By Ben Kirkpatrick – Saskatoon, Sask.
In my memories of the telephone ‘party line,’ there was always ‘central,’ the telephone office located in our hometown. In our case, it was Truax, Saskatchewan, some 60 miles southwest of Regina.
From this point, main lines reached out for miles in each direction, then individual lines branched off to where there would be a number of individual subscribers.
Each home had its own combination of short and long rings The ‘operator’ usually lived in the office and was available to receive every call, 24/7, and connect them to whoever they wanted to reach, if it was on a different line, or if it was long distance.
If your call was on your particular line you would simply ring that combination of short and/or long rings. If you were lucky, only the party you wanted to speak to would answer, if not, you might have one or more people eavesdropping on your conversation. That’s one reason why it was called a “party line.”
The operator was the only paid employee, and she and her family lived in the living quarters supplied and from there was on duty 24/7. She was a very important part of this system. She could hire a helper if need be, so she could also take care of her home and family.
The operator I remember best was a lady named Mary Hyles. She and her husband and two sons lived in the telephone building.
My dad became the voluntary lineman to look after the miles of phone lines and the actual telephone unit in each home. In order to be able to do this job, he had to take a crash course on how the system works and how to do whatever repairs were needed to keep all the phones working.
He was somewhere around middle-aged and not too enthusiastic about climbing poles with the spurs and belt that were provided, and making repairs while “standing” on the side of the pole like a woodpecker some 20 to 30 feet off the ground. So I, a 16-year-old teen, became his ‘monkey’.
I learned how to use the spurs and the belt, climb the pole, then from the ground he told me what to do. It could be replacing broken insulators, fixing broken wires, untangling wires tangled by the wind or replacing bad splices previously performed.
If need be, we would sometimes have to deal with poles that were down. Other repairs sometimes had to be done on the phone itself, like replacing batteries, cleaning the lighting arrestor after lightning strikes, even overhauling the small hand cranked magneto which made the bells ring.
One of the more amusing things one needed to know about the party line was the tactics you needed to know to hide the fact that you were eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation. I could share at length on this one, but I don’t want to give away too many secrets!
Another amusing thing was the way people used the crank to ring the bells. Some twisted the crank sort of tentatively, making their ring kind of a little dingle, dingle. Others would give it an energetic spin and their ring sounded like fire alarm! After a while you could almost guess who was making the call.
In the case of some emergency, the operator at Central could send out one long, extended ring, called a general ring to everyone at once. This was only used for genuine emergencies like a fire or farm accident – everyone who could would respond.
Our communications systems have come a long ways since then. Truthfully, it would be hard to get along without all of our gadgets. But back then, the old party line served us well when many life or death situations came into play.
One more page from the good old days, I guess!