NUMBER PLEASE The beginning of telephone service in our county
In 1949 Hank Williams had a saying, “Mind Your Own Business.” It went like this:
Oh, the woman on our party line’s the nosiest thing
She picks up her receiver when she knows it’s my ring
Why don’t you mind your own business
(Mind your own business)
Well, if you mind your business, then you won’t be mindin’ mine.
It was in 1897 that R. K. Wier organized and owned the first telephone system, which served residences and businesses in Starkville. The telephone company was located on Main Street across from the library, where the small shopping center is today. It was located in the basement of the now extinct Rousseau home and Mrs. Rousseau had charge of it. Service was reportedly as good in the country as in town. This new innovation helped to significantly reduce rural isolation.
Wier sold the telephone company in 1905 for $7,000. Advertisements in the local newspaper in 1908 for Cumberland Telephone and Telegraph Company read: “Long distance lines and telegraphs of this company enable you to talk almost any where in Southern Indiana, Southern Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. We can put you in quick and satisfactory communication with the people of this great section of the country. We solicit your patronage. Rates reasonable, equipments and facilities unsurpassed.” In 1928 The Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company was located on the second floor of the Kennard Building at 107 Main Street. In 1927 the name changed to Southern Bell Telephone Co., and there were about 635 telephones in Starkville. In 1962 when the Starkville exchange was converted from manual to dial there were about 4,725 telephones in Starkville.
One of the first things I do when going to another town is to read the telephone book. Once when I reached for the phone book after checking into a motel, a friend said, “who are you calling?” I responded, “I am not calling anyone, I just want to read about the town.” When researching for this article, I picked up a local telephone book of 1940. There was no information about the town, but there was a lot of interesting information on the use of the phone and the rates.
Do You Remember?
A local 1940 telephone book contained the following information.
• Out-of-Town Telephone Rates: Rates were cheaper from 6 p.m. to 4:30 a.m.
• Station-to-station (one place to another)
• Person-to-person (one person to another) highest rate
• Charges for overtime when you talked over the time allocated.
• Collect calls were placed through the operator to reverse the charges to a designated person.
• To Report a Fire: Call operator and say…I want to report a fire
• To call the police: Call operator and say…Police Department
• Party Lines: Call from a party line where a crank was used to ring the operator. Before ringing the operator, remove the receiver and listen to make sure the line is not in use. To get the operator, replace the receiver and turn the crank. When through talking, promptly hang up the receiver and turn the crank again so the operator will clear your line for further use.
In those days a person wishing to place a call would use a wall telephone equipped with a hand crank that generated the power to place the call. An operator would then ask what number was being called and manually plug the cable into the proper hole on the switchboard, thus connecting the two parties. The party being called would be notified by a designated combination of long and short rings on their telephone.
Those who shared a party line, as most did, would both hear the ring and could listen in on the conversation. The line would be busy until the two parties terminated the call, much to the aggravation of another who wished to make a call. If it was a line with a number of noisy neighbors, the volume would be diluted as others listen in on a conversation. One elder reported that her father would often have to yell into the receiver “Would you folks please hang up so that I can hear!!” With each hasty click of a replaced receiver, the volume would be restored.
Hometown telephone operators were central to the information of the community. They knew who was at home, details about illness and emergencies as well as other personal details of town life. You could just ask for “the drug store” and the operator would know which drug store your family used. While some of this came from the fact that one had to use their services to place a call, it also came from the ability of the operator to overhear conversations between parties. When asked if she ever listened in on private conversations, one elderly telephone operator said with a sly smile, “Of course not.”
When towns began to convert to rotary dial or, “automatic” telephone service, many people were concerned about the loss of the personalized service that had been provided by local operators. This problem was partially solved by telling people to dial “0” for the local assistance operator, if they did not know the Fire or Police Department’s full number.
The efforts of telephone companies to publicize “Dial ‘0’ for Emergencies” were ultimately abandoned in the face of company staffing and liability concerns but not before generations of school children were taught to “dial 0 in case of emergency,” just as they are currently taught to dial 9-1-1. This situation of unclear emergency telephone numbers would continue, in most places in 1980s. In some locales, the problem persists to this day.
The national emergency number (911) for the United States was established in1968. In theory at least, calling this single number provided a caller anywhere in the United States access to police, fire and ambulance services, through what would become known as a common Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). Individual communities, however, were slow to adopt the new number, for a variety of reasons.
