Thunder Butte

September 21, 2008


In the late 1940’s and perhaps well beyond, Henry F. Harding was probably one of the wealthier of the local citizenry of Faith, if not the wealthiest. He owned the West River Telephone & Electric Company, was a member of the City Council of Faith, and was involved in local banking. I don’t know the full story, but my uncle, Neal Crowley, who was then the Chief of Police of Faith, somehow ran afoul of Harding in 1949 over an unpaid phone bill of $14. Just to give the unpaid bill some perspective, this amount would have been about $125 in today’s dollars. We don’t know the reasons for the unpaid phone bill. Neal may have felt that Harding owed him for something, and not paying the phone bill was Neal’s way of getting even. Or, maybe Neal simply was falling behind on his obligations for other reasons. Whatever the problem, Harding had Neal’s phone disconnected.

Now disconnecting the phone of the Chief of Police even in a small town is a big deal. Neal could not provide – in today’s parlance – 24/7 police coverage without access to a telephone at his house. Certainly, he had one in the office. But in those days, a small rural town would not have had police radios. Having the phone in Neal’s home was a vital link between the community and its lawman.

Curiously, despite the fact that Henry Harding was on the Faith City Council, he didn’t see the value of having that phone in Neal’s home remain connected. One suspects that there must have been a mighty test of wills at play, or perhaps one gigantic grudge match, for Harding rejected the City Council’s own demands that he reconnect the phone. The Council passed a resolution in January 1950, which Harding ignored. The town took Harding to court. Despite obtaining a favorable ruling, Harding also ignored that.

There may have been a very personal dispute going on or some kind of personality issue. Faith was a small town. Neal and Harding would have had to have known each other quite well. Perhaps they had had run ins with each other before and this dispute proved more than each man and the friends and supporters each had could countenance. Neal was, after all, a fairly popular man in Faith. While there were those, no doubt, who did not like Neal, Harding also probably rubbed some people the wrong way with his money.

In any case, Harding was a businessman and he must have justified himself as simply trying to protect his own business interests. Neal did owe him the money, and apparently did pay the delinquent bill after the mayor intervened. But, Harding was not satisfied. He was not going to be bullied by the City of Faith over how to run his telephone company. If the town was going to demand that Harding reinstall Neal’s telephone service, then Harding wanted the town to promise to make good on any future liabilities. He asked for a $30 deposit to reconnect the phone, which would have been about $250 in today’s dollars.

If you’ve ever had a falling out with a modern phone company, then you know that Henry Harding was either very prescient about the direction of the consumer telecommunications business, or he was simply just being a smart businessman. If you let the phone company disconnect your service today for nonpayment, then you know you are going to face a hefty deposit for getting your service back. Well, both Neal Crowley and the town refused to pay a deposit and were intent on getting that phone reconnected.

One suspects that the cost of lawyers and going to court – even in those days – was substantial. It is likely that this case quickly escalated into tremendously bruised feelings and hardened positions on both sides. Each side – Harding and the City of Faith – put their hired lawyers to the test. For the time and the place, this may have been akin to the showdown at the O.K. Corral—just not as violent.

The town argued in the Meade County Circuit Court that, “Without such telephone connection law and order is jeopardized and the safety of the people of Faith imperiled. The telephone has been out for more than three months.” After consultation with the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, the court found that the City Council resolution requiring reconnection of service was a lawful order, and Harding was ordered again to reconnect Neal’s phone.

We don’t know how quickly Neal had his telephone service restored, but it was restored. Neal continued to be the Chief of Police of Faith for many years afterward. Henry Harding’s business interests continued to expand. In 1958, he purchased the Farmers State Bank in nearby Dupree. Neal and Harding must have run into each other from time to time after that, although we don’t know what might have been said between the two men. Most likely, each man made a grudging peace with the other if for no other reason than the intention to continue living in Faith. I would not have liked to have been standing nearby, though, if either man ever encountered the other in the local bar.

--Mike Crowley
Mike Crowley Sunday, September 21, 2008


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