Welcome to the Macon, MO Sesquicentennial Celebration!
Welcome to the Macon, MO Sesquicentennial Celebration!
The City of Maples Celebrates Its 150th Anniversary!

Theodore Gary and Telephone Growth: The Real Story

By Sandy Coons

From the birth of telephone history 99 years ago, until more recent years conflict seemed to go hand in hand with the industry's development. The patent on the telephone was a race between Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray when Bell filed a patent application and Gray filed a caveat on the telephone the same day. The Bell system enjoyed a slow 17 years as a monopoly before independent phone companies sprang up. One of the leaders of the Independents' fight against the Bell control was Theodore Gary of Macon.

Theodore Gary was a successful man, one who left his mark in Macon, the state of Missouri and the nation. Any endeavor business he was involved in seemed to flourish. So it was when he went into the telephone business at the age of 42.

Gary was active in a variety of business ventures and programs beneficial to Macon and Missouri. In the real estate and town site business he was responsible for Gary's Addition and Sunnyside Addition in Macon. He organized the Macon Building and Loan Association and served as its secretary. Features of this business would reappear 25 years later when the state legislature passed laws regulating such associations and prescribing methods of bookkeeping similar to the plan adopted by Gary. He helped organize and promote an adequate water supply for Macon, helped the city acquire a library, built its hospital and a cemetery. His work as chairman of the Hudson County Road Commission was a prelude to chairmanship of the Missouri State Highway Commission. His years as Highway Commission Chairman from 1921 to 1926 saw great expansion of Missouri roads and brought recognition of his efficient, well- planned methods of achieving his goals. But it was his connection with the telephone, and the acquisition of dial system as described by his biographer Henry P. Bobbins and in "The Story of Independent Telephony", that extended his influence nationwide and internationally.

In 1896 Gary and his family had just returned from Ashley, Ind., where Gary had been in the banking business. Gary considered Macon his home town. He had moved to Macon at the age of 22 in 1878 and lived there the rest of his life excepting two years. Gary and Alee Hudson, former editor of the Macon Times and a man of progressive ideas as Gary was, became partners in a real estate, loan and insurance business.


Gary knew nothing about the telephone business when the owner of the local Independent phone plant listed his property for sale with Gary and Hudson. Gary's curiosity was aroused and he found that the Macon telephone company was a sound business, but that the owner was selling because of personal conflicts with some subscribers. He learned more about the business from an ardent telephone enthusiast. On checking, he found that the Columbia telephone company was also for sale.

Gary bought the Macon plant and Hudson took an option on the Columbia plant. At middle age Gary decided to embark in a new career which would bring him into opposition, with the Bell organization. Some Macon residents were incredulous that Gary would go into a business he knew nothing about; others said he might not know everything about it, but he would put someone in charge who did. Others said that anything he went into was bound to be a success. Others expressed relief at the change in. management knowing that they would get good service from "the politest man in town." .

Under Gary the Macon plant was rebuilt and expanded and its subscriber list grew. Gary was concerned with profit, but he was also concerned in developing service. His business practices and improvements were recognized outside Macon city limits when other towns began to clamor for "the kind of telephone service Gary gives Macon"..

Within a few years Gary and his company owned telephone plants in Joplin, Nevada, Carthage, Independence, St. Joseph, Atchison and Topeka. The firm would continue to expand, later going international. But Gary had other contributions to offer the struggling Independent telephone movement.


The Bell company had a monopoly for 17 years until the Bell patent expired. Before the Independent competition arose Bell had less than 300,000 telephones in use. During its monopoly period ell concentrated on large populations centers and then mainly the close subscribers to the plant which reaped the most profit. In Kansas City with a population of 200,000 in the early days only 4,000 had phones. Small towns were ignored. The Independent telephone movement developed to fill in the gap as the "electrical toy" became a demanded service.

Depending on its monopoly Bell employed high rates and had little emphasis on service. As the Independent competition began to tell, however, Bell cut rates severely to kill off competition and used lawsuits against Independent companies. Small town people saw through the cut rates in most cases, knowing that once competition was eliminated high rates would follow. Belt was more successful with legal proceedings. If an Independent switchboard was found to infringe any way on any Bell patent the switchboard was destroyed. Topeka's Independent switchboard was burned in the street. Mobile's was demolished by a sledgehammer. At one Bell convention a gavel was used which was made of 35 pieces of Independent switchboards whose companies had been forced out of business. As the conflict grew more heated the Independents realized that to survive they must unify against the organized, centralized Bell powers. Theodore Gary helped pioneer the Independent organizations.


Gary attended his first out of state telephone convention in 1902 when the Interstate Independent Telephone Association met in Chicago for the first time. When the meeting threatened to flounder and turn into a social event with no permanent organization, Gary took the floor saying, "We from Missouri did not come here for a lark. We came to form an interstate association which would be strong in all states and benefit the industry." He recommended electing officers from all states, not just Chicago area representatives, creation of a constitution and other means to carry out their purpose. His suggestions were followed.

