Number, Please

“My word! It talks,” exclaimed the emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil at the Philadelphia Centennial when he listened to the receiver of Alexander Graham Bell’s Centennial telephone model in 1876. The inventions and patents to improve the telephone haven’t stopped since the 1870s. Just the other day, my daughter asked me to download some program called Skype on the computer so we can talk to and see each other.

            In Echoes of the Past, Mildred Folsom has a very complete history of the progress of the telephone system in Greene  and I urge you to read it.  I also spoke with Roger Brewer on the phone who filled me in even further.

 Fred Harding, of Chenango Bridge, organized the Chenango Valley Telephone Company in 1883 and Mary Purple had the first telephone office in Greene in her bookstore. I’m not sure where her bookstore was. The early merchants seemed to have moved their businesses all over. She had the exchange for 23 years. Then it moved to the house on the corner of Foundry and South Canal Street. In 1909 it moved upstairs over where the Chinese restaurant is now. Then in the 1950s, it moved to Jackson Street, next to the present Frontier Citizens Communications Corporation.

In the early days, the telephone used a magneto or a hand-cranked generator to ring a bell to get the central office or someone else on your “party” line.  Sometimes there were 12 families on one line. There were short and long rings and Fs and Ys to distinguish your personal number. My number was 33Y3, three short rings, and my friend’s was 49F21, two long rings and one short. A private line didn’t need this. How many of you remember whose number was 218? And how about 106?

The following was written by Dr. Bowen, an early doctor in Greene and Tim Conner’s great grandfather: In Greene was my major contact with the rural telephone, some twelve or more instruments on each line most of which listened in if the doctor’s bell rang, especially at night.  On one occasion a call came from a distressed mother whose child had croup.  Urgent calls of this type were apt to be for phone advice.  On this occasion I advised the mother to wring a woolen cloth as dry as possible from ice water, to protect the clothes, and if this prescription did not give relief at once to call again.  Calling to see the child the next day to satisfy myself that the croup was, as usual, only the momentary result of a really mild cold, I found that several listeners to the phone advice had later called the mother. They asked “had she really followed Dr. Bowen’s advice and did it actually relieve the patient and had he not had a terrible cold after the application?” For financial reasons it was always well to visit the next day after phone advice in the night. People who would not hesitate to pay for the house call would be sure to resent a charge for telephone advice.

The party line was also a great help to the New York State Troopers. If an emergency arose while the Troopers were on patrol, the local telephone operaters, who knew everyone in their districts, were able to contact them by informing everyone on the party lines to flag the patrol down and to have them call in. So “rubbernecking” or listening in had its good points.

After the magneto, the telephone was a common battery operation where the power supply was at the switchboard and hand cranking was eliminated.  Roger Brewer went through many of the changes the telephone company made through the years. He graduated from Coyne Electrical School in Chicago and started working for Chenango Valley Telephone in 1946. His dad, DeForest Brewer, began working there in 1928, ran a florist shop, the Fern Shoppe, and then helped Carl Purple restore the service after the 1935 Flood.  Carl Purple had bought the business in 1933. In the early 1940s, Mr. Purple had a heart attack and Mr. Brewer managed the business for him. In 1950, Mr. Purple sold the company to Bill Seeley and the name became the Chenango and Unadilla Telephone Company. Mr. Brewer continued to manage the company until his retirement in 1965.

The photo with this article was taken in 1947. Roger said that equipment was very difficult to get after the war and army surplus was used. You can see that Peggy Elliot Thomas and Lillian Skinner are using some cords from a third switchboard because they are so busy, but more lines had yet to be brought into the central office to be able to use the third switchboard.

I met with Peg Thomas, Frances Fowler and Ruth Sheldon to hear about their experiences as operators. Their reminiscences spanned the years from before 1942 to 1961 and they had many stories to tell. Here are sound bites of what was said with a few other comments thrown in:

Don Adams said that Carl Purple was a great guy. He gave Don and his friends equipment so they could build their own phones.

Before 1942, Frances Fowler made 25 cents an hour.

Phone calls to Chenango Forks cost ten cents, to Oxford, fifteen cents and to Binghamton, 20 cents.
Roger Brewer did all the wiring.

Chenango Bridge was the first to get dial and the operators transferred to Greene.

Coventry Fire Company was on a party line for a while.

Frances Fowler took the call from Frances Brown calling Trooper Heath to say a man was in her barn and had chased her with a pitchfork.

Ringing the fire siren was always scary. Frances remembered the siren going off once and she didn’t ring it and had no idea where the fire was and couldn’t tell anybody. What happened was that a man went to the fire station and rang it himself and then ran home. Fortunately the firemen knew where the fire was immediately. Carol Ann Duntley also said the siren went off without her ringing it. It turned out that the sprinkler system at the Raymond Corporation set it off.
Frances remembered an early morning fire. After she rang the siren, she looked out the window to see the fire truck going east on Genesee Street and Horace Gross, who owned the Corner Store, described as a dapper man with a goatee, was hanging onto the fire-truck ladder, flying  like Superman down the street. The image has always stayed with her.
One of the four sons of the Bartons would answer the phone with: “The Bartons’ Summer Home, Summer Home, Summer Not”

More names of people involved with the telephone company who have not been mentioned here nor in Mildred Folsom’s book are: Milly Turner, Janet Fowler, Marge Bell, Clara Webb,Myrtle Tomal, Ernie Turner, Celia Walters, June Hayes, Cynthia Harrington, Lena Pixley, Lillian Pearson, Lea Winans, Janet Gibson, Felecia Bostelman, Janet Stringham, Arlene Hollenbeck, Joyce Morgan, Ruth McGowan, Bill Kingman, Ben Ballard, Charlie Sallard, Bob Murphy, Chuck Brown, Lyle Crandall, Vincent Hatch, Homer Fraser, Burr Phelps. There are lots of memories here.

When the dial system came in, the local exchanges were a thing of the past and the switchboards are now in museums. The personal touch is gone and a great deal has been lost. By the way, the two phone numbers mentioned before were the doctors Centerwall and the Chenango Grill.