Musings of a country telephone man

There were strange things happening on my front porch the summer of 1956...

To a six year old, losing play space to a strange box and a bunch of wires made no sense. Then, on September 15, 1956, we became the first family in Beulah to have their supper interrupted by several phone calls! We were in the telephone business. That box on the front porch was a 50 line cord switchboard. It connected the 26 telephones in Beulah together and to the world and I was a telephone operator.
Beulah has had phones since the 1920’s. There was a payphone in the Post Office in Traeber’s Store across from the Beulah Inn. But, the majority of phones were in the cabins along Pine Drive (and hence the name of the company) and in the Pueblo Mountain Park. They were on party lines built and maintained by each family individually. One notable line was the one maintained from Baver-Li-Lodge in Ophir Creek down Squirrel Creek. It took great fortitude to maintain that line after the ‘47 flood!

Some of you may remember the “spaghetti” of wires up and down Pine Drive as each new phone line had to find space on the poles. Each line terminated in the switchboard located in the Pine Drive Store, at which time Bill Reynolds was the proprietor and switchboard operator. In 1956, Mr. Reynolds decided that he had enough and was to end his service. My mother and father, Joe and Edith Sellers, saw a way to serve the community and took on the responsibility to provide and maintain telephone service in the valley. Dad worked in the Tube Mill at the CF&I and once the family and cows were fed, the rest of his paycheck went to the phone company. Mom kept the home, fed the workers and ran the office and switchboard. I got to spend a lot of “quality time” on nights and weekends helping my father repair and build the system.
With no Investment Bankers in sight, we made do with what we had. We had quality help from people in the community, employees of Western Electric and Mountain States Telephone Co. and some of Dad’s co-workers at the CF&I. To keep costs down, we used quality materials thrown away by the Bell Company and picked up by a Pueblo scrap dealer. When we needed telephone poles, we went to the forest, cut down trees, peeled the bark and treated them with creosote; then we dug the postholes and planted them up North Creek, down 3R, out Siloam, down Waterbarrel and up 12 mile. People would joke; "Joe Bell would use barbed wire and trees to get you service," which we did from time-to-time. With the benevolence and help of landowners, the system grew rapidly and just about everyone that wanted a phone had one.

Growth comes hard to many, even back then. When we placed the first 5 pair cable (which could provide service for up to 50 people on ten-party lines) to Beulah Post Office, one lady commented, “Joe, you’ll never have that many phones in Beulah”. The Beulah Post Office area, alone, is now served with fiber optics and over 200 pairs (phone lines.) As we grew, it became apparent that we needed to modernize our switchboard, so in 1961 we installed the first dial switch. No more hand cranks and cranky operators in the middle of the night. Call who you want, when you want! Of course we still got a few calls to find out if such and so was home; and would we take messages to someone that didn’t have a phone? Which, of course, we did; all part of being part of a small community.
Sometimes, we tried too hard to provide the best service. When we first installed rotary dial phones, we would set up each party line on the floor of the front porch to be sure that each new phone worked and rang properly. Once we were sure things worked properly and, sometimes, re-boxed the phone sets, we’d go to each house and install their new dial telephone. Years later, a lady told my dad how sad she was that of all the people he’d given new phones to, he did not give her a new one out of a box! Can’t win sometimes, I guess.

In 1968 I went off for 15 years to get my education and serve our country in the Coast Guard. I met my wife, Lee, and we had two boys, Matt and Mike. Of course that didn’t stop the company from moving forward. From here on when I use the first person, it also includes my family!
In 1969, we expanded the switch, to allow more private lines and people to take their number with them when they moved. In the 70’s we started to bury our telephone lines, this had two positive effects: they became “storm proof” and everyone’s view was improved. We have continued this process and today about 90% of all of our lines are buried out of sight. This is why your electricity may be out, but your phone still works (as long as you keep an “old” phone around the house that doesn’t need electricity!) It was a bit perplexing, though, to be asked by the young people replacing the poles and cable I had spent my childhood building “where all this old “junk” came from?” But, technology was advancing at an ever-faster pace.
Dad retired from the CF&I in 1975. As we grew and demands became greater on him and those he could find to help him, he gave me a choice: “Come home or I’m going to sell out.”

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I came home in 1983, just in time for the Divestiture of AT&T, a brave new world of telephony that would forever change the intimacy of hometown telephone service. We were pitted against giants like AT&T, & MCI and forced to spend inordinate amounts of time and money with regulators and legislators defending ourselves from having to provide “service” like them, instead of our home town rural way.
The 1980’s brought new features like 1+ direct long distance dialing, touchtone, and 911 emergency service. In 1986, after 30 years of using the front porch of my mother’s house, we moved the business office to its current location on Central Ave. In 1988 we installed Digital Switching and converted everyone to private lines. No more listening to the neighbor’s conversations or fighting to get to use the line. Big city features like E-911, equal access to long distance carriers, call waiting, call forwarding, voice mail and other features became available.

