Dial 1 for history
When the late Harry Lee Sr. purchased LaHarpe Telephone Co. in the summer of 1950, wife Violet was less than thrilled.
Violet had grown up in St. Louis and moved to Kansas City after World War II.
Small town life held little allure for the cosmopolitan lady. She so opposed the thought of rural life that she joked the grooves in the road to LaHarpe were caused by her dragging her fingernails on the journey there.
But Violet soon learned to love her new home, their son, Harry Lee Jr., told an Iola Public Library audience Tuesday, to the point that any fingernail-imprinted blacktop would only have resulted if they tried to take her back to the city.
Mixing bits of telephone trivia with anecdotes about his company’s roots, Lee shared the history of LaHarpe Telephone, and how telephone service helped shape rural America.
Harry Lee Jr. shows a 1947 LaHarpe telephone directory at an Iola Public Library program Tuesday. REGISTER/RICHARD LUKEN
LAHARPE’S halcyon days were likely in the early years of the 20th century, Lee speculated. Buoyed by the large number of industrial foundries in Allen County, LaHarpe’s population was close to what Iola’s is now, complete with its own business district, vibrant neighborhoods, and even its own opera house.
As such, the community needed its own telephone service. LaHarpe was hardly unique in that aspect. Iola, Humboldt, Moran, Elsmore and other towns in southeast Kansas had their own services as well.
Problem was, each of those communities was a proverbial island unto itself, Lee explained. “If you lived in Moran, you couldn’t call somebody in LaHarpe.”
So the companies began forming their own communications pacts, stringing telephone lines from town to town (Bell Telephone was a key factor in the networking process.) Soon farmers joined the mix, extending lines to their respective homes, usually in rudimentary fashion, on such things as hedge posts instead of telephone poles.
The service continued to expand, although “a couple of world wars came into play,” which essentially stopped the progression in its tracks because the steel normally used for telephone lines rather was earmarked for military use.
Old lines, meanwhile began to degrade and fall apart.
In search of a solution, the telephone industry found itself working in league with electric service providers. The Rural Electrification Act of 1934 pledged to provide power to all reaches of the United States. One of REA’s provisions was to ensure folks in rural America could also have telephone service.
THEREIN stood another problem. Both the electric and telephonic infrastructure relied upon the same type of ground-return path systems to complete their respective grids. The process involved extending a single line to send either the electricity (or telephone) signal, then literally using the earth to act as a return path, thus negating the need for a second, neutral line.
But electric lines and telephone lines were not really compatible, Lee continued. The resulting electrical interference made for an abundance of background noise when making a call.
As technology progressed, phone companies soon replaced the ground return lines with metallic wire systems, which were durable, but had other drawbacks.
Connecting several rural customers meant putting those folks on shared party lines.
“And people didn’t really want to be a part of 12-party lines, so we started putting up aerial cables for one-party service.
Harry Lee Jr. visits with Iola Public Library patrons during a presentation about the history of LaHarpe Telephone. Included with his presentation were photos of independent telephone company owners, the first from the early days of the 20th century; the second from 1999.
LEE, to this day, is unsure why his father decided to buy into a telephone company. He suspects it’s because Lee Sr. worked for a switchboard supply company in Kansas City.
Two episodes convinced the family to find a way out of Kansas City.
The couple’s older son was killed shortly before the flood of 1951 destroyed their home.
Lee Sr. saw two telephone companies up for sale, one in Louisburg — “which probably was too close to Kansas City for my father” — and the other in LaHarpe.
The Lees moved to LaHarpe within a few weeks of the flood destroying their home.
By then, Harry Jr. was just entering his teenage years, and LaHarpe Telephone Co. was a family business.
“You got paid by getting fed,” he joked. “It worked out nicely.”
Eventually, the younger Lee soon discovered another drawback to having aerial telephone lines.
The lines, Lee explained, made for ideal perches on which doves could sit.
So when dove season rolled around each fall, hunters didn’t need to look hard to find a bird or three. The inevitable buckshot blasts would nick the wire with pellets.
“It wasn’t so bad, generally, until it rained,” Lee said. “The water would short out the lines.”
Repairs meant inspecting each line, usually by hand, to feel for the damages.
“You couldn’t use gloves to feel along the cable,” he said. “And it was usually cold. It was not a happy place to be.”
It wasn’t long after that LaHarpe Telephone soon transitioned to burying telephone lines, a process that took the better part of 20 years and 90-plus miles of cable.
THINGS were going well for LaHarpe Telephone, even in the face of newer technology.
“In the late ’70s, a fellow came into the office who had been to Dallas,” Lee said. “It was there he had heard of this new service called ‘cellular telephone,’ and asked when we were going to get it. In my infinite wisdom, I said ‘probably not in my lifetime.’”
Fast forward a few years, and the writing was on the wall. Folks were hungry for mobile telephone service.
Lee recounted meeting with other independent telephone operators across the state with a mission. To provide cell phone service to rural parts of the state. “The big boys already had places like Wichita and Kansas City covered,” he said.
But in much the same manner of their predecessors 80 years earlier, the fledgling network of 27 independent local exchange carriers — LaHarpe Telephone among them — joined forces to create Kansas Cellular.
It was easier said than done.
“It took a sizable investment that we didn’t have,” he said.
Lee’s mother, Violet, wanted nothing to do with it, Lee recalled. (Harry Sr. had died in 1980.)
Rather than be dissuaded, Lee created a subsidiary of LaHarpe Telephone — LaHarpe Communications — and took what essentially was his life savings to pour into Kansas Cellular.
“We cashed in IRAs, took everything we had and dumped it into this new technology,” he recalled.
The gamble worked.
Within 10 years, Kansas Cellular had sold to Alltel.
“It worked out for us,” Lee said. “Whew.”
A FEW years later, LaHarpe Telephone was ready for its next investment — fiber optic cable.
The new cable, featuring strands as thin as a human hair, were capable of handling almost limitless amounts of data.
A single strand could provide telephone and internet service to up to 32 entities, all of which can have multiple computers and video streaming services running simultaneously, “and still not tax the system,” Lee said. “It’s amazing what you can do with it.”
LaHarpe Telephone remains one of the few providers in the country to service both urban and rural customers.
Other communities have begun offering “fiber-to-the-home” service.
“But for us, it’s old hat,” Lee noted. “We’ve been doing it for 15 years.”
In recent years, another subsidiary, New Wave Communications, was created, to tap into the fiber optic service, by providing wireless internet capability across southeast Kansas, with customers ranging from Piqua to the Missouri state line.
“It’s been interesting, and fun and rewarding and challenging to have worked in this industry for decades,” Lee concluded.
Others have taken notice.
Within the past two years, LaHarpe Communications has been recognized by the Kansas Small Business Council as its Small Business of the Year, and as a contributor to the greater LaHarpe community by the Kansas Department of Commerce.
AS PART of his presentation, Lee showed copies of old LaHarpe telephone directories, dating back to 1947. The newer directories are unique in that their covers are LaHarpe-centric.
Lee usually alternates between covers featuring historic LaHarpe landmarks or events and more contemporary scenes.