Dial Tone

January 11th, 2007

Yesterday I went to activate phone service out at the farm. It got me to thinking a bit about how things change, and how they stay the same, too.

Before I go on, I’ll have to say that every one of my history books is in storage, so if I get some details wrong, it’s because I’m not remembering correctly.

Anyhow, phone service came to our community via an unusual route about 100 years ago. It wasn’t Bell/AT&T or some other company that brought it there, as it was most places. I’m sure they figured that a small, scattered rural community would cost too much to support. So the community organized, built, and supported the phone system themselves.

Even today, roads around here can be impassible after a good rain. I’m sure that, in the early 1900s, before heavy road-maintaining machinery, things were worse — and, of course, transportation was a lot slower then anyway. There were real problems: getting the word out about funerals, being able to summon a doctor when necessary, or letting people know that church was cancelled because of too much snow.

People in the community saw a phone system as a real need. So did the churches, which have left a legacy that is still reflected in phone company territories today.

Once phone service arrived, it was used for all the things that people expected, of course. But it also proved to be an important part of the social fabric of the community. Since party lines were the norm, it was possible to announce things to every listening subscriber pretty quickly. Older people remember announcements of fresh fruit arriving at the grocery store, funerals, or other news of the day.

To place a call, you would pick up your phone and turn your crank. That caused a bell to ring at the telephone office, which everyone called “Central.” The operator would connect to your line and ask whom you wanted to talk to. The operator would then send the distinctive ring for your party down their party line, and patch — manually — your call through to them. And, if he was busy, the operator wouldn’t listen in on your conversation — but others on the party line very well might.

Central’s hours were published. If you were making a call in the middle of the night, you were going to wake up someone at Central to do it — plus everyone on the entire party line. So calls after hours were rare.

Fortunately, while some of the old Central operators were still around, some people in the community wrote down some of their stories.

There were some people in the community that were notorious for eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. Two brothers one time figured that they knew somebody was listening to their conversations, so they devised a code. One called the other, and said, “I’ll be going to McPherson in the morning for band practice.” That meant something along the lines of going to town to buy groceries.

A few days later, their prime suspect came up to him and said, “What on earth are you going to band practice for? I didn’t know you knew how to play an instrument!” Apparently she realized she was had when he burst out laughing uncontrollably.

The Central operators learned to know the habits of telephone users. Sometimes they would connect calls without even bothering to ask who people wanted to talk to — and seemed to always get it right.

The phone system supported itself for about 50 years. But as the rest of the world moved on provide direct dialing, this proved a controversial subject in the community. People liked having their operators. The people that worked at Central were everybody’s friend. They were people that were there, 24 hours a day, to assist with any emergency. They would gather volunteer firefighters to help fight a fire, or be able to spread community news quickly. This wouldn’t be available with the newer phone systems. How would the community be informed of events quickly now? Who would just happen to know whose house the doctor was at when he was urgently needed?

The change was resisted for some years, but eventually the finances of the telephone cooperative turned out to be in deep trouble. Operators grew to be much more expensive than automation, and in the late 1960s, the telephone cooperative was no more — sold to a phone company from a small town more than twice our size, and a for-profit company at that! Central no longer existed. I remember reading about this event — it seems people were sad about that for quite some time. They felt that they had really lost an important part of the community when Central went away. Some machine locked in a cabinet doesn’t care for people the way Central did. Even today, the older people in the community sound a little sad when they remember telephone modernization, and get the wistful look of somebody that has just remembered something that they miss.

The phone company that bought the system wasn’t an AT&T, though. It was a small, independent phone company. To this day, that phone company serves only the two communities. And it was this company that I called yesterday to establish service out at our house.

They had already upgraded our lines — over a mile of new copper, benefiting only us, at no charge to us — last fall. The box was already on the outside of the house. Just need to get it activated.

So I called the phone company. They said I needed to drop by their office and sign some papers. Uh-oh, I think — this is a bad sign. Sounds like a bunch of phone company bureaucracy.

