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Bigelow went from stagecoaches to telephones

Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society

Long before Friant Dam, pictured here, stretched across the San Joaquin River, Harmon and Jess Bigelow had strung their telephone wires from O’Neals to Friant.


I first met the Bigelows while working at Spring Valley School a long time ago. Jess Bigelow was a major patron of the school’s 4-H club and spent a lot of money buying their animals at the Madera and Chowchilla fairs.

Of course it wasn’t long before I found out about the connection between the Bigelow family and the Ponderosa Telephone Company, and that is a history lesson I love to tell. It started over a century ago when Harmon Bigelow, Frank Bigelow’s great grandfather, was driving his wagon from his O’Neals home down the hill toward Madera. He only had 35 cents in his pocket, but he had a dream in his head. He intended to capitalize on the need for transportation in Madera County.

Little did he realize that his efforts would take him in an entirely different direction. Little did he know that his plan to start a staging business would result in the creation of the Ponderosa Telephone Company.

Bigelow had tried his hand at lumbering in the Peckinpah mill near North Fork, but by the turn of the 20th century, he was providing for his family by hauling wood with his team and spring wagon. Then the mail run from Madera to Fresno Flats, and North Fork came open, and Bigelow secured the contract.

On that first day in his new venture, Bigelow picked up the mountain mail in Madera and filled out his load with some foot-hill-bound freight. So heavily loaded was the team that by the time he reached Bellview (20 miles east of Madera), his horses gave out.

It just so happened that the saloonkeeper at Bellview had two mules, which were idle at the time. Bigelow struck a deal and left his jaded horses with the barkeep and continued up the hill with the mules pulling the load. Bigelow delivered the mail and freight, and on his return to Madera, exchanged the rented mules for his horses.

For the next eleven months, Bigelow operated his mail run. Then he added passenger service, charging prospective travelers to O’Neals, North Fork, or Fresno Flats $3 to sit among the mail pouches and freight boxes. In time, Bigelow purchased a stage to transport his passengers and continued to haul his freight in the wagon.

Bigelow’s freight and stage business continued to grow over the next 15 years. At the height of the enterprise, he worked more than 150 horses. Two crews were employed; one resting while the other was on the go. In the words of Jess Bigelow, Harmon’s son, “It was a real good money-making business.”

All was not rosy, however. Even though the Bigelows were developing a lucrative freight and stage business, pioneer life in the Madera County foothills remained both difficult and lonely at the turn of the century. There were few conveniences, and isolation was a fact of life against which people constantly battled. It was that basic human need for communication that led Bigelow to lay the foundations for yet another business — one that would eclipse his efforts in transportation, and it occurred almost by accident.

It just so happened that Sears and Roebuck was advertising telephones, which were really little more than tin cans connected by wire. They did work, however, and since Harmon’s wife, Leota, and her mother desired more frequent communication, Bigelow bought a set in 1908.

Recognizing the potential which this new fangled gadget contained, he decided to string wires from his home to his stage office, as well. He was then asked by the forest service to connect his O’Neals office with North Fork. After stringing wires on trees and forest service poles, the connection was made. Almost overnight, the quality of life in the Madera County foothills took a giant step forward.

The Bigelow staging business continued to serve as a catalyst for the growth of telephone service in Madera and Fresno counties. Bigelow concluded it would be advantageous to connect the stage office at O’Neals with his office in Friant. With his son, Jess, stringing the wire from tree to tree, the line was taken to Friant. The next connection would be to the outside world.

By 1911, the idea of connecting with the Bell Telephone Company was conceived, and it was agreed the communication giant would meet the Bigelows in Clovis. Jess Bigelow hauled the poles and strung the wires, and, on Jan. 25, 1912, the tie-up was complete; the Bigelow Telephone Company was officially born, although its primary function was to serve as an adjunct to the Bigelow staging business and as a convenience for friends and neighbors.

The telephone business gained in importance with the demise of Bigelow’s freight and stage business, and that came as a direct result of the automobile. While Bigelow attempted to make the transition from horse drawn wagons and stages to auto-trucks, by 1914, his son Jess had had enough. He was not at all impressed with the motor-powered vehicle. “They were rough, rugged, and expensive.”

So Harmon Bigelow left the staging business. He sold his 150 head of mares, colts, and mules. By 1915, it was all over. The family focused its attention on its sheep and cattle interests. The telephone business remained secondary, but it was not to be so for very long.

Before Harmon Bigelow died in 1944, he advised Jess to “get rid of the sheep...and stay with the telephone because that is ham and eggs three times a day.” Following his father’s advice, by 1945, Jess had increased the telephone company to 250 subscribers. Then, with a $120,000 loan from the Manhattan Bank of New York, the Ponderosa Telephone Company was born.

Growing from a personal convenience gadget whose primary function was to augment the family stagecoach operation, Jess Bigelow breathed life into what had been a side interest and developed it into one of the few remaining privately owned telephone companies in California. And it all started in 1900 when Harmon Bigelow pocketed his 35 cents, hooked up his horses to that spring wagon and headed for Madera.


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