Soapweed's Ranch Ramblings
The writings of a Nebraska Sandhills cattle rancher!

Party-line Memories
Oct 2, 2002

It is ironic how we've come full circle from telephone party lines, to a much-improved private-line where things said can be confidential, and now back to the party-line syndrome on this "bull session." Isn't progress great?

Growing up in the 'fifties and early 'sixties, our local phone system consisted of a one-wire above ground sort of a deal. An older couple lived in town and ran the "central" office. Our phone was of the big wooden-box hang-on-the-wall vintage. Dad stood over six feet tall, so had the speaker "nozzel" of the phone in the up position. Mom, who was only 5'2", always had a little step-stool beneath the phone and she had to pull the nozzel into it's down position to talk. When a person wanted to call out, you made one long ring and the operator would say "Number, please." After you made your request, the operator would hook up the appropriate wires to allow the call go through to another party. As there were four other ranches on our party line, not counting tenant houses, we had to listen for the appropriate number of rings to know if it was for us. Our number was 12F20. The 20 on the back meant that two long rings was our signal. One of our neighbors had 12F21 which signified that their ring was two "longs" and a "short." Another neighbor's number was 12F4, and their ring was four "shorts." It was pretty complicated technology for the day.

There were several other multi-party ranch country lines in the system also. If a call was made to someone on one of those lines, there could be a possibility of nearly twenty "parties" between the two lines.

It didn't really matter whose rings came over the line, because about everybody "rubbered" or listened in anyway. If the operator wanted to make a community announcement, a general ring of six shorts was given. This usually was of an emergency situation, such as a prairie fire, or in one instance back in 1952, of a murderer on the loose. Back to the "rubbering," absolutely nothing was confidential. Sometimes there would be so many people listening in that there would not be enough power for the actual intended conversationalists to hear each other. Then some good samaritan half-way between would offer to "repeat" so the needed message could be conveyed. If all the wrong people would have just "hung up" there would have been plenty of power anyway. Keep in mind that there were no radios, televisions, computers, or other electronic diversions in those days, and the closest town was half a day away over nearly impassable sandy trail roads.

Long-distance calls were few and far between, and the price was very expensive if and when it was done. It took a lot of time to place a long-distance call, as many local operators in other towns all had to make manual connections. One feature was a "person-to-person" call. If a long-distance call was initiated, and you could not get the person you desired to speak to on the other end, you did not have to pay for the call. This allowed for abuses of the system, with secret "codes" worked out.

Old habits die hard. To this day, I never pick up a phone without first checking to see if someone else is talking, and to see if there is a dial-tone. One thing about it, the old party lines fulfilled a vital transition in the opening of our world as we know it today






Copyright © 2005 Steve Moreland
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