sitting in there. It was a real live stage coach. It was black, and it was huge! Then somewhere along the way, it disappeared. The rumor was it was stolen, but I don’t know what happened to it.
Vi: I don’t know what ever happened to it either. It was there and then it was gone. It was always a mystery to me. Where did it come from, where did it go?
Tim: Hopefully someone who reads this interview will be able to solve the mystery. [If you know anything about the stagecoach, leave a comment below.]
Mary Jo: That would be great.
Tim: What was your most memorable telephone company memory? What stands out in your mind?
Vi: I think Jack probably would have said that when Bob McNamara [Secretary of Defense for the United States] and his family were summer residents [on the Old Mission Peninsula], and he became friends with Mr. McNamara.
Tim: I remember riding down, I believe, Whispering Trail with Jack and we passed a house with a tennis court. He said, “One day I pulled in there to set up an answering machine and saw President Jack Kennedy playing tennis right there.” That was before there were answering machines. He had to hook up a one-of-a-kind answering machine so they could stay in touch with whomever.
Vi: For me, it was dealing with all the paperwork and stuff. I did all the billing and collecting, and my mother helped write up the bills. Later, we had this big machine that had everybody’s name, address and phone number on it. I remember slamming it down what seemed like hundreds of times to print their bills on carbon paper every month.
Tim: You were your own collection agency, too?
Vi: Oh, yeah.
Tim: When I got out of high school, my first job was working with Jack. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. It was endless stories. He knew everything and everybody for years. Everywhere he went, every corner, every tree, there was a story. It was just fascinating. I enjoyed it immensely. What a character.
Vi: He really enjoyed his friends and making new friends. And he had his cookie run.
Tim: And the cookie run was…?
Vi: All the ladies on the Peninsula made cookies, and he knew which day each one was making cookies, so he would go visit.
Tim: Everyone loved him. Everyone had a smile on their face when they saw him coming.
Vi: One time a lady couldn’t decide what color phone she wanted, so Jack took parts from different phones and gave her a red, white and blue phone. He said, “Well, here you go,” and gave it to her.
Tim: Did she like it?
Vi: I don’t know, but she bragged about it for years. She had the only one.
Tim: When did you switch from the old party line system?
Vi: We went dial in 1953, which meant no more switchboard. It was very nice. Later on we rebuilt the whole plant and went to the 223 system we have today.
Tim: Before and through the fifties it was the “castle” system.
Vi: Yes, it was castle first. In the beginning, when you had the magneto phones with the crank, you were on a party line. If your number was 7F5, if you heard five rings, that was somebody calling you. After we went dial, you got your own ring, even if you were on a party line. You didn’t get anybody else’s. Up to the mid-1960s, it was long distance to call south of Gray Road. I believe it was ten cents a minute.
One of his favorite stories was going to Joe and Sharon Steffes’ house. He was working under their house, and all of a sudden their German Shepherd got him by the back of the neck. Nobody was down there but him. Sharon was there, but in the house and she didn’t realize what was going on. He laid there with that dog on his neck for a long time. She finally discovered what was going on and got the dog off him. It was a traumatic situation.
Mary Jo: For the rest of his life, whenever he got cold, he said he could feel where that dog had a hold of his neck.
Tim: So, it could be dangerous at times running the phone company out here. Was it also interesting and fun, or was it just a big pain?
Vi: It was a challenge sometimes, because I had been an operator at Michigan Bell and coming to Mapleton to that switchboard was kind of backwards. I worked at a switchboard at Michigan Bell, but it was much newer and different than the one at Mapleton.
Tim: So here you are a new mother, in a new job, with an old switchboard, a new neighborhood, new friends and residing in the middle of an 18-mile long, four-mile wide cherry orchard. It must have been quite daunting, to say the least. I know there were several women’s clubs operating in the area. Did any of those help you acclimate to your new surroundings?
Vi: Well, first you had to be invited, which I was, and I joined The Bowers Harbor Junior Women’s Club in 1949. There was a junior and a senior club. It was a very nice group. We always met in the afternoon because we had children, and after the kids got older, the club kind of petered out. Then I was invited to join the Old Mission Women’s Club.
