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By Andi Bourne
Pathfinder 

More than 40 Years of Taking Care of Customers, One Line at A Time

 

April 19, 2018

Andi Bourne, Pathfinder

Seeley Lake's Randy Teague has worked for Blackfoot for more than 40 years following in his father Jack's footsteps. He said working for a co-op is a great opportunity to serve. Co-op customers don't just pay for service, they own the business.

SEELEY LAKE - Being a phone man has been in Randy Teague's blood his entire life. After working for Blackfoot for more than 40 years, Teague said he has seen the birth of the Internet, services advance from analog to digital to fiber optic and growth from a rural telephone provider to a regional technology leader. His job has always been more than just a paycheck to him. It has been an opportunity to serve and help his customers who not only rely on the service provided but are also part owners in the company.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, which provided federal loans for the installation of electrical distribution systems to serve isolated rural areas in America.

"If you lived in rural America, companies wouldn't build you a line because it would cost too much and they wouldn't get a good rate of return," said Teague. "A cooperative is out there trying to deliver the best services they can to the people out there. Cell phones wouldn't even exist here if it wasn't for us having the facilities to backhaul their data from rural Montana."

The Electrification Act put people to work and cooperatives could get long-term loans with very low interest to build facilities to service rural America.

In 1949, the act was amended to extend loans to telephone companies wishing to service unconnected rural areas. Randy's grandfather Ray Teague, of Clinton, and Wilda Mannix, of Ovando, took advantage of the opportunity. They asked farmers and ranchers in the area to sign a membership card and contribute $50. With $500 they founded Blackfoot Telephone Cooperative in 1954.

They could only build out for 10-15 percent growth and were inspected quarterly per the guidelines for the federal loan. The cooperative was a non-profit, with all profits paid back to the customers in dividends.

Since Blackfoot's inception, six Teagues have worked for local cooperatives including Blackfoot and Missoula Electric Cooperative. In addition to Ray, who continued to serve on Blackfoot's board until he was in his 80s, Bill Teague and John William Teague also served on the Blackfoot board; John "Jack" Teague and his son Randy were employees for Blackfoot; Andy Teague worked for both Blackfoot and MEC and Don Teague worked for MEC.

"The co-op has been in the family blood, whether telephone or electric, for years," said Teague who was born on the shores of Seeley Lake and always wanted to stay in the area. "My Dad [John "Jack" Teague] worked there and at my earliest age he used to take me with him on troubles and whatever."

When Teague was in the fifth grade, his father taught him how to clean and repair phones.

"In those days phone companies owned the instruments," said Teague. "They were all used in various conditions and needed repairs. That is what I started doing for 25 cents a phone."

Service through Blackfoot included one beige phone per customer. A different colored phone or another line in the house added an additional fee.

"I had to go through the entire phone and if it functioned properly, I would clean it up really good with some refurbishing spray to polish the plastic. Then I put them in a box and sealed them up in a bag," said Teague.

Later, Teague started mowing lawns for Blackfoot. Once in high school, he worked in the warehouse and did construction in the summer. In his free time he would ride along with his father and other employees that would take him.

"I voluntarily worked. I wanted to do it," said Teague. "I was hungry to learn. I just wanted to learn how to be a phone man. It was in the family and I wanted to learn how to do it."

Teague said in the early days, phone lines were all overhead, usually running right under the power lines. When wind and snowstorms came through, the phone and power cooperatives worked hand-in-hand to restore services. Technicians often had to snowshoe into the problem areas.

Teague explained most of the lines were party lines. When someone wanted to make a call out, they needed to pick up the phone and listen to make sure one of their neighbors wasn't on the line.

"That was a big complaint of people. They couldn't use the phone when they wanted to and they couldn't get calls when the phone was busy," said Teague.

One of the things Blackfoot started in Clinton in the late 1960's was putting the wires underground with single party service. The last area to hook up to the analog system was Ovando in the early 1980s.

"[Before] when there were eight houses, one pair of wires took care of everybody," said Teague. "Now you have to have eight pairs of wires. So to go from an exchange with multiple party service to a totally single party service was a huge upgrade. That involved completely rebuilding the outside plant and the offices."

In the 1960s Teague was still going to school. Although the majority of the new construction was moving underground, there were still overhead lines.

"I can remember building many miles of overhead. That was always fun. I love to climb," said Teague.

After graduating from Sentinel High School, Teague attended DeVry University in Phoenix, Ariz. He graduated with a degree in electronics in 1978 with straight A's. His professors said Teague was the first student who got 100 percent on all their written and lab final graduating exams.

