Written by: Brittany (Bohnsack) DuFresne
The Germantown Telephone Company began in 1905 when there were but two telephones, one in the office of Charles H. Hover and one in the H.D. Mould residence at North Germantown, which served the Ice Company on the Hudson River. This system was part of the Hudson River Telephone Company and was later taken over by Charles H. Hover. Under Mr. Hover’s management, there was considerable growth in spite of the fact that in 1907 an independent company known as the Columbia Telephone Company entered the field. Mr. Hover, however, enjoyed a New York Telephone franchise while the Columbia Company was purely local. In 1915 Mr. Hover sold the company to Stanley W. Lasher. At that time, there were 135 subscribers served by the company. In 1920, the Columbia Company failed and Mr. Lasher also purchased their franchise, which discontinued their exchanges.
In 1929, my great-grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Alvin J. (“AJ”) Bohnsack, purchased the company from Mr. Lasher. Their experience in the telephone industry can best be told through the following remembrances of my great-grandmother, Lovina Bohnsack, as written in 1958:
“I recall in 1908, at the age of 11, the extreme reverence that families in Hillsboro, North Dakota felt for their beautiful oak wall phones, which children were not allowed to touch, and they did such wonderful magic! My husband, Alvin, had attended North Dakota Agricultural College and had worked on his family’s farms, but he found an ad in ‘Telephone Magazine’, and we bought the telephone company in Nevis, Minnesota in September 1921. It was a tiny office in a house with 50 phones and 200 farmer owned lines. The lines were pinned on trees and pasture fences. Our switching rate was $3.60 a year. I ran the switchboard 24-hours a day with a buzzer system and cared for a house and a year-old baby girl in between.
We sold the Nevis Company in June 1923 and bought the telephone company in Bagley, Minnesota, in September 1923 – a lovely town and office with only two farmer-owned lines. Their rate was $4.80 a year. We had lots of heavy lines. It was 25 miles to Itaska Park, and they were mostly out of order in the -30 degree winters. We had two sons, Donald and Warren, while in Bagley and sold that company in August, 1928. We managed Elbow Lake Company for the winter of 1928. In May of 1929, we moved our three young children to Germantown, New York, after the purchase of the Germantown Telephone Company. At that time the company had 420 subscribers. We left our families in the Mid West (the reverse trip of our pioneer parents!).
In October of 1929, the big crash came, and we were working a lot harder, and it seems now that they were the happiest days. Collections became a great problem, but service went on and was sometimes paid for in apples and potatoes or not at all. A.J. had only one helper, and I worked two shifts of 8-hours each on the switchboard. If we had our $400 per month interest and mortgage payments and the cash balance allowed, we took a little salary, and, if not, we managed. Well, we never really burned the mortgage. The company always needed new equipment, trucks, and so forth.
In 1951, we formed a family-owned corporation and took stock. In 1953, we went dial, and I still feel a thrill over the magic of coast-to-coast dial. It seems we were always scraping the bottom of the barrel and creating debts, but this is growth and progress.
Today [in 1958], we have 1800 subscribers, and my elder son, Donald, manages the company, and I hope his sons, Bruce and Joel, will take over in time. The engineering progess I have seen in 75 years has been a small part of the growth of this wonderful hard-working country and our national love affair with machines and technology.”
My grandfather Bud’s recollections of his years as President and General Manager can best be summed up from a newspaper article written about him by the Register Star in 1970. Bud died in May of 2003.
“My late father, A.J. Bohnsack, even as a cattle rancher, had the telephone business in his blood. His family had migrated to North Dakota about 1850 under the Homestead Act. He maintained a telephone system of some 100 subscribers with wire strung from fence post to fence post, among the other homesteaders.” The impending sale of the small Germantown firm came to his attention through a magazine advertisement. “He had to make up his mind,” his son Donald, president of the company said, “And he decided on the telephone business.”
Donald, brother Warren, currently vice president of the company, sister Elaine and their mother, Lovina, slept in the car during the journey to Germantown. The family members all pitched in to make a go of the business, which originally was housed in the Germantown Grange Hall building on Maple Avenue. A.J. did the outside line work, and Lovina operated the switchboard – to the extent one of her sons recalled “cutting his teeth on the corner of a telephone switchboard.” One of their first employees was the late George Funk, whose wife Marion is still employed by the Company. Donald, whom everyone calls “Bud”, said that during the Depression, families paid their bills with chickens, loads of wood, crates of apples and even kitchen appliances.
In 1936, the company was moved to the former Germantown National Bank Building. The move, Bud said, “took one night.” He said equipment was carried across the street and service was restored in the morning. A 1938 hurricane destroyed three quarters of the firm’s outside plant, necessitating a reconstruction program. Shortly after that, World War II broke out. A.J. had difficulty in obtaining equipment and lost the help of his two sons. Bud spent three years in the Navy and Warren, four years in the Coast Guard. Their sister Elaine, Mrs. Warren Liepshutz, helped out as a switchboard operator. “It was a difficult time,” Donald said, “no new materials were purchased. Father could only patch.”
The end of the war brought “a need to modernize,” Bud said. The growing company turned to the dial system in 1953 and became a corporation. A.J. died in 1958 after sustaining injuries while demolishing the Half Moon Anchorage building in North Germantown. Bud moved up and became President of the company. Warren had founded his own telephone equipment supply business about 10 years earlier, but remained vice president of the telephone company. “The growth rate increased to the point where it was difficult to keep up,” Bud said. “Large farmlands were being cut into smaller lots for homes, all wanting telephone service.”
