Friday, November 9, 2012

Sepia Saturday 151 Phones and party lines

I have so many thoughts and memories about phones  that I had to stop pondering and post...such have been the changes over the past 50 years.   

I still recall 748R, our home telephone number back when we had party lines, a number I memorized at about age 4.  That was a time when the phone exchanges were growing.  Party lines were predominant in our town for some time.  Mom knew  the folks on our line and sometimes they would just talk, to each other,  if a conversation was in process whoever picked up felt free to chime in or to ask for the line to make a call.  This photo from 1975 is of the last party line telephone operator in  Minnesota.  Wow, I thought they were long gone by then but this was in Cotton, a rural northern part of MN,  beyond Duluth near the Iron Mountain Range.  
1975 January  Miss Gellerstedt  
"Hello Cotton"  answers Miss Sigrid Gellerstedt, chief operator of the Cotton telephone exchange, the last hand-crank system in the state.  The late evening sun poured in the windows of her cozy little white house in Cotton, about halfway between the Iron Range and Duluth on Highway 53 where the system was set up.  Miss Gellerstedt sat at the massive old oaken switchboard, a headset crowning her curly hair. On top of the board and the closet full of circuits behind it were a picture of her parents, a plaque with the opening lines of the 23rd Psalm on it and two small American flags. 

The old switchboard in her home, looked very much like an upright piano and she “played” it with the skill and artistry of a true virtuoso.   But it’s all part of history now. She was the Cotton operator for more than 30 years, starting her career in the communications industry on May 4, 1944. At first she had it all alone and worked about 15 hours a day, seven days a week, although her mother helped out.  After many years she had two assistants, local women to fill in and take over. 

When Cotton’s hand-cranked telephones were disconnected the 200 subscribers joined the outside world’s dial system in the form of Arrowhead Communications Corp.  The party lines with up to 17 households on them became historical lore, with installation of automatic dial phones.  Sig and her  assistants, were replaced by a small windowless building filled with automatic dial equipment on County Road 52 about three miles east of Cotton.”  “It’s the end of an era,” said the independent company relations supervisor for Northwestern Bell. He had mixed feelings about the progress that comes with the discontinuance of the crank telephone.  “These people don’t know what they’re going to miss,” he predicted.  The operators, particularly Miss Gellerstedt, recognized many callers by voice. That’s personalized service you probably won’t find in other places.  And if you were lonely or bored, they were glad to discuss local events, give evaluations of the weather or chat about anything you cared to mention and had the time to talk about.  They were a social service and a news medium all rolled into one."  
This is courtesy of a site, attic voices at this link  where you can look for more about the last party line story.

That reminds me me of a passage in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days, ( a Minnesotta writer) in which he writes about a former switchboard operator for whom it seems Sigrid Gellerstedt could have been a model. Here are a few lines:  "The pantry off her kitchen holds the old switchboard, still in good condition, and also the steel cabinet with the switching equipment that took over from it when they went to dial telephones in 1960. … If someone doesn’t answer their phone by the fifth ring, she does, and usually she knows where they went and when they’re expected. … If you do reach her instead of your party – say, your mother – she may clue you in on things your mom would never tell you, about your mom’s bad back, a little fall on the steps the week before, or the approach of Mother’s Day, or the fact that when you were born you were shown off like you were the Prince of Wales"

This 2011 photo is of the vintage, old and  very heavy immobile dial phone that my late uncle Carl kept on his desk in his home; he had a special arrangement with the phone company to accept and translate  the dial sounds. I tried to convince him to convert to a new push button phone but he was not having it. I bought a new phone with big push buttons for him, he made me return it.  This black dinosaur  had worked well over the years and he saw no need to change.   We sold it in the estate sale when he passed.  It limited him all the times when one was asked to push a number for different choices, but he would patiently just sit tight until a live person  finally came on line. If no one came on the line, he would hang up and be done with whatever he had called about.  This frustrated me and I asked him once, "well how will you finish that...."  he grinned and replied, "not a problem, it's their turn to call me..."  I suspect this black behemoth dated back to about 1952 when they built the house, it was used until 2010 when he went into assisted living.

I close with "Party Line" written by Coleman Lee Williams,   late father of our friend, Tom who graciously shared many of Coleman's works. Can you see the women talking....

Hello! What are you doing today?
Well, I just called up to say ---
What's that? She DID? How'd you hear?
No! Wait, this line's not very clear.

