Otto Wettstein Jr. was 18 years old in 1893.
His mother, Ida went to close a window when her hand slipped and went through the glass. Ida sat on the floor bleeding and called to Otto to get help. Otto ran six blocks to Dr. Carlton’s home and fetched medical assistance.
On the way back to the house Otto said, “I don’t see why they don’t have telephones in this town.” Dr. Carlton replied: “Yes, it would save many a life, But I guess the town isn’t big enough for telephones.”
For Wettstein Jr. this was the beginning of a dream to bring telephone service to Rochelle and then to towns across the country. Born in Rochelle in 1875, Otto was educated into his second year of high school when he decided to drop out and attend business college in Chicago.
Upon completion of his schooling, Otto Jr. went to work as a bookkeeper for his father, Otto Wettstein Sr., at the family jewelry store.
He still had a dream of starting a phone service that was affordable to the citizens of Rochelle. In 1893 Central Union (Bell) installed the first local phone in Hartong’s Drug Store. With a walk to Hartong’s, you could call as far as New York to the East and Clinton, Iowa to the West.
In 1894, Andrew Binz installed a Bell phone at his butcher shop and his slaughter house. For the rest, phone service was something only to be dreamed of. Otto Jr. was making $1 a week as a bookkeeper. At that income there would be no money to start a telephone company.
But Otto believed, “If we needed telephone service so badly, many other people in Rochelle would have the same need for it.”
Otto rented Gardner’s Hall and sponsored dances and roller skating. He rented the Bain Opera House and held plays, magic shows and other entertainment. By 1895, Otto had saved only $500 and he needed a new plan.
Otto called his brother, a banker, and convinced him that he had a viable business plan. With his brother’s backing, Otto was ready to get started. Unfortunately, Bell Telephone had patents that were still in force. There was no way to own telephones or switchboards without renting them from Bell Telephone.
Things looked grim until Otto found a company in Kokomo, Indiana that offered equipment with a guarantee that it would not infringe on any patents. Local electric linemen installed the outside infrastructure and the Kokomo Company installed the switchboard.
Rena Dusher was hired as the day operator for $15 a month. Claude Davis was night operator at $10 per month. Phone service cost $2 per month for businesses and $1 for residential. This was local only, no long distance.
In 1896, Rochelle became only the second private phone service in Illinois. 50 subscribers out of a population of 1,800. Within two years, the Rochelle phone system had grown to 100, and Otto’s phone was ringing,
La Porte, Iowa wanted a phone system. Otto sold the Rochelle exchange to local investors and moved to La Porte. During the next 14 years, “Wettstein Construction Company” built 29 exchanges in Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri.
In 1912, Otto sold out his midwest holdings. Competing with Bell Telephone was proving to be too big of a fight. Without Bell, there was no access to long distance. But Otto wasn’t done. He moved his company to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
With a population of about 1,000, a 40-phone exchange was started. Otto expanded and formed the North Florida Telephone Company.
Rochelle’s phone man, Otto Wettstein, stayed in the phone business for 53 years. He was chairman of the board of directors while his son, Otto Wettstein III, was president and his other son, Max, was vice president.
The North Florida Telephone Company, in 1951, included more than 20,000 exchanges. In 1977, Rochelle’s Otto Wettstein was inducted into the Independent Telephone Historical Museum Hall of Fame.
Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum Historian and Rochelle City Councilman.