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Phone Service In The Valley


Mark Ash

Junior High Division


What do you know about the history of the telephone? Yes,that thing that rings when you are in the shower! Besides being inventedby Alexander Graham Bell, what else do you know about it? Absolutely nothing!I see, a little history course is due. Mr. Bell wasn't the only one to enablethe phone service to become widespread. Millions of people had to help,and that also includes people in our area. This research paper is dedicatedto the phone service, and how it progressed in the Red River Valley.

Long ago, early in this century, the phone began to popinto view. Area farmers put up the lines and were hooked up to a centraloffice in Pembina, North Dakota, operated by Northwestern Bell.

The very first step in setting up a telephone service isto put up the lines. The farmers did this, working in the cold winter, forthere was no time during the summer months. They pounded huge logs of cedarwood, three to four feet into the ground for poles. Insulators and the steelwire were connected at the top. A telephone service man could probably climbup with his special spikes on his shoes, but the real danger was fallingoff. To prevent this, a belt was used; thus freeing the person's hands whilehe serviced the lines. But this still couldn't prevent a fall. Many a farmerhad taken a spill. Whether he slips or a rotted pole breaks on him, thefall is inevitable. Most have escaped without injury by falling into a softsnowbank or clinging to the pole with one arm. One man, nevertheless, waskilled when a rotted pole broke on him. Climbing these poles were even morehazardous when they were by a railroad. They were very particular aboutthe lines and insisted on at least a forty foot clearance. Yet, throughall these hardships, the lines were built.

Now we come to the phone itself. It was the big box kind,the one that was rung by hand. Nearly all of the systems were party lines.Eight to ten phones were the average on one line. Since early in the century,about the only thing women had to do was housework, or else gossip withanother lady. With the coming of the telephone, the latter was made mucheasier. Lines could be tied up for hours with women talking to each otheron these party lines. Since there was no talking limit, the only way anotherperson could interrupt one conversation was to have an emergency on hishands. If the parties did not yield the line for the emergency, the talkerswould be fined a stiff penalty. Over eighty customers were served in Humboldt,St. Vincent, Pembina and the surrounding areas. When the Great Depressioncame, this number dwindled to about thirty. In these times of inflation,one might forget what the size of a phone bill was back then. The bill wasabout $12.00 to $16.00 a year. That's about how much it would cost a monthnow. There was also long distance. In this area, the longest call was toHallock, a short distance compared to nowadays.

The first service man was Jim Turner in 1910. He was followedby Phil Ahles, Art Flankey, and many others. Warren Griffith bought thecompany in 1944 and continued his service until he sold out to the establishedNorthwestern Bell in 1954. The reason he had to sell was the coming of thedial phones, which only Bell was equipped to handle.

The first telephone office was in Pembina. This was maintainedby Northwestern Bell. It was very much different than the kind now. Theswitchboard, for one thing, was quite different. There were no lights orplugs, but a special magnet that moved, provided the caller was crankinghis handle. This made a door fall down and enabled the operator to see whowas calling. She would then ask the caller the number he wanted and ringthat person's number. Every person had a different phone number, only usedby the office. With a party line, a special code had to be worked out. Forexample, if a party had number 12, his ring would be one long ring and twoshort ones.

To operate an office, an operator is needed. The firstoperator was Mrs. W. R. Turner. Many more followed, such as, Mrs. Jim Gooselaw,Mrs. Lorraine Meagher, and several others. Since the establishment of thePembina office, there has only been one male operator. There were alwaystwo regular operators and one substitute. The phones operated 24 hours aday, consequently, someone was always stuck with the night shift. The averagepay was about ten cents an hour in the early days, and later got as highas $3.00 per hour. The favorite shift was 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. As an employeeworked longer, the benefits got better. Often about every five years, anoperator got a pin, a longer vacation, a bigger salary, and other benefits.He could advance as high as he wanted, and often he reached the highestlevel in Pembina, he could transfer to Grafton or Grand Forks.

Inside the office itself, it was rather small. There wereonly four rooms. First, these were heated by a wood stove, then they progressedto a coal stove, and finally, an oil burner.

One of the most influential factors of telephone serviceis the weather. Blizzards and other storms often tore down poles and itswires. The steel wire used for the line wasn't the best. It would stretchunder tension and then break. Even if during a storm the lines stayed intact,a caller would hardly be able to hear. The noise would be too great. Therewas always a constant humm, even in fair weather. Yet, in a crisis, phoneswere very useful. Floods are such an example. In St. Vincent or Pembina,if people were stranded in their home, and really needed to go somewhere,all one had to do was pick up the phone. Just look down the street to seewhere the boat was, phone the house it's at, and after being relayed, theperson could get to the supplies. Telephones were of great service in crisisyears ago, as they still are now.

The telephone service is quite different now. Instead ofthose high, dangerous poles, today many lines are underground. And partylines are only a thing of the past. Switchboards have lights and plugs,instead of those simple, old switchboards. There is no constant hummingor weather affecting lines too much. The big box telephone is replaced bythe modern picture phones. Yet, through the midst of all the modifications,some thins remain unchanged.

There is still the trusty serviceman who repairs any problemsone might have with his phone. Whether it's the phone, or something wrongwith the line, he'll be there to fix it up. The current serviceman for thisarea is Ronny Clow.

Also, there are still the requirements of an operator,though her duties have changed greatly.

The telephone is still the main source of communicationin this country, in year past, today, and many years to come.

I hope you have benefited from this short history lesson,for that was my purpose. Now, you will be able to participate in an intelligentconversation with your local history buff. Keeping all the great thingsthe phone service had done for this area, the next time you get your telephonebill, pay it with a smile.


Ash, W. H., Interview, January 19, 1975

Ash, W. S., Interview, January 19, 1975

Gooselaw, Mrs. Jim, Interview, January 26, 1975

Webster, Rodney, Interview, January 27, 1975

Gooselaw, Mrs. Jim, Interview, January 26, 1975

Webster, Rodney, Interview, January 27, 1975