In 1906 the interstate association merged with an international Independent association and became the International Independent Telephone Association. Gary served as the organization’s first vice president and second president.

In addition to unifying the Independent companies Gary wished to incorporate good business practices and an emphasis on service to stabilize the existing firms and offset Bell attempts to drive Independents out. Gary was disgusted with conscienceless promoters who built up companies to sell and had little more regard for honest, but careless men who failed to put their business on a sound basis. Every Independent failure brought more Bell glee.

So Gary spoke and wrote on successful management, suggestions on serving subscribers, how to treat employees. Information on the Gary system's methods were always available to the Independents. During the bankers panic of 1907 Gary shrewdly published a booklet on Independent Telephony, printed on the finest paper and well-illustrated, which persuasively described reasons for safety of investment in Independent telephone property. He later noted that the Independent telephone industry suffered much less financially during this period than did other industries.


The Bell system's confidence in disposing of the isolated, unorganized Independent firms in a one-at-a-time style waned with the strengthening of Independent organizations. At this point the Bell system recalled as its head another Theodore, Theodore N. Vail, one of the most powerful figures in America's industrial history. It was Vail's theory that the telephone was a natural monopoly, and his theory was espoused by many big city newspapers. But, the country press defended the Independents. The tide also swung in the Independent's favor for awhile when the attorney generals of six states brought anti-trust suits against Bell telephone and its subsidiaries. Gary suggested that the Kansas Independent Association adopt a resolution asking Congress to declare telephone companies common carriers, subject to usual legal regulations. Congress promptly approved such a law and this action, among others, worried Bell.

Bell had an ace in the hole—long distance. For an Independent to obtain long distance from Bell it would have to agree to terms dangerous to Independents. Gary could have gotten a special contract without the limiting terms for his company, but he stuck with the rest of the Independents until later when he participated in the 1913 Kingsbury agreement between Bell and the Independents later which settled this issue and other vital matters.

As Bell was realizing that its opponent was not easily vulnerable, the Independents were realizing that battles between the two caused mutual ruin and were a hardship in communities where the battles were being fought. The Independent formed a Committee of Seven, including Theodore Gary, to begin negotiations with Bell that would result in the elimination of competition at certain points and provide long distance to every community. The general plan worked out was for the company with the largest business in a community to take over its rival. This was done in such a way to preserve the balance between the two factions. Gary, was active in negotiating equitable eliminations of competition and took great care to protect the jobs of employees whose firms changed hands. These negotiations resulted in the historic Kingsbury agreement.


A.B. Strowger, a Kansas City undertaker, conceived the idea of a telephone system which would do away with the delay and mistakes of manual operators. He imagined an electric switch driven by electro-magnets which would be controlled by the subscriber to connect the subscriber with the party desired. Strowger turned his idea of the automatic, later called the dial system, into reality. He successfully sold the idea to the Independents, but Bell refused to buy the "machine switching" equipment. The Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Co. became a part of the Independent organization, making and installing the equipment for Independent firms. Whenever Bell bought out an Independent telephone company, however, that company would follow Bell policy and quit buying automatic equipment. This hurt the equipment manufacturer and in-directly threatened the Independents who used automatic equipment. Gary took an interest in the Strowger equipment as part of the Independent organization. He attempted many times to talk Vail into buying automatic equipment to insure the manufacturers stability.

In 1901 the Strowger company changed to the Automatic Electric Company, which was formed to expand the Strowger interests. Meanwhile Gary had no luck convincing Bell to change its policy.

But, after World War I the government was still in control of telegraph, cable and telephone business. A wage controversy arose between Bell and its Boston employees. Gary heard about the fight and paid close attention to the Boston proceedings sensing a change in the wind. Bell was forced to settle the wage dispute by giving the employees double what had been expected. The only way to meet this increase was by a sharp rise in subscribers' costs, which was unacceptable to subscribers, or to turn to the automatic to save money.


Gary moved swiftly and in 1919 he and Frank H. Woods purchased control of the Automatic Electric Company and Gary again brought the question to Bell. This time Bell's answer was affirmative. By 1926 Gary and his associates were making or licensing 80 per cent of the automatic telephone equipment in the world.


Theodore Gary worked at some 40 undertakings before building his telephone system into world business and was involved in other ventures afterward. Yet without devoting his entire life to the business, Gary's expertise, was so great that on the fiftieth anniversary of the telephone's invention, he was asked to write an article for the prestigious Saturday Evening Post. Gary wrote on "The Independents - Their Part in Developing the Telephone in the U.S." Of the development of the telephone, Gary said he had lived to see its "marvelous expansion" far beyond his dreams.

For more information on the telephone and Macon, please click here to read these related stories - Chariton Telephone and First Macon Telephone.

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Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of Macon, Missouri at the Macon, MO Sesquicentennial Celebration!