April 07, 2020

Hope Amid Ruins> On The Line; Phone company making good connection

AURORA — Mathel Bell lives alone on an isolated country road in the northern Hancock County town of Otis. The 82-year-old woman never lost her phone service despite the destruction the ice storm wreaked in her neighborhood.

Bell has the Union River Telephone Co. to thank. One of Maine’s few family-run telephone companies, the business has managed to maintain or restore service for the bulk of its customers numbering more than 1,200 in six towns and 18 townships in Hancock and Washington counties.

William Silsby, general manager of the telephone company founded by his grandfather Herbert Silsby just after the turn of the century, says his company is relying on half a dozen generators to provide phone service. Only about 30 customers are unable to phone out or receive calls.

“I have never seen an ice storm like this,” Silsby, 71, recalled Monday. He jointly owns the Aurora-based company with his sister Beverly MacLean and his brother Herbert Silsby II.

Founded in 1905, Union River started out with five dozen customers, many of whom were on party lines. For more than a quarter of a century, the company’s switchboard was operated by the founder’s daughter, Alice Silsby.

A registered nurse, Alice Silsby is remembered as a highly capable woman who ran the phone company for years after her father’s death. After a storm, she was known to have gone out with an ax and help the crew clear downed phone lines.

“She used to get on her bluejeans, which was quite unusual then, and help the men,” her nephew Herbert Silsby II remembered Monday.

Otis, Osborn and many of the other communities Union River now serves were especially hard hit by the nearly weeklong ice storm. The scene there Monday resembled a fanciful landscape of filigree glass lit by the sun. Towering spruces sheathed in ice flanked roads. Ice-caked birches hung like weeping willows over roads.

At noon, half a dozen utility and phone company trucks were gathered at the Otis General Store. Union River linemen John Monahan and Josh Magoon were among the linemen having soda, coffee or a bite to eat before heading out again. These and other workers have been on the job almost continuously to keep phone service going.

“We have a lot of elderly people in these remote areas,” said Priscilla Leighton, who has worked for the company for a quarter of a century. “Many don’t realize telephone lines have a low voltage. We have been telling them not to touch any lines.”

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