Beulahland Communications was born out of desperation. Depending on where you lived in Beulah Valley, you received one, two or, if you were really lucky, four TV stations. My family was one of those with two and we were really tired of eating supper with A Current Affair. In 1991, there were finally enough people in the valley with the same feelings that it was feasible to build the Beulah Cable TV system.
Lee and I organized Beulahland Communications to care for our non telephone activities in the community and now have over 300 customers and 36 channels of the most popular family programming available, giving a choice at dinner-time (the best of which, in retrospect, would be to turn it off and talk to the family!)
We installed a two-way video system in Beulah School in 1992. Even though the dream of having many community meetings and events televised by our school kids hasn’t been fully realized to date, the capability is there and it has been used to televise many school activities. I was affirmed one day when I heard how much a homebound lady appreciated being able to see her grandchildren perform in a school play.

1991 also brought free calling to Pueblo. Before then, it cost anywhere from 10 to 20 cents a minute to call Pueblo. This statewide Community of Interest Calling Plan was a great economic boost for the Beulah area.
In 1993, my dad died. At 79, he was still excited about all the new things we were going to be able to provide to the Beulah area, including satellite TV for those we couldn’t reach with cable. Digital Loop Carriers and fiber optics made it possible to move services, which had only been available to those close to the central office, out to the far reaches of telephone system. Now all of the rural areas of Beulah could have multiple private lines, modems, faxes and the Internet.
My mother quit her active role and turned ownership over to my family in the mid 90’s. But, she still kept and eye on things until her passing in 2002.

Unhappy with the way that long distance carriers were treating our customers, we formed our own Long-Distance service under Beulahland Communications in the mid 90’s. Keeping with our tradition of giving as much back to the community as possible, 1% of all the long distance revenue generated is donated to the Beulah Fire and Ambulance services. Caller ID and other “Advanced Intelligent Network” features were rolled out in the mid 90’s as well. In 1997, local dialing to the Internet became available in Beulah through our association with Fone.Net. Internet services moved to broadband in the new millenium and we rebranded ourselves as Beulah Cable TV has added digital channels for improved pictures and still provides the best package of programming for prices much lower satellite.
Today (2016), we serve an area of over 200 square miles in Western Pueblo and Southeastern Custer counties. 95% of our near 750 customers have access to high-speed Internet connections using DSL technology. This is one of the highest availability rates in the state! We have fiber connectivity to the world and working on making our fiber paths self healing in case of another cable cut like occurred when the Beulah Hill bridge washed out. The Beulah area is poised for the future. The future will bring the installation of fiber to the home that will allow ever increasing internet speeds.

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Looking back at 60 years of service, I can't say that I have any regrets other than I regret losing the personal contact I used to have with each of you. As we grew and the industry changed, I lost the opportunity to be in the field and get to know each of you personally. In some corners, the industry seems to be more interested in the “bottom line” than customer service or in grabbing customers any way they can. I regret this and pledge to fight it anyway I can. I am also concerned with the direction my industry is leading society. “Personal” communications is driving a wedge into the community and the family. I fear one day we will be locked in our homes, our only reality will be provided by the “virtual reality” of computers, we will order all that we need, food, clothing etc. electronically; goods will be delivered by armored vehicles to an air-lock in our homes which we fear to leave because anarchy rules the streets. Beulah has always avoided these kinds of “growing pains,” and I hope we continue to keep our sense of community and family alive and well.
Pine Drive Telephone Co., Beulah Long Distance, Beulah Cable TV and SoColo.Net have one thing in common: We are dedicated to serving Beulah and the surrounding areas with not only traditional services but also services like UPS shipping, FAX, Notary, Copies, National Directory Assistance and provide local information and advertising over the local channel crawl. We try to hire local people and return as much as we can to the local economy. When you call us, you talk to a real person who you likely know from other activities in the community. (If you don’t know us, please drop in for a cup of coffee! Even if you do, the coffee is still on!)

I’ve spent this entire essay saying “I” but no business succeeds without the support and hard work of a dedicated staff. The people you work with today are the current product of a long line of dedicated “Beulahites.” So, I want to thank all of you in the past, my current staff Laura, Wayne, Colin, Adria, Errin, Kyle, Ryan, Austin and my family for their dedication and hard work. I’ve truly been blessed.
You’ve seen a lot of telecommunication companies make some big promises that are now bankrupt or no longer pursuing those promises. As I celebrate 60 years in the telecommunications industry and 60 years of service to this community, I want to assure you that we will be here another 60, and more, providing Beulah with big city services with our personal touch. As long as my family and I have anything to say about it, it will be a cold day in a very hot place before you have to spend an eternity on hold and then can’t talk to the same person twice! Thank you for your support and please look to us for your communications needs of the future. We will be here!

Coincidently, there are 21 small, Community Based, companies in Colorado and over a 1000 nationwide that have the same dedication and purpose as we do: To invest, and provide affordable, high quality, and personal telecommunications service to their friends and neighbors, in the rural and remote areas of this country.

Dick, Lee, Matt and Mike Sellers and the Pine Drive Telephone Co. Staff