CUDMORE: The undertaker and the telephone


Historian and undertaker W. Maxwell Reid was one of the first to install a telephone in the Amsterdam area.

Reid visited the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and was impressed by a demonstration of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.

When Reid returned home, he had wires strung between a casket plant in Amsterdam and a store in Broadalbin.

How this early telephone worked was described in a Chamber of Commerce publication, “Twice a day at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., the persons at each end of the line, by a process of shouting into the telephones, and then moving the same instruments to their ears to hear what was shouted back, were able to carry on a conversation over the intervening ten miles.”

William Maxwell Reid was born in 1839 on his father’s farm, land which later became the Reid Hill neighborhood. Reid’s father was from Scotland. He was also a school teacher, librarian and justice of the peace.

W. Max Reid married Laura MacDonald in 1859.  Her father was a partner in the Shuler casket-making company, started by woodworker Isaac Shuler. Reid, who had been a clerk in a dry goods store, worked as a bookkeeper for the casket firm. 

Ultimately Reid took over the company after his father-in-law died. Reid also operated his own undertaking business.

Reid was a founder of the business-boosting Board of Trade in 1884 and president of the organization for 17 years. 

Reid is known as a historian for his 1901 book, “The Mohawk Valley: Its Legends and Its History.” Reid also wrote a history column for The Recorder newspaper using the byline “The Hollander Letters.”

Reid died in 1911 at age 72. He and his wife lived on Spring Street, what is now Guy Park Avenue and had three children. 

Other 1870s phone lines connected Amsterdam’s New York Central Railroad freight office with the Sanford carpet mill and Kelloggs’ & Miller linseed oil plant. The homes of linseed oil magnates John, George and Lauren Kellogg had early telephones. 

Another local telephone pioneer was William Charles, who operated a cotton and wool brokerage business. In 1940, Charles was still living in Amsterdam and had telephone number “1.”

Historian Hugh Donlon wrote, “By 1881, the Amsterdam Telegraph and Telephone Company, locally organized, was operating a switchboard of 50 lines from a central office at East Main and Church streets.”

Several companies competed for telephone customers in Amsterdam but after a time, competition cut the number of companies to two — the locally based Automatic Telephone Company and Hudson River Telephone, part of the growing Bell system’s national network.

Hudson River opened a new central exchange at 40 Division St. and Automatic created a new facility at 19 Pearl St. By 1910, though, the battle was over and New York Telephone — successor to Hudson River — took over phone service to some 1,500 Amsterdam customers.

To promote long-distance calling a few years later the phone company invited 200 people to a public phone conversation at the Elks Lodge between Amsterdam Mayor James R. Cline and Mayor James Rolph of San Francisco. George Scott, the exalted ruler of the Amsterdam Elks, conversed with the exalted ruler of a San Francisco lodge.

Donlon wrote, “Despite the ballyhoo, cross-country talk failed to gain immediate popularity with frugal townspeople. Rates were comparatively high and it was more economical to write a letter when speed was not particularly important.”

A picture that accompanied a 1942 article about telephones showed a row of 15 seated female operators and two supervisors at the Amsterdam office of New York Telephone, then at 40 Division Street.

Categories: Opinion

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