Landing in the Hall of Fame

Vicki Snyder Chura
Posted 12/14/20

In 1896, Otto Wettstein Jr. of Rochelle completed the first independent telephone exchange in Illinois. He installed numerous exchanges across Iowa, Nebraska and most notably, in Florida.

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Landing in the Hall of Fame


In 1896, Otto Wettstein Jr. of Rochelle completed the first independent telephone exchange in Illinois. He installed numerous exchanges across Iowa, Nebraska and most notably, in Florida.

He was the son of Rochelle jeweler Otto Wettstein Sr. In a 1944 Orlando Sentinel story, Otto Jr. was described as a ‘genius at acquisition and operation, born in (Rochelle) 1876, the same year that Alexander Graham Bell quite accidentally discovered telephone communication while working on a device to facilitate hearing. (Bell taught the deaf and mute).

Otto Jr. was vacationing in Eustis, Florida in 1910 when a friend advised him of the small Dade City exchange for sale. At that time, Florida’s population was about 700,000. Telephones numbered 32,000.  With financial assistance, Wettstein bought the Dade City exchange which included those in Eustis and Tavares and organized the Lake County Telephone Co. at a cost of about $25,000.

Otto Jr. next developed the Ft. Lauderdale exchange, but the following year he was bitten by the real estate bug as well as homesickness. Wettstein traded his phone exchanges for 42,000 acres which he thought resembled Midwest farmland.  His plan was to colonize the property and farm.  Unfortunately, the land was wet.  Otto Jr. went broke trying to sell the property and farm the 60 acres he kept for himself.

He was nearly penniless in March 1915 when he read in a Tampa newspaper that a lineman for the Lake County Telephone Co. had been electrocuted.

Wettstein wrote and asked for the lineman’s job.  On April 2, 1915 he arrived in Dade City to work for the company he had once owned. Earning $80 a month, Wettstein returned to climbing poles, something he had not done since leaving Rochelle 17 years earlier.  

A few months in, when Wettstein learned he was about to be fired, he asked for a meeting with the directors. Their complaint - he devoted too much time to civic work and not enough to telephone business.  Otto Jr. argued his civic work was good public relations for the company.  He kept his job, continued to volunteer with the American Red Cross and the Board of Trade, which organized the Farmers Dairy Association.

Within a year, he purchased the company.  He returned to Eustis in 1917 where he added more exchanges.

When his daughter graduated from Live Oak High School in 1922, Wettstein moved his family to Orlando to enroll her at Rollins College. He built a headquarters in Leesburg, then acquired the balance of 28 exchanges, which he merged into Florida Telephone Corp. in 1925.

“Starting with nothing except experience, energy and ambition in 1915, with (financier) Mr. Edge’s confidence and help, I had, in 10 years, acquired a system of 28 telephone exchanges and control of a corporation with a capital of $1.4 million,” Otto Jr. wrote in his autobiography.

Otto Jr. died in Leesburg in 1967 at age 92.  Florida Telephone Corp. was purchased by United Telephone Co. of Florida in 1973. United Telephone became Sprint Corp. in 1992. Incidentally, the first telephone exchange in West Pasco, Florida (early 1900s) was inside the home of Clyde and Harriet Lapham. Harriet was the operator on call 24 hours a day. Subscribers fluctuated throughout the boom years and the Great Depression, but their numbers doubled right after WWII. Otto Jr. invested in a larger switchboard and five additional operators.                                      

The first telephone calls were put through by cranking the telephone to call the operator. The caller provided the operator with the name of the person to be called (before phone numbers). The operator rang that person, connecting the two, but since the calls weren’t private, the operators were privy to the latest town gossip.

For his pioneering work on phone exchanges, Otto Jr. became an inductee into the Independent Telephone Historical Museum Hall of Fame.

Otto Sr. was a German immigrant who settled in Rochelle as an optician, diamond merchant and jeweler.  Otto Sr. became internationally famous for creations like the Otto Wettstein watches and the intricately designed Colonel Ingersoll Souvenir Spoon.  He eventually sold his jewelry store to the Hackett Family.