Mary Bruce

Salem Telephone Exchange in 1914. Mrs. Thomas A. Bruce, owner and manager; Miss Waunita Roberts, switchboard operator; and Chas B. Jeffries, electrician and lineman.

What do Mary E. Bruce and an old telephone have in common? How did they both change Salem?

Through the telling of Mary's story, you will gain an appreciation for this remarkable woman.

Who was Mary E. Bruce?

Mary was a woman not originally from Salem. According to the late historian Ken Fiebelman, “Mary E. Bruce was born near Ironton, in Iron County, Missouri March 28, 1861. As Mary grew into a young woman, she crossed paths with a young man named Thomas. Mary “Met and Married Thomas A. Bruce on her 17th birthday.” Mary settled into married life with Thomas and four years later, they made a decision that would change their lives. In 1880, Thomas A. And Mary Bruce moved to Salem when Mary was just 21. This move was both beneficial for Mary and Salem, Missouri. After 19 years of residency in Salem, tragedy struck Mary.

What kind of tragedy would strike a 40-year-old woman.? For Mary, the diagnosis was heart dropping for woman of her age. Mary, in effect, was going blind. When her eyesight began to fail, and she was faced with total blindness, her great business life began. This diagnosis did not deter Mary; it just made her a stronger person. Mary was determined not to let her failing eyesight pin her down. Mary set out on a monumental goal. In 1901, Mary Bruce, despite her handicap, conceived the idea of building a telephone system in Salem. Mary laid the groundwork for her fledgling Telephone Company, one step at a time. The late W.P Elmer stated, “She talked the matter over with businessmen, some approved and some thought it a pipe dream.” This did not deter Mary. Mary still had a vision of the Telephone Company, and she set out to complete her goal. Mrs. Bruce had a friend in St. Louis named D. A. Kusel who was a manufacturer of telephone equipment and he agreed to have the system installed for her at his expense and she can pay for as it earned its way. Mary had her telephones but she did not have her customers yet.

Mary had half of her goal accomplished in starting her Telephone Company. What was the next step in accomplishing the second half of her goal? Mrs. Bruce canvased the town for subscribers, she soon had enough promise to guarantee the installation of the phone. The homes were to pay $1 and the stores and business offices $1.25. Mary began to see her dreams come to fruition while her eyesight progressively got worse. Mary's blindness did not stop her from realizing her dream but other factors tried to stop her from her goal.

There are always naysayers and people who want to tear down your dreams. Mary had several of these types of people come against her and her telephone business. A good many critical remarks were heard about her attempt to put in a telephone system, and a woman's place was in the home. Lots of people squawked at the high prices to just talk and many said the project would fail. The actions of these fearful people did not deter Mary in her quest for communication to be available for the citizens of Salem.

Mary went to work on setting up telephone system within her home at the corner of Sixth and Jackson streets in the Clark's North Edition. Mary's dream was now a reality, sitting in a room of her home. Elmer stated, “In this room there was a folding bed were Mr. and Mrs. Bruce slept in case of an emergency call, which they could handle it at night. The board contained a direct line to St. Louis. The Salem residents finally embraced Mary and her newfangled telephones, and Mary began to see her vision grow. Mary's telephone wires were lacing the homes of Salem together into a tightknit community. Mary's telephone wires eventually began to reach out into the rural parts of Dent County.

Mary's Salem Telephone Company eventually tied in with the Bell Telephone System. This would be a boon to Mary's telephone company. The Bell telephone line was not in Salem when she established the Salem Telephone Company and it took a lot of negotiations and pleading to get them here. Elmer also stated, “The Western Union Telegraph Company was our only outside communication until Bell came and connected with the Bruce system. In 1905 the Bell Company constructed a line from Cuba to Salem, and connected with Mrs. Bruce’s system. Mary's vision of a Telephone Company was growing by leaps and bounds and the residents of Salem were along for the ride. Mary's vision of a Telephone Company was finally accomplished. At its peak, there were 800 subscribers.

Mary stayed with her fledgling business, hiring switchboard operators and a lineman for repairs. Eventually Mary's disability and age got the best of her. Mrs. Bruce sold her phone business in 1927 for $30,000, becoming part of the United Telephone System. Mary remained a resident of Salem, and helped start several organizations within the town.

She was the foremost business woman of Salem and was written up in newspapers and magazines all over the United States. Mary went on to serve the residents of Salem until her death.

Mrs. Bruce died May 8, 1942 and is buried by her husband in Cedar Grove Cemetery.

Elmer, W.P. Wm. P. Elmer's History of Dent county. Salem: The Salem News, 1956.

Fiebelman, Ken. Ozark Heritage Dent County Missouri 1851 – 1978 volume 1. Dallas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1978.

Fiebelman, Ken. Ozark Heritage Dent County Missouri 1851 – 1980 volume 2. Dallas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1980.