Volume VIII, No. 1, Fall 1980
by Kyle Burke, Photos by Mary Schmalstig and Mike King
Guests in the Elm Street living room of Minnie Bell Ogle might be surprised to learn that they are sitting in the former office of the telephone company of Stoutland, Missouri, a small village with a current population of about 150. "For sixteen years I was the only operator in Stoutland," Minnie Bell claimed. A television set now stands in the corner where her switchboard once was.
The traditional vision of an operator (or central) at work, busily pushing and pulling, plugging and unplugging, is probably vivid in most of our minds, but just why that central was performing these actions and what effect they produced is unknown to most. But not to Minnie Bell--she learned exactly what all those plugs and switches were for and didn't soon forget. After her reign as supreme central was over, she even had dreams of hearing that dreaded bell calling her to the switchboard in the middle of the night.
The first telephone systems came to the rural Ozarks in the 1890s as a cooperative effort. Groups of interested families, usually no more than ten in each, shared the expense and effort involved in the installation of telephones, lines and other equipment, forming line companies.
Since all the work was done by the people in the neighborhood, and there were really no prescribed standards, line company members did not always follow the most effective methods of installation. The practice of putting up thick cables along roads with single connecting lines to individual houses was used only on main lines between cities. On the outlying rural party lines, twelve gauge galvanized wire was strung basically from house to house on post oak or white oak poles. More frequently, "When they'd come to a tree, why, they'd blaze a place on that tree and put an arm on it, which wasn't the proper thing to do," said Dewey Vandergrift, once a rural phone repairman and linesman. Stringing wires was a simple matter of nailing a glass insulator onto a pole or tree and looping a wire around the insulator to hold the line. When a line reached a house, a short length of wire was hooked onto it and brought inside the house through a small hole in the wall above the telephone. This wire was then connected to the telephone by screws.
The telephone itself usually hung on a kitchen wall and was, essentially, an oaken box. The transmitter and receiver were not one unit as they are today. In fact, they were considerably separated, the receiver hanging from a flat cord on the left side of the box, and the transmitter protruding from the front. This mouthpiece was basically stationary, but could be raised or lowered to match the height of the user. A pair of bells was located on the outside of the phone above the mouthpiece, and a small writing platform extended from below.-
The front of the box could be unscrewed and swung back to reveal the magneto ringing apparatus and a compartment for the phone's means of power, two dry cell batteries. These batteries were each about seven inches high and cost around seventy-five cents a pair. "That's one thing the general store always kept is phone batteries," said Lois Beard.
One difference between these magneto phones and those of our present systems is the method of calling out. A small hand crank on the side of a magneto telephone provided a function similar to the modern dial. As might be guessed, the phone numbers (or more commonly, rings) of the early systems were arranged in quite a different manner from those of today. Though each line and each party on that line had a number, such as line 4, number 3, these numbers were not generally known in most rural areas except in those such as Stoutland, which had phone books. Even then, when they had to go through a central, Minnie Bell said, "They wouldn't give you a number most usually. They went by people, 'cause, of course, I knew everybody." On each individual line instead of knowing a neighbor's phone number, people knew their rings, for that was how they reached them. Rings corresponded with cranking lengths. One person's ring might be two "longs" (about three quick turns of the crank, a short pause, and three turns again) and one "short" (about one quick turn). Other rings might be one long and three shorts, or two longs and two shorts. Each line member had a different combination of longs and shorts for his ring.
To make a call to a party on his own line, the caller first picked up the receiver to make sure no one else was on the line, then returned it to its hook and cranked that party's ring. Central assistance was not required, and many people tacked up a chart of the rings of people on their line beside the phone. People on other lines could be reached only with the help of the central or in some cases through a call bell operator.
With up to ten phones on one line, conflicts were bound to arise in the area of conversation length. There were no set limits on how long a person could hold the line, but Lois remembered, "If you wanted to talk until somebody else talked in and said, 'May I have the line?' you were able to talk awhile. Or if someone picked it up and asked if the line was busy, you'd say, 'Yes, but I'll hang up,' And that was it. It was courtesy,'' Dewey agreed. "They wasn't as bad then giving up the line as they are now. They's pretty spunky about the line now!"