As with any new invention, increase use demanded improvements. The wall telephone was replaced in the 1920’s and 30’s with the desk model, in the 50’s and 60’s with the princess telephone and then the touch-tone replacing the rotary dial. Home extension phones were being offered as well. For many years the high cost of long-distance calls made them an expensive luxury and one was received with the caution “Hurry up, its long-distance!”
Whether considered a convenient time-saver or an intrusion into a daily schedule, the telephone helped to transform our area. It connected family, friends, businesses and patrons. We will never return to the days when “people talked to operators, strung phone lines on trees to their neighbors’ houses and listened to other people’s conversations on party lines.” But we know that the Internet and the cell phone will continue to be a part of our daily lives.
Mr. Boswell Kennard Remembers. Mr. Kennard’s wife, Margaret Montgomery McWillie Kennard, deceased, was the grandchild of Mr. Arthur Richey, manager of the telephone line installations. She gave the photo of her grandfather and his crew installing telephone lines in the early 1900s to the museum. Mr. Richey held many public jobs and for many years was foreman of the Mississippi A&M College farm. Many local people recall the elm trees along University DR that overlapped in the fall of the year to make a beautiful tunnel of color. Mr. Richey was the man in charge of planting them. Dutch elm disease eventually destroyed them. The Richey family property was located at the top of the hill of South Washington Street and located on Wood ST. Dean H. D.Bunch was the last owner of the home and donated it to Starkville High School where it serves as the home of the art department.
Mr. Kennard, a longtime dairy farmer in Oktoc, remembers the crank telephones and that Mr. Henderson of Sessums was the person who was able to get his family connected for a phone. They were on a party line and two sisters would always pick up their phone and listen in on the conversation. Later, one of them would call and inquire concerning something that had been discussed and it was very evident that they had listened to your conversation. This was the way news spread throughout the community. Mr. Kennard has fond memories of the long and short rings and how the telephone lines were strung from pole to trees to poles in those days.
In his kind gentle voice, he said, “I remember the fire at the Oktibbeha cotton warehouse so well that you wrote about last week.” I and everyone else came together to cut the bands from around the cotton bales. It took several days for the fire to stop smoldering because the cotton was like a candlewick. Mr. Kennard is a descendant of John Kennard who held the office of county treasurer from 1908-1912. John Kennard also owned the Kennard building, the row of offices just east of the courthouse that is known by locals as Lawyers Row.
Mrs. Ellen Shook Remembers...
Ellen went to work for the telephone company in 1941 and worked her way up to supervisor and retired with 42 years of service. She trained all the operators. In fact, she trained the mother of MSU President, Dr. Mark E. Keenum, to be an operator while she was pregnant with him right here in Starkville. When he became president, Mrs. Keenum called Ellen and told her the news and they both agreed that they had done pretty good with him!
The operators worked shifts during the 24-hour period. There would be 10 to 12 operators working during the day and two operators worked at night. In the daytime, two of the operators worked the long distance calls and eight worked the local calls.
The building was not air-conditioned and they would take tubs of ice, fans, and raise windows to be cool. She said, “telephone operators were very close, like a sorority and remain that way even after retirement.”
There were many times extra operators would have to be hired; some would be standing and some sitting on the floor. When the cadets were brought in for training from all parts of the U.S., additional operators were required because of all the long distance calls. When Old Main Dormitory burned, Ellen recalled that the switchboard looked like a fire itself with all the lights lit. When U. S. President John Kennedy was killed, it was the same thing.
She said, “the state office in Jackson kept telling them (operators) they were going to be replaced by technology.” On their breaks afterward, the operators would talk and say, “There is no way technology can replace what we do!” But eventually in 1962, it became reality. When this automation occurred, Starkville had 36 telephone operators whose jobs were closed. The telephone building still located on Main Street is where the last telephone operators worked. Ellen and others went to Columbus to work for the telephone company when their jobs were closed in Starkville.
Mrs. Frances Langerfeld Remembers...
She said, “Number Please” is what we, the operators, would always say when someone picked up the receiver. She laughed when she said, “ every day Charlie Bell would pick up the phone and say, “ances,’ rather than Frances would you….” Operators did a lot of favors for people. I got to know everyone in town and felt like they were family. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there meeting the people and serving the public…. it was so much fun!