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Voices of Spencer Creek

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Telephones, Then and Now

By Lois Barton

Posted on Nov 24, 2006

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Lois at the Village Switchboard

While on vacation in Hawaii earlier this year I became fascinated by a contraption my son wore over his ear. It was a black device about the thickness of a lead pencil and three or four inches long. Imagine my surprise, while he drove our rental car over a barren lava landscape miles from anywhere, to hear him begin to talk to no visible participant. There had been no audible signal to begin that I had heard. I learned from his side of the conversation that the other person he was talking to seemed to be in Oregon half a world away.

The whole operation seemed incredible to me. His explanation that what he wore over his ear was a cell phone accessory didn't help that much. I've almost never used a cell phone, that little black device, sort of like a TV remote, one carries around in a pocket. The technology really stretches my 88 year old understanding. No wires! No bells! No apparent mouthpiece! No visible receiver to your ear! A few buttons! Amazing! This remarkable gadget is called a Bluetooth device and comes as an accessory with some cell phones. It works when both the Bluetooth device and its cell phone in your pocket are charged and turned on.

Seventy years ago I worked as a telephone switchboard operator in a small Ohio village. The switchboard was located in the front room of a private home whose resident was responsible for connecting telephone users in the area with each other twenty-four hours day. My participation was to relieve her for a few hours so she could leave the house without abandoning the community to no phone service. Users were careful not to make calls after ten P.M., which might have gotten her out of bed to make their connections for them, except for emergencies.

Anyone wishing to make a call would lift the receiver from their home phone, which usually hung on the wall, and turn the crank on its side to ring the operator. When that call came to the switchboard the operator must plug a cord into the line from which the call originated and ask "Number please?" Having received a specified number another cord was plugged into the second line and the operator pushed a button to activate the phone of the recipient.

These were party lines with several homes or businesses all using the same line. Each home was assigned a personal signal for their phone, such as two short rings and a long. There might be as many as ten homes connected on the same wire which went to the switchboard and each phone on the line rang for each call whether in or out. This was an advantage in the sense that neighbors could be warned of local emergencies by extended or unusual ringing of the phone

The biggest drawback was that a nosy person could listen in on every conversation on an individual line. The power that enabled phone operation was a battery in each phone. If several people on the same line had receivers to their ears at the same time the signal was weakened and made it hard to hear.

The switchboard where I worked was beside a window that looked out onto the village square. I could see the general store and the post office as I sat there. Besides the telephone office on our corner, a plant nursery occupied the fourth corner. Because I could see passersby on the road outside, one day I had a call from a subscriber who lived about a mile down the road.

"Operator," she said, "when my husband drives by with his wagonload of coal, will you give me a ring so I can put the potatoes on to cook?" Another call I remember all these years later was from an impetuous teen-age boy wanting to talk to his pal. I had to tell him that the other line was busy. "Oh, applesauce!" he yelled, slamming down the receiver on my ear. The operator was expected to handle such calls as that from subscriber Jim who said "Get me Smitty." That was a time and place where we knew our neighbors and related cooperatively in a small rural community. What a far cry from the advanced technology of today's communication systems!

Copyright © 2006 by Lois Barton

Look for more stories about Hawaii coming to The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte soon!

Writer and historian
Lois Barton

Lois Barton is an 88 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household and garden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil.

Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life-long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.

Follow the links of the Voices of Spencer Creek for the most recent articles by Lois Barton, including:

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Remembering Bovine Tuberculosis

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: What Is a Quilt?

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Quakers in the British Virgin Islands

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Manta Rays, and Dandelions, A Poem, also introducing Carolann Krohn

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Those Husky Macadamia Nuts

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Fender's Blue, a Nine Day Wonder

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Frannie and the Arrow

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Bhavia's Cambodia

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Saga of the Smoking Chimney

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Saga of Big Oak Stables

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Fishy Story

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Different Peace

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Hal and the Mountain

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Rogue River Adventure

Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Obituary for a Country Cat

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Cortesia Sanctuary

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Tree and Me and Lady Slippers

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Cranberries

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Endurance Riding

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Butterflies and Community Development

and The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Last Gift.

See more of Lois Barton's articles in West By online magazine's archives:

Visit the Heron Rookery

Sauerkraut and All That

Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?

The Midwife–The midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.

The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.

Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.

© Copyright 2000-2006 by West By

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