An important yet nearly forgotten element of some of the old phone systems was the call bell. This device was a small box which acted as a limited switchboard in that two or three lines fed into it, but only two lines could be connected at any one time. As every phone on a particular line rang when anyone on that line made a call, more phones took more power. But a phone's batteries could produce only a limited amount of energy, and, in some conditions, this was not enough to reach a party several phones away from the caller. Therefore, two or more lines were built, all of them connected to a call bell which was located in a centrally located line member's home. When someone on one neighborhood line wished to call someone on another, he rang a certain code, signalling the call bell operator to flip a switch connecting his line to the line of the desired party.
Homer Massey's mother, Georgia, operated a call bell for three different lines. "The call bell was in the house when we moved to the farm," he said. "It just came with it. Mother had the phone on the kitchen wall right by her bedroom so she could answer easily. She didn't get any pay for it. It was easy to operate, and we kids were just little, but if she wasn't there, we could answer."
Call bells were also used when a line was built too far from a central office to be connected with it. Instead, the line was joined through a call bell to a central-connected line. This service not only provided access to more lines, but was often important in calling for help in the time of an emergency. Sometimes a doctor could be reached only through a call bell.
As a central, Minnie Bell was often instrumental in getting help where it was needed. "If they was a fire, they'd call me, and then I'd just call around all over town for help. And usually they said they'd help. People got there in a hurry. And if they was a wreck or something, and somebody called me and wanted some help, I'd usually call somebody to go help them."
Most people didn't make calls during the night, as the ring would wake up everyone on the line. "If it was real late, it was usually an emergency," Minnie Bell recalled. In this case some line members would pick up their phones to see if they could help. If they could be of any service, these neighbors usually arrived before professional help.
Phones provided other neighborly services. "We once had next door neighbors that were real old and sickly, and they wouldn't feel up to staying alone some nights. They'd be kind of afraid that one of them would get bad sick or something would happen," said Lois. "They'd call over to Mother in the evening and say, 'Ellie, I wish you'd let Lois come over and sleep at our house tonight,' Now if they hadn't had a telephone, it would have been too bad because there would have been many a night they went to bed scared.
"I'll tell you something else we used to use the telephone for a lot was in illness of cattle or horses or other stock. Neighbors would go help each other. I've had my dad get up any hour of the night to go help a neighbor.
"People visited and they had lots of fun on the telephone, too. I remember how my dad and Thomas Hill were good friends always, and they used to get up and tease each other. One time a train load of children were brought into Lebanon from the orphans' home in New York to be given out amongst the people here. Dad had gone to town and Mr. Hill had seen him. Mr. Hill got home first and he called us and told us to get ready for a surprise. He kidded us and told us that Dad was bringing one of those children home. We were tickled to death thinking that we would have a child to stay with us--the more the merrier! But we were disappointed when he didn't come with it."
One of the most engrossing and readily available pastimes for phone owners was simple "listening in." "A lot of people when they heard that phone ring, they'd go take the receiver down and listen," Minnie Bell said. "They didn't care if the people talking knew it. If they said something they wanted to know, they'd just holler in and ask about it. They didn't seem to care."
Mrs. Dewey Vandergrift justified the practice of eavesdropping. "They didn't have no television, didn't have no radio, didn't have nothing." But Dewey himself took the business seriously. "Them that eavesdropped a lot, they'd burn a battery up pretty quick. So, to save their batteries, I'd put a little switch on to cut them loose." Without power a signal could not be sent, but could be received.
Minnie Bell tells of one older lady who was a notorious eavesdropper. "They was a guy talking to
somebody and the receiver come up, and he said, 'That's that damned old Susie on the phone.'
And she said, 'You're a goddamned liar!"
"When I was a girl there was nothing to do but housework, clerk in a store, or telephone work, so I worked in the telephone office," said Harva Burns who was the night telephone operator in Lebanon "back in the teens."
"I very seldom rehearse those days in my mind," she said, "because things are so hurriedly pressed on us now that we don't have time to think of them." But talking on an old telephone the way she used to as a child reminded her of the years she was associated with a telephone company in a small town.