But not so much. I went to the office and signed up. They asked the usual questions: name, address. Plus a few that bigger companies wouldn’t ask: who used to have service at that address? Of course, most people would know that answer in our community. I couldn’t have told you in Wichita, Dallas, or Indianapolis.

Then they asked when I’d like service to be activated. “As soon as possible,” I say, figuring that this would be a couple of weeks like it is with AT&T or Sprint. “Well, we probably can’t get out there for a couple of hours. Would it be OK if it’s on at about 3?” Yes, that would be fine!

Now, how about DSL? “Well, we’re a little backed up on that right now.” Uh-oh. Sprint took several weeks when they *weren’t* more backed up than usual. “So it’ll probably be Monday or Tuesday before we can get out there. Should I just have the installer call you and arrange a time when it gets closer?” Yes, that would be fine, too!

Now, how about finding a phone number.

Out comes a large paper book. Yep, paper. They paged through it, and told me that my grandpa’s old number would be available if I wanted it. I said yes — after all, we’ve got his old address, so might as well keep the same phone number. OK, no problem. She whips out some white-out, whites out grandpa’s name, and writes ours in. Done.

Now, do I want any optional services? Caller ID, call waiting, voicemail? How much is caller ID, I ask. $5 a month. We’ll try it for now. “OK”. A box was checked on the form and that was that. No high-pressure sales pitch on taking “the works” for some poorly-disclosed price, providing a ton of services I’ll never use and don’t want. No confusing “discounts” for having The Works and DSL at the same time.

Then I ask about an unlisted number, or at least an unlisted address. I figured that anybody that really wanted to be able to reach us will figure out how without using a phone book, and these things get in so many databases these days. Sprint charged almost $10/mo for a fully unlisted number, but only a few dollars a month to just keep our address off the directories.

Our new company charged 50 cents a month for a fully unlisted number. Done.

Now it’s time to pay for the first month’s fees and the setup. Oops, I’ve forgotten my checkbook in the car. No problem, the secretary says, I’ll watch your baby while you go get it! Jacob was with me, but had fallen asleep, so I brought him inside in his car seat. I went to get the checkbook — just out the door and close by. I was back in a few seconds later, and the secretary was already on the other side of her desk talking and playing with Jacob. “My baby’s 12 now,” she said, and for a second, looked like a person that was remembering Central.

Categories: Technology

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Comments Feed5 Comments

  1. nathan

    That is probably the best story I have read in ages. I nearly cried – seriously.

    Reply

  2. Pupeno

    Here in Argentina, most towns scattered through all the country don’t have a big corporation as phone provide but a cooperative like you described. For some time every person with a phone was a partner and owned some little part of the company, latter when they grow too much they turn into real companies that just server for some money.
    You can really find a bit of everything, from real cooperatives, to big monster, from non-for-profit companies to they-look-like-non-for-profit but they are more like mafia. Telecomunications is such a good business that it provides huge profits. In one of the cooperatives I worked for dividing this profits among the hundred of partners was so hard that they ended up re-investing the money in the comunity. That was nice.
    And in charging, they were really flexible, you could go and just pay part of your debt for example.

    And regarding evesdroping on old lines, a couple of sisters of my dads aunt learned to speak backwards (and understand it): ekil siht! (in spanish is much more doable than in English).

    Reply

  3. Michael Janssen

    This is a wonderful story, and well written. It is a joy to me that you cared to share.

    Reply

  4. John Goerzen

    Thanks for the nice comments. I had just set out to write about getting phone service, and I’m glad that it turned into something bigger.

    Reply

  5. Mark

    During the 90’s in South Africa most of the telephone lines in Rural areas were party lines on copper .

    One of the biggest problems facing the local telco (TELKOM) was copper theft. The theives had an ingenious ways of stealing copper.

    Apparently one way was they used to jack up a utilility vehicle, remove a wheel and bolt a homemade reel to the wheel hub. They would then tie the copper to the reel, floor the accelerator and voila – pull off large lengths of copper wire straight off the poles.

    Kilometers copper wire were stolen in this manner. The wire was sold as scrap metal.

    Reply

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