"That was pretty cool." Teague said. "It was just the drive to do the absolute best that I could."

Blackfoot officially hired Teague Feb. 20, 1978. He was put on the construction crew. He said Blackfoot employees would call him to help troubleshoot different problems because he had so much background knowledge.

He quickly moved from construction to installs and repairs. There was no difference in pay for the different job duties like there is today. Later his title changed to a "combination man" because "I did everything."

Changing from party to single line service also marked the transition to touch-tone phones.

"This was one of the earliest electronic advances that came along for a customer was to have a push-button phone," said Teague.

Customers also started to own their own phones. Blackfoot sold the equipment to the customer for pennies on the dollar.

"That was the advent of that phone jack that you know now. We had to go change those chords out [modulation project] that hardwired in the phone in the network block. Then that customer could own that phone," said Teague.

Teague said that people wanted more and more features.

"Cooperatives in general are always more state-of-the-art because they aren't putting money back into shareholder's pockets for profit," said Teague. "They will take and use the money to give people the best and most modern features that they can afford to do."

Teague said in 1978, Blackfoot got the first digital switch, Northern Telcom DMS10 in Seeley Lake. Blackfoot was the second cooperative in Montana and number 44 in the country to get a digital switch. This allowed Blackfoot to offer call waiting, call forwarding and many other features.

"We had to go digital to provide all these services to everyone in the co-op," said Teague. "We don't just try to provide a service to people. We try to provide the same service to everyone throughout the network as best we can."

Teague remembered stringing wires across Highway 200 in the "old days." Blackfoot employees would get everything ready on both sides, turn the truck crossways with its lights on, run across and string the wires up.

"No flag men, no nothing just the truck was blocking traffic," said Teague. "You would hurry up and get [the wires] up the side and get them out of the way so the semis wouldn't tear it down when they went through."

Teague said that there were days he would climb 30-50 poles a day working day and night to restore service after a big storm in Avon, Elliston, Condon, Seeley Lake, Ovando, Helmville and Potomac.

"I would just run. We never even took our hooks off," said Teague. "Sometimes I wouldn't even take my belt off in the truck because you didn't have time. I love high pressure days when you need to go, go, go."

He was also quick to help the electric guys when a big storm went through. He completed a state of Montana apprenticeship program and is certified as a journeyman electrical lineman.

"When I go out there and I help the power guys, I'm also serving the people. They do the same thing to help me," said Teague. "I volunteered countless hours to help MEC and was even hired by MEC to help restore power to their customers after major storms."

Starting in the early 1990s, Blackfoot installed fiber optic cables. They started in the Flathead Valley and finished in the 1990s.

Now Blackfoot is starting to provide fiber to individual customers. They are finishing St. Ignatius this year and then starting on Arlee and Charlo.

Photo provided

In the early years, Blackfoot Telephone Cooperative's main office was a house on the corner of Russell Street and Defoe Street in Missoula. The truck in the foreground was John "Jack" Teague's truck, the earliest truck that his son Randy Teague can remember. The entire Blackfoot Telephone Cooperative staff around 1960 (L-R): Paul Fyfe, Ray Smith, Laura Slominski, Ernestine Jette, Jack Teague and Oliver "Ollie" Gore. Randy Teague said Seeley Lake, Condon, Avon, Elliston, Ovando, Dixon, Arlee, Clinton and possibly Potomac were the exchanges at the time and date of the photo.

Blackfoot currently offers services to 22 rural exchanges in Western Montana and eastern Idaho, providing voice, data, cloud and IT services for small and large businesses and phone and high-speed Broadband Internet for residents.

Now working as a central office technician, Teague said he is honored to be a part of the team helping connect T-Mobile towers through Montana and Wyoming. He helps connect the T-Mobile network via dual routes to the switching center to Wenachee, Wash. for service in Montana and to Aurora, Colo. for customers in Wyoming.

"There wouldn't even be cell phone service in rural Montana if it wasn't for the co-ops having the facilities for those cell towers to get to the rest of the world," said Teague. "[Working on this project] I've seen places in Montana I've never seen before. I like being able to talk to people. I enjoy the new stuff that comes along with it."

"When you get your phone from Blackfoot, they take their profits and pay back your patronage. Blackfoot has been paying out over a million dollars or so back to their customers for many, many years. They were formed to get service to the consumers. They are owned by the consumers. As employees we are here to serve the people," said Teague. "Blackfoot is a great place to work, has great people and a great mission. Please support your co-ops which you as members own and they are working for you."

 

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