Tim: There were several women’s clubs operating on the peninsula at that time – Archie, Bowers Harbor, Old Mission and Maple Grove, to name a few. Jane recalls her mother getting out the good dishes when it was her turn to host the Old Mission Women’s Club meeting. It was a big deal.
Vi: Oh, yes.
Tim: Was the Grange still going when you moved to the Peninsula?
Vi: Yes, I remember going to the Grange for a program. It was held upstairs in the American Legion Hall in Old Mission.
Tim: Speaking of the Legion Hall, tell us a little bit about what Jack did in the war. He was some kind of communications officer, wasn’t he?
Vi: He was a teletype operator stationed in the Philippines.
Tim: I remember hearing the story that when they were coming ashore, the water was too shallow for the landing craft to get to the beach, so they had to disembark into the water to wade ashore. Jack jumped in and discovered the water was way over his head. Having all his communication gear on his back, he went straight to the bottom. To keep from drowning, he had to discard all his gear. When he came ashore, he became an infantryman for a few days until his equipment was replaced.
Vi: I remember he told about when he was in communications in the Philippines and was on duty when the Indianapolis went down, and they kept getting her SOS but could not answer. They were under orders not to communicate because the Indianapolis was involved in a covert operation. That was tough for him, and he talked about it all his life.
[Note: In July 1945, a Japanese torpedo hit the USS Indianapolis and it sank in just 12 minutes. After spending four days in shark infested waters, only 317 of the 1,196 men survived. Their ordeal is considered the worst shark attack in history. Read more here.]
Tim: It seemed that Jack, my father and all their friends came back haunted by events from that war. I wanted to ask about your house. Was it attached to Pete Lardie’s store?
Vi: Yes, the store was on the north side of the house.
Tim: So, the house started out as Pete Lardie’s store, and eventually it became the Peninsula Telephone Company…?
Vi: Yes, that’s right.
[The photo below, circa 1888, pictures the home and store of Alex and Belle Lardie in Mapleton, Michigan. Connected to the house on the north side was a grocery store, post office and dance floor on the second floor. Later, the Peninsula Telephone Company office and switchboard were located in the home. Pictured, left to right: Roy Lardie, Alex Lardie, Anna Lardie Swaney, Christina Chandler Lardie (wife of Edward Lardie), Celia Besaw, Joe Besaw (baby), Josephine Besaw, George Lardie I, Essie Lardie, Mrs. George Lardie II, Belle Lardie and Edward Lardie. This photo is available to purchase in various formats and sizes as a download, print, wall art or keepsake at our sister site, OldMissionPhotos.com. Click here to buy this photo.]
Tim: Mary Jo, what was it like growing up in and around the phone company?
Mary Jo: Well, at the time it seemed normal, and having the phone company there, I got to meet all kinds of people. Having a business in your home was different, because you had all these business people who would come in, and Mom would make luncheons for them and they would do their book work on the dining room table. Our house was always open, people coming in and a lot of them making phone calls when the switchboard was there, especially in the summer time and not necessarily before ten o’clock at night.
Vi: I remember my youngest daughter when she was a little girl decided she was going to be the hostess for a luncheon that day. The main course turned out to be marshmallows, cherries and mustard sandwiches. Of course, Jack and the engineers or business people who were there at the time had say “Mmmm…”
[Note from youngest daughter Kris McLain: “It was a bologna, marshmallow, cherries and mustard sandwich on Wonder Bread.”]
Because we were REA borrowers [Rural Electrification Administration], their engineers would come periodically to check and see how things were going, as all the small telephone companies were funded by the REA. The small phone companies helped each other out. We shared equipment, labor and expertise with Kaleva and Kingsley, for instance.
Tim: Were you still involved in the business when the new phone company was built and opened in the mid-1980s over on Peninsula Drive?
Vi: Yes, but not so much as time went on.
Mary Jo: When dad got sick, Mom had to spend more and more time taking care of him, so I was pretty much running the show the last three or four years. We sold the company in 2010, and that was the end of that.
Tim: Well, you should be proud that from crank telephones to dial to push button to computers to digital to fiber optics, you all kept up with the times and provided the Old Mission Peninsula with the best service available. Truly a remarkable legacy, and on behalf of everyone on the Peninsula past and present, thank you for your service, your dedication, and your time. Thank you very much. And thanks for spending time with us today. It’s been such a pleasure.
Vi: You’re welcome.