"I worked the twelve hour night shift from seven to seven," she remembered. "There were two or three girls in the daytime, but only me at night. Part of the time I had someone with me until 8:30 or 9:00. I made forty dollars a month. How did I get along on that?
"There would be long periods during the night when there were no rings, but I didn't leave. I had to stay seated by the board. I'd read and I crocheted an awful lot. I never had trouble staying awake at night.
"One night sixty-two years ago I was the first in Lebanon to hear the news of the Armistice for World War I. Of course I was excited. It was around four o'clock in the morning best I remember. I knew Charlie Keller at the Frisco--he worked nights at the telegraph.
"I had got in touch with the St. Louis operator some way. Evidently someone had made a call that made me connect with St. Louis because ordinarily that time of a morning there was nothing going on. At that hour in Lebanon, almost any call would be news in a small place like this. I expect I just listened in and heard. I was talking to the long distant operator, and she told me the Armistice had been signed. She said, 'Don't you hear the commotion?' And I could! She was close enough to it that I could hear the bells and the whistles blowing and all kinds of loud noises. I didn't want to put out a false alarm, for I wanted to be sure, so I plugged in and called Charlie and asked him if he had heard the report. He said no he hadn't. He said, 'But I'll find out in a minute." And it wasn't but a few minutes that he called me back. He said, 'Yes, it's a fact.'"
But listening to other conversations was not always meant as a form of entertainment. "We didn't pick it up with intentions of eavesdropping," said Lois. "We picked it up to see if our neighbors were sick or if they needed us." If very many people listened, they caused too much drain on the batteries, however, and the signal became so faint that no one could hear. When this happened, the speakers had to ask the neighbors to hang up so they could talk.
Sometimes enough power couldn't be produced to reach from one end of a line to another, especially in some of the longer lines. In this case, it was helpful for someone midway on the line who could hear both parties to relay the message. Sometimes this cooperation was needed only to ring another party, as ringing caused the greatest strain on the phone's batteries. The mid-way party, hearing a very slight ring and knowing the desired party to be home, might answer, asking the caller if he could try ringing for him. Being closer, his ring was probably strong enough to reach the far neighbor.
Calls to another line of the same system had to go through the operator. Central's ring was usually one long ring. Of course, she also handled long distance calls. "You would be surprised how many you would get," said Minnie Bell who handled the calls through individual circuits. She had one circuit to Springfield, Missouri, and one to Lebanon and Richland, neighboring towns. When someone wanted to make a long distance call from Stoutland to Lebanon, for example, Minnie Bell would call the number for the Lebanon operator who would then ring the desired party. "You got to know the other operators real well. You'd talk, you know." She handled calls to Richland on this same circuit, but calls to Springfield went through the Springfield circuit as did those for other cities and states. This being a very manually complex system, placing a long distance call was quite a time-consuming project. "Sometimes the circuits were all busy and the customers got awful impatient. I'd sometimes get into it awful bad and have to call the operator back, and she'd get kind of aggravated with me.
Minnie Bell had a contract with Southwestern Bell, which owned and maintained the long distance lines. "I had little tickets I made out whenever somebody put through a long distance call. Southwestern Bell kept a duplicate of the bill, and I would get a bill from them every month. They charged a certain percentage, and what was left was what I got paid."
In addition to the cost of any long distance calls, Minnie Bell charged $1.50 a month switching dues for private phones and $3.00 for business phones. "Then they'd just rave and cave 'cause it was so high, and now they pay ten dollars and say, 'Thank you!'" said Dewey.
Some phone owners, when they were billed on the twentieth of the month, didn't always appreciate the services of Minnie Bell. "Most people was good enough to pay, but they was a lot of people that sometimes didn't. I had to go and collect most of them--you couldn't just mail them the bill." This was especially difficult for Minnie Bell when the tables were turned and Southwestern Bell was billing her for long distance calls. "Lots of people didn't pay me but every three months and that really kind of made it hard because I had to pay for the long distance calls every month. I have said, 'Until you get this bill paid up some, I can't put through any more long distance calls for you.' Of course, they got awful mad at me."