A major change in 1962, the institution of the United States direct distance dialing system, automated the system and eliminated the firm’s nine operators. “For several years”, Bud said, “the company has been running underground cable. We now have about 30 miles of underground wire and plan to extend throughout our service area, which runs from the Dutchess County line to Roeliff Jansen Creek, to Lake Taghkanic. The growth potential in the rural areas, is great and the company grows every year.”
The firm’s character as a “strictly family business” has not changed despite the growth. Bud’s coupling of new technology with small town manners made Germantown Telephone Company survive, while seventy five percent of independent phone companies nationwide had to sell out to large corporations during the years of his presidency. He was particularly proud of the loyalty and family feel within the company. “Many GTC employees have worked with the company for more than twenty-five years, whom are often noticed for their exemplary service to the community inside and outside of the company”. He said he hopes at least one of his three sons will step in and keep the business in the Bohnsack family. He has a good prospect, one son, Bruce, now serving in the Navy, worked for the company before joining the Navy and has expressed an interest in the business. The other boys are students at Germantown Central School.
-The Register Star, 1970
As stated in the newspaper article above, under the direction of my grandfather, Bud, the company instituted a major rebuilding program in 1974 through a Rural Electrification Agency loan. The company replaced all existing step-by-step equipment with a Stromberg Carlson ESC-3 electronic switching system, eliminated all open wire and lead cable, added touch tone service and replaced a total of sixty-five percent of the outside plant. In 1984, the Germantown Telephone Company, through a wholly-owned subsidiary, Hilltop Communications Inc., was awarded a CATV franchise for the Town of Germantown, and in 1990, for the Town of Clermont.
In 1986, my father, Bruce Bohnsack, became President and General Manager of the company, with my uncle, Joel Bohnsack, assuming the duties of Vice President of Operations. In 1988, the company replaced the existing electronic switching equipment with a Stromberg Carlson DCO. This digital switching equipment provides all Custom Calling features, and Advanced Calling features, Caller ID service and Voice Mail. High speed data circuits, a fiber optic Sonet Ring, connects all remote switching equipment to the host switch, and redundant long distance routes make Germantown Telephone Company’s territory truly communications-rich both for area residents and for our many New York City commuters.
The 1990’s were a decade of strategic partnering for the Germantown Telephone Company. Partnerships facilitated such local services as cellular telephone service, Internet access, and paging. A wholly owned subsidiary, Germantown Cellular, Inc., was formed in 1990 and became a general partner in Hudson Valley RSA 6. The interest in this partnership was sold to Verizon in 1999. In 1995 another subsidiary, Valstar, Inc., began offering local dial-up Internet access to residents throughout southern Columbia and northern Dutchess Counties when there was no local Internet access. In 1996 the Valstar Technology Center was initiated. The Center’s 10 computer literacy classroom provided hands-on computer training to the general public when Internet and PC’s were both in their infancy. The classes were initially extremely successful. Offerings included Computer Basics, PowerPoint, and a full complement of Internet and Microsoft training. The Technology Center dissolved in July 2001.
The new decade has seen the family of services expanded once again. In July of 2000, Valstar Long Distance service was initiated, which offered an attractive alternative toll service to all Germantown Telephone Company customers. October of 2000 saw the inception of Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) broadband Internet services, which was available to all Germantown Telephone Company subscribers through the joint efforts of Germantown Telephone and Valstar, Inc.
In 2002, Germantown Telephone Company partnered again with three other independent telcos to form the Independent Network Operations Center (INOC) in Albany. This joint venture provides Internet backbone services for our company and for other telcos and businesses throughout New York State. In 2004 Germantown Telephone Company partnered with 13 other telcos across New York State to form a statewide redundant fiber optic network. The Independent Optical Network (ION) provides telecommunications transport and Internet backbone services throughout New York State to Germantown Telephone Company as well as other independent telephone company customers and any business requiring fiber transport and Internet backbone.
Germantown Telephone Company became GTel in 2007. All voice, video and Internet services are now being marketed and sold under the GTel logo. Building upon the steady industry transition to an all Internet protocol (IP) world, GTel began offering IPTV video service in 2008, eliminating the outdated coaxial cable plant. This broadband service offering replaced the existing analog CATV service over several years. To deliver GTel customers the ever increasing amount of bandwidth required for data and video today, in 2009 and 2010 GTel completed construction of our first phases of a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) project. These initial Phases totaled over 30 miles of fiber optic cable being placed throughout the service area which passed approximately 800 homes. In 2011 GTel placed into service a new MetaSwitch switching platform that will offer a host of IP voice services which will complement and expand the total IP platform of voice, video and data.
Today GTel provides a full complement of truly state-of-the-art IP based services, all with a full-time dedicated work force of seventeen employees. Telephone subscribers have grown from two telephones in 1905 to more than 2500 access lines in 2018, and after 89 years, the company is still owned and operated by the third and now the fourth generation of the Bohnsack family.
My goal and commitment to you, as always, is to provide real technology for real people. We’re here to help rural communities, residents and businesses gain access to life changing technology that connects and encourages families, friends, and partnerships.
-Brittany (Bohnsack) DuFresne