Bringing the first phone to McCook

Monday, February 11, 2002
J.E. Kelley

John E. Kelley, who was to become one of McCook's leading citizens, was also one of McCook's first settlers. In 1883 Congress established a new Land District, which included all of Chase, Dundy, Hayes, Hitchcock, and Red Willow Counties, and a large part of Frontier County, and located the Land Office at McCook. Gilbert Laws of Harlan County and Charles Babcock of McCook were appointed Register and Receiver for the Land Office. In 1885 John E. Kelley took a position as their Law Clerk.

J.E. Kelley was born in Birmingham, Iowa, in 1862. He studied law at Kirwin, Kan., and was appointed to the post of Law Clerk in the local U.S. Land Office. In 1885 he was transferred to the Land Office at McCook. But first, he took time out to be married on April 7, 1885, in Phillipsburg, Kan. The day after his wedding Mr. Kelley and his bride, Nora, drove, via horse and buggy to McCook, to assume his new position as law clerk in the Land Office. Mr. Kelley must have been favorably impressed with McCook. The first thing he did was to trade his horse and buggy for his first piece of McCook property. It would not be his last.

For the next 57 years J.E. Kelley and McCook were closely connected. He became manager of the McCook Land Office; then went into business for himself, as an abstractor, lawyer and real estate dealer. In 1889, at the death of Thomas Colfer, he was appointed manager of the Lincoln Land Co., the firm that from the first owned and operated McCook's original town site. In 1919 he bought up the remaining land holdings of the Lincoln Land Co., instantly becoming the largest land holder in the city.

J.E. Kelley also had the first telephones in McCook. After Alexander Graham Bell successfully launched the first commercial telephone exchange in 1878 there was much interest in the Bell's new invention, certainly the high-tech darling of its day. Then, as now, the new technology especially appealed to the young people of the day. J.E. Kelley was in the group. In 1897, only 19 years after the first commercial phones came into being, Mr. Kelley went to Omaha and rented two phones from the Nebraska Telephone Co. He connected these phones so that he could communicate between his home and his office, and soon all of McCook was buzzing about Mr. Kelley's wonderful new "toy." Kelley's "toy" led, in 1899, to The Nebraska Telephone Company's establishing commercial service in McCook, with a primitive switchboard and some 60 customers.

The first telephone office was located at the southwest corner of Norris Avenue and B Street. Six months later facilities were completed for the construction of the first toll line, between McCook and Oxford.

J.E. Kelley was extremely successful in McCook, in a wide span of enterprises. Mr. Kelley served for many years as the President of the Real Estate firm of J.E. Kelley and Son. He was President of the First Trust Co., and President of the McCook Co-op Building and Savings Association. Mr. Kelley and his son, Charles, were also early promoters for the drilling of oil in our area, leasing a considerable number of acres, at a time before anyone was having much success in the finding of oil.

Over his lifetime Mr. Kelley gave back to the city -- and by his gifts we all have benefited. Mr. Kelley was the McCook's first city clerk. He was also the first Secretary of the McCook Chamber of Commerce. And, he served as McCook's mayor for seven terms. He was a charter member of the McCook Elk' s Club, an early Exalted Ruler of the Lodge, and served on National Elks Committees.

For many years he served as chairman of the Red Willow County Republican Party. In 1922 he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, at which Calvin Coolidge and Charles Dawes were nominated. In 1925 he was appointed to the reception committee, which met President and Mrs. Coolidge and accompanied them to an American Legion meeting in Omaha. Mr. Kelley did not just give of his time and talents to the city. He also returned to the people of McCook much of his land holdings. One such gift included some 35 acres, which includes the present Kelley Park, Weiland Field and McCook College. Another gift allowed the Country Club to construct the old golf course, east of the Elks' Club, now Broken Tee Par 3. Later, he gave the ground for the construction of the City Auditorium on west 5th St.

When Mr. Kelley passed away in 1942, Bishop George Allen Beecher eulogized, 'Kelley ... whose career in McCook spanned more than 50 years, was the greatest community benefactor to have lived in this city." We can all be grateful that John E. Kelley chose to make McCook his home.

Sources: Early History of McCook, Nebraska, by Marion McClelland Trails West to Red Willow Co. Neb.., by Bob Ray & Lois Rutledge Centennial Edition, McCook Gazette, 1882-1982

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