Being the only person who operated the switchboard for the whole Stoutland area was overwhelmingly confining. Minnie Bell began as an operator servicing about one hundred customers, some of them showing no respect for her position. "Getting up in the middle of the night was worse than anything. I'd hardly ever go to bed until eleven or twelve--I'd usually just be woke up 'cause the bell would ring. I'd usually have several calls during the night, and they'd start pretty early, too. About six o'clock they'd start pretty good. I had the most calls about eight o'clock in the morning, then the least about four, when people started getting off work. Lots of times I'd close down to go to Sunday School. Sometimes then a lot of people started to fuss about it, it got to the point I didn't. It was hard to get outside to do anything. Maybe there wouldn't be no calls for a while, but sure as I went outside, then I would hear that bell.
All lines eventually led to a central office, and turning a phone's crank several complete revolutions in succession would signal the central by releasing the drop on her switchboard (1) corresponding with the caller's line. At night, or if the central had to leave the room, a bell could be switched on (2) to let her know when a drop fell. The central then pulled a plug from the lower panel and pushed it into the hole below the drop. This action automatically returned the drop to its original position. The central then connected with the caller by pushing down the lever (3) corresponding with the plug and, speaking into the transmitter (4), asked, "Number, please?" The central heard the called through a headpiece, After learning the number, she pushed the plug immediately below the first plug from the lower panel into the hole below the drop (5) for the line of the desired party and rang that party by turning the bell crank (6) continuously, cutting off "longs" and "shorts" by pulling and releasing the lever (7) corresponding to the plug. When the party answered, the operator took care of other calls, and, without periodical intrusions (by pulling down either lever for the occupied lines), had no way of determining whether the lines were still in use since connected drops could not fall again. Therefore, if a caller rang on a line which was still connected with another line from a previous call, a drop in a special row (8) would fall.
"But, of course, sometimes I'd have a lull and I wouldn't have no calls and I could get some of my housework done or get time to eat a bite or something. When my mother was alive--she owned it before I did--she would come in and stay so I could go somewhere, and as my three girls growed up, they helped me. I just raised them up a-learning how to take care of it."
Edith Jennings, the Stoutland operator before Minnie Bell's mother, was also helped by her two children. "When we'd say, 'Number, please?' a lot of times people thought we all sounded just alike," Edith said. "Isn't that funny?" Though she began her career about twenty years before Minnie Bell did, both centrals remembered many unusual experiences.
"Some people used to be pretty sassy," Edith said. "I kind of had to put them in their place once in a while. They'd call long distance, and if they had to wait, they'd get real sassy."
"Some of them wasn't very patient," Minnie Bell agreed, "and I had one right here in town that turned loose with cussing me like everything, I had got the operator, but her circuits was filled, and he didn't know she was on there! She said, 'Why, I'm sorry, but we just can't get it through.' Oh, then he talked so nice to her, but he was just a-cussing me out! And another thing, if anything was told, they always suspected that the operator told it whether you did or not."
"The way it was with me," Edith said, "when I got through with the call, I had other things to do. I had my work to keep up, and I didn't just sit there all the time."
"Well, lands, it was bad enough to sit there when you had to!"
"And then, we had a telephone there at the central office for people that came in that wanted to make calls, and, of course, you heard that."
"I'll tell you another experience you'd have," said Minnie Bell. "People would get drunk and they'd call you, and they'd want you just to talk to them. And, of course, you'd have other calls to answer, and you'd unplug them and go ahead and answer another call. But they'd just keep a-ringing--keep that drop a-falling--and you was afraid not to go back and answer, afraid it might be somebody else on that line calling."
"Where the telephone office was was our front room, and, of course, we was supposed to let everybody in that came. I know there was a drunk man came one night and he wanted in. And I wouldn't let him in, and we had quite a little discussion. I remember he got so mad! And then another time I was keeping my grandson and this lady came who had scarlet fever. I didn't want her to come in where he was. There were a lot of places I suggested she go just a little ways, but she didn't like that, and she got mad. Oh, she threw a regular fit. But I didn't let her in, and she never did like me after that."
