From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Rural Party Line Remembered

Our phone lines are bad -- but they could be worse.


I get pretty disgusted about our telephone line sometimes. I wish AT&T (new owners of the former BellSouth) would lay fiber-optic cable in this part of Christian County, KY. Then we could get a broadband internet connection, which would speed up our uploads and downloads tremendously .

Isaac recently showed me a Newsweek article about the lack of access to high speed internet service in America. Compared with many parts of the world, including places you wouldn't think of as rich or advanced, America is lagging behind on the information superhighway. For example, Estonia has passed us by and is leaving us in the dust.

Even though our telephone lines are inadequate by modern standards, I do remember when telephone lines were much, much worse. Fifty years ago, when I was growing up in Rock County in northern Nebraska, we'd have been amazed at the telephone service I'm complaining about tonight.

In those days, every little community had their own telephone company and everyone was on one big party line. In the Duff Valley where we lived, twenty or more homes were on the line. Every phone call rang in every home.

To call someone on the telephone, the receiver was taken off its cradle and the handle was cranked to make it ring. Our family's "ring", the signal for us to pick up the phone, was a short ring followed by a long ring. The Anders' ring was a long and a short. Duff Valley School's ring was two longs and a short. My Saar cousins' ring was a short, two longs, and a short. It may sound complicated, but everyone knew everyone else's ring by heart.

An emergency (such as a prairie fire) or a community announcement was signaled with an extremely long ring. That was the one time that everyone was supposed to pick up the telephone and listen! Some of the neighbors liked to "rubberneck" every time the phone rang. When my parents needed to make private business calls, they made them from a telephone booth in town.

The phone line itself was strung on poles that were a little taller than fence posts, but not nearly as tall as electric poles. Glass insulators -- the ones that you now see in antique stores -- kept the wires from touching the posts and grounding out. It was not uncommon for the telephone lines to go down in a bad winter storm.

When you wanted to call somewhere beyond the neighborhood, you cranked out a long ring for "Central", the switchboard at the telephone office in Bassett . When she answered, she said , "Number, please," or "Operator," and then connected you to whatever lines you needed.

My mother's Aunt Letha Blair was the night operator at the Bassett telephone office for many years. My mother often called her late in the evening and visited with her between the incoming calls at the telephone office.

Shorty and Garneta Schubert were on two telephone lines--both the Duff line and the Sybrant line. I think the telephone office charged whenever a call went through Central, because people often called the Schuberts and asked them to get on their other telephone to relay a message.

We all thought we were pretty up-to-date when we finally got dial telephones in the mid-1960's. The telephone only rang when the call was for us. I think we still had a party line, but it was just a couple other people. It was quite a change.

Irregardless, I still want DSL!

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4 comments:

Mark said...

I guess we were uptown. We shared out line with only one other person. Even by the time my parents built their new house in 1967, the telephone company owned the telephones and made customers pay for additional jacks in the house.

I can identify with your desire for fiber optic cables. Where we live the phone company laid the line leading up to the few houses on our mountain in a ditch. Every time it rains (not very often these days) some of the cable is exposed. Cable TV is way down the mountain from us. However, Verizon finally started offering wireless internet in our town, and we have it. It's not the fastest, but it's like night and day compared to our dialup.

Lesa said...

Party lines sure bring memories. I grew up in Fairview in the 60's. We had an 8 party line. You never knew who was "lurking" on the line. I'll never forget when my sister was past due to be born and my mom told her best friend over the phone one morning that she had given birth to a baby boy the night before. She thought that several ladies, that were known for gossiping, were "eaves dropping" on the phone line. After making up this story, Mom went to the gas station in "downtown" Fairview that afternoon and several people asked her about the baby. She said, "What baby? I'm still pregnant!" She acted like she had no idea what they were talking about! We laughed all the way home! We didn't have a private line until the late 70's - about the time we got an air conditioner and a color TV! We thought we were really uptown then! Those were the days!

Genevieve said...

Mark, I would gladly settle for wireless. As of now, our only option is satellite. We have been talking about getting it. I hate to pay the high price for it, though. We could get the best grade of DSL (if it were available) for what we'd pay for the lowest grade of satellite. Plus the satellite has a $200 installation fee and 18 month contract.

Genevieve said...

Lesa, that is too funny about your mother and the baby! All in all, they had quite a bit to talk about at the station that day. :D

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