Telephone party lines kept everyone abuzz

Do you recall the old telephone party lines? I found that several readers do; and after listening to their recollections, I thought you might get a kick out of some of them.

My own party line experience began and ended when I was about 6 years old. Call it nosey or call it the young reporter in me; I just loved to sneak onto the phone and listen in on the latest news halfway down our street. This worked great until an agitated voice on the other end yelled, “Who’s there?”

The experience was short-lived. Ma-Bell switched us to a private line, and phone fun was never the same.

Party lines used to be especially prevalent in rural areas, where it wasn’t uncommon for several homes to share one line, and where each residence had its own unique ring.

“Our phone had one short and two long rings. But everybody on the party line would listen in,” Norma Schueller said. She kept abuzz on what was happening in Quimby, Iowa.

When important news needed to be shared with the public, the operator used a special ring to alert all residences, said Schueller.

“I remember when the general operator called and told us [President Harry] Truman had just fired [General Douglas] MacArthur,” Schueller said.

Reader Laura Belle Campbell whimsically commented on the lack of privacy with party lines in Proebstal, a farming community in Vancouver, Wash.

“There used to be a woman on our line who raised turkeys. She had a reputation for constantly listening in on others’ conversations. One day, some neighbors were on the line and they could hear turkeys in the background — they knew she was listening in again,” Campbell said.

“One of them commented, ‘Mrs. [So-and-So] is eavesdropping again.’

“Then she shouted, ‘I am not!’” recalled Campbell.

Party lines were also a way of life for folks in Benton, Tenn., said Grace Sphar, who was just a 5-year-old when she visited her grandfather there.

“No one objected to party lines; it was a small town. They’d all sit around and listen in — it was fun. At first you talked to the operator before she’d get you your number. Down South, that’s the way you did it,” said Sphar.

Whether or not you personally experienced the old telephone party lines, I think one thing’s a given: Telephone memories “ring a bell” with many.

Next week: If you remember saying, “Operator?” then you’ll enjoy the last in a series of more fun telephone stories.

Contact Judy Halone at Halone is a member of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

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