"They always knew then that if anybody didn't have a phone, they called here and just had me to go tell them they had a call and come and call back," said Minnie Bell. "I've went in the night to lots of houses here, and at one time I didn't even have a car and I'd have to walk and tell them. Somebody called and wanted me to take a message one bad, stormy Saturday night. I said, 'Well, I can't take it now. I'll take it in the morning.' And the caller said, 'Oh, she's got a dozen kids. Let her send one of them!' I said, 'Well, for your information, my dozen kids ain't here!' I didn't have a dozen kids, anyway. It was always hard to deliver a message that someone would have me pass on that someone died. People would call me and ask me to tell someone that their folks were dead. I always hated to deliver a sad message."
"I remember when this boy had been killed in a car accident, and they wanted me to call his father," Edith said. "Of course, I didn't dream I was going to have to break the news. But when I got him, they said, 'Well, we just can't tell him. You'll have to tell him.' It was a little hard for me to know just what to say to him. You never know what kind of incident's going to happen, or what kind of circumstances you're going to get in. Oh, I tell you, we had to put up with a lot, didn't we?"
"Yes, we did."
Nothing lasts forever, and repairs were sometimes needed on phones, lines and other parts of the system. Dewey Vandergrift began repairing phones in the early 1920s. "People would have phone trouble, and after they found I could fix phones, they'd always have me fix them if it could be done. You couldn't imagine what telephone trouble was in that day and time. Sometimes an induction coil would be bad, or there'd be lightning go in on them and burn out a coil, or a ringer would be out bad, or maybe a receiver cord would be bad--something an ordinary person just wouldn't think about. I'd fix them, and boy, compared to the other jobs I had then, it was a playhouse job!"
Weather was often to blame for line damage. In addition to being susceptible to breakage by wind and fallen tree limbs, telephone wires were perfect lightning conductors. Since they inevitably led to houses, and ground wires were not always totally effective, Homer Massey said, "It was a good idea to go out and pull your telephone line off and turn the end of it away from the house."
To use a phone during a storm was especially dangerous. "A lot of them would come here and want me to do their talking for them," said Minnie Bell. "Oh Lord, I'll tell you the lightning run through the switchboard awful bad. Balls of fire would roll across the floor!"
Dewey recalled "When a storm was coming, it'd fry so loud, and screech, that you couldn't hear. One time we had a storm here and lightning struck and burnt a line up in just little pieces. You could see it laying on the ground--just little short pieces of wire. I never seen nothing like it before."
"If the line got broke, you had to go out yourself and fix it," said Homer. "And there would be places across a lot of this area where no one lived close that paid dues, and if the line broke, they would hire somebody, and he'd get on his horse and take off and fix the line."
Dewey was one of these men. "The line company would pay me. And it was high, too--ten cents an hour!" But Dewey never went out to repair lines in o storm. "That wasn't my business."
The wild array of telephone lines strung haphazardly through Ozarks towns and rural areas in the early years of this century hummed with use. The telephone became an integral part of people's lives. As time passed, however, in many communities a combination of several factors brought telephone lines down to stay. Ice storms were especially damaging, and Homer remembered a particularily bad storm in 1918. "I doubt there was a span of wire a hundred and fifty feet long that wasn't broke." When ice storms or other factors caused the line to go down, Lois said that in her neighborhood, "These older men were too feeble to go out and fix it." On many of the lines there seemed to be a general lack of interest so that many of the independent rural lines ceased operating.
The Stoutland Telephone Company, unaffected by any of these happenings, continued to operate basically as it was in the early 1900s until as late as 1966. In that year, with 422 telephones, most of which were rural, the town switched over to the dial system. To cover the considerable costs of this venture, Mainline Bell sold one half interest in the company to a group of three people and applied for and received a government loan from the Rural Electric Association.
Every aspect of the old system was obsolete in the new, and whereas people had bought their own crank telephones before, they were now furnished with brand new dial phones, "Most people was pretty glad to get the new system," Minnie Bell said, and for the first time in sixteen years, she "felt free!"
Most larger phone companies had outgrown the line companies in the 20s and 30s and had long since converted to the dial system, but many smaller rural companies like Stoutland had to wait for the low interest REA loans to modernize. These loans with a two percent interest rate had been allocated by the government to stimulate the growth of electricity in rural areas, and, later, the development of modern rural telephone systems.
Back in her Elm Street living room, Minnie Bell Ogle leaned back and smiled. "Sixteen years I done that. I wonder now how I done it without losing my mind!"
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.