Did you say she ---? That's what I thought.    
Well, that's the first she ever bought!
What time was that? I mustn't forget;
Hold it 'til I get a cigarette.

Why, they were here until after eight.
Well, gossip's one thing I simply hate,
But I told her more than a thing or two.
O - Oh! Someone on the line, or was it you?

Of course! I know just how you feel,
(Quit clickin' this phone, you lousy heel!)
No, not you, but the way some act,
It's a pity they don't use a little tact!

I'd like to see it. How's it made?
But where did you put the rick-rack braid?
Bet it's cute. I'd like to see her in it;
Oh! Before I forget, have you tried Pinit?

No, I didn't. Never said a word.
Well, that's not the first, so I've heard.
That's what I say --- like an open page,
It's a wonder she wouldn't act her age!

Well, just thought I'd give you a buzz;
Wish I knew who that guy was,
Didn't you hear him try the line?
Yeah, been doin' it since almost nine!

Where were we? Oh, now I remember,
Didn't you hear? Nine, next November!
I thought so last week on the street.
Yeah, everybody thought her so stinkin' sweet.

You don't mean -- ? That awful clown!
Well, I did hear he left town.
You know that other, -- yeah, skinny legs,
Looked like a dog caught suckin' eggs.

Did you see --- Oh! That makes me mad!
If that guy needs the phone so bad
Looks like he'd get another line,
I pay this bill so this one's mine!

I guess that'll hold HIM, -- now, where was I?
Oh, if you're gonna be home, I'll drop by;
If there's any one thing that'll make me balk
It's some guy cuttin' in when I wanta talk!

Bye, see you in a few minutes!                Written by: Coleman Lee Williams  4/28/1900 - 5/5/1988

Short on photos long on words, today.  Click here to  the Sepia host site where others
share responses to the prompt...


  1. Who would have thought that the humble telephone would have given rise to such a fine crop of Sepia Stories this week, and this is certainly one of them. I had forgotten all about party lines - thanks for reminding me (and thanks for the post)

  2. Frankly, I have never heard of a party line but I can guess what it is after reading the Coleman Lee lyrics. They made me laugh!

  3. Our first line was a party line - in 1970! Sigrid Gellerstedt had to be a dedicated operator to work 15 hours a day. Lots of words maybe Pat, but well worth reading about how things used to be.

  4. Here's a true phone story for you. We were living in Eureka in the mid to late 1950's when colored phones became the newest status symbol and the telephone company made a big push on the colored phones. But, there was an extra charge on your bill for that color so I was content, despite many contacts from sales people, to stay with my old black one. Finally, fully fed up with the sales pitches I said, "OK, I'll take a colored phone." The voice on the other end responded, "Oh fine, Mr. Williams. What color would you like?" "Ebony," I said. There were a few moments of silence, I supposed she was looking for her color listings. Then I heard, "Why, that's black!" "Yes," I said, "And that's the color I want." I think that was the last call I received about taking a colored phone.

  5. Such a fun post. I had never thought about operators operating out of their homes. We had a party line when I was a little girl. After reading this, I remember people signaling they wanted the line by "clicking". It was a great temptation to listen in!

  6. This is an amazing theme- bringing out all the oldies but goodies, and party lines and such that many have never even heard of! I never ever saw them- but gee I heard about them from my family!

  7. Party lines were a thing of the past by the time I started using the phone. I do remember hearing stories much line the ones you related so well. Thanks for sharing the memories and the picture of that old phone. I held on to a cell phone once with much the same tenacity but the phone company wasn't willing to make an exception and let me keep it!

  8. I remember my first phone number too: EX3-5443. EX stood for Export and we often SAID Export 35443. We also had a party line for several years, and it felt like a luxury when we got a private line. This was really a fun post to read.

    1. Our next phone number and the one Mom kept until she died in the house was ED7-3627, for Edison.

  9. Great post! I haven't ever used a party line. That must have been a very interesting experience, if somewhat annoying sometimes. I can't imagine knowing people may be listening in on a conversation.

    So you live in Minnesota I see? That's where my grandfather, Arthur Harry Iverson, was born. Unfortunately, I never knew him, as he passed away when my father was a young boy.

    1. we moved here in '05 after I retired, to hubby's hometown because it was a place central to the country and afforded a better quality of life than we could have continued in northern CA where we'd lived for over 40 years and always thought we'd stay. It is a lovely area, but not so sure we'd do this again, we considered many other places. Anyway now we are settled.