Crank up a conversation - on party-line, of course

Gus Peterson unveils the "guts" of the telephone, wiring and a set of batteries. The Eagle/DAVID CARKHUFF

The wall-mounted hand-crank telephone was a device put into service about the late 1800s that allowed us to voice communicate with other households, near and far. Something that was so far fetched that one just had to actually try it to believe it!

The one system to precede it would be the railroad telegraph, that sent an electric impulse from one station to another, and by using combinations of "dots and dashes" (Morse Code) could send a message. A machine that could send a voice that you could recognize as a certain person must have been exciting! It didn't take an education on the system, nor much practice, to use it, just ring up someone and talk.

The phone was mounted on a wall in a prominent location, at a height suitable for adults. Children very seldom used it, and when they did, they would pull up a kitchen chair to stand on. There was usually just one line for the community with all phones connected, and people used a combination of "short and long rings" to call a particular neighbor. The ringing sounded on all the phones on the line. Often if someone knew their neighbor was gone for the day but was receiving a call, they would get on the line and relay that information. Then perhaps those two might visit for a spell before hanging up.

There obviously was no privacy with such a set-up! Yes, any other party may pick up his (or her) receiver, and listen in, or even get involved. They were called "rubber necks."

This writer grew up in a community with 24 phones on the line, and it finally had 30 on it before a dial system took over about 1958 or 1960. The local line was approximately 35-38 miles in length. The Kimberly-Monument community enjoyed the benefits of electricity in 1953, and in 1947 a paved road was wide enough for two traffic lanes all the way between Monument and Kimberly. Before that, the gravel road had a couple pull-outs in its 35-mile length, where if two rigs met, one stopped while the other went by.

The phone line was ended in a store, at each end, and the store operator, who was actually "central" had a set of bells and a knife switch for each line, that provided connection to any of the five party lines coming into his place. If someone wanted to call a party on another line, the storeman (central) could close both switches, and the two lines would be connected. When such a call was finished, one of the parties would ring a short jingle, a signal to disconnect them. This is where the term to "ring off" came from, to mean the end of something.

The operator lived in his store building and if such an emergency came up that one needed to talk on another line he would get up and accommodate. His ring was the same on all lines coming in to him.

Now there was another line connecting the stations, but with no individual phones on it, called the high line. The operator could access it with another knife switch to call long distance. To call outside, we'd go the few miles to town, and the storeman had a plywood "booth" where we could talk directly on the high line, with no rubber necks.

Every receiver off the hook drew some energy away from the call, and that made a difference for long distance. I recall my folks making or receiving, I believe, six or seven long distance calls in the 15 years we lived there. They were invariably emergency calls, usually a death in the family.

Now about the power. The hand crank turned a magneto that rang the bells, and the voice was carried on the power from two telephone batteries. They were 1.5 volts each, but there was room in the cabinet for three of them, which is what we used. Three volts, or two batteries, were probably enough for lines with lesser miles or phones, but there seemed to be no ill effects in using 4.5 volts. It is a bit hard to visualize that weak voltage traveling so far, and being drained by several receivers, and still able to produce an audible signal. Just how the energy from the dry cells and the circuit to the bells is separated, so the batteries aren't discharged in the ringer coils, I don't know. If someone turned the crank, one could certainly hear a stuttering sound in the receiver. If you took hold of the wire, and were grounded, you darn well knew someone was calling. The single wire was insulated on poles or trees, and the return circuit was by using the earth. In homes with water pipes, there was no problem finding a good ground. But without a pipe to connect to, a steel rod was driven in the ground. Sometimes in the summer, especially in dry weather the phone services may get kind of ratty, we solved the problem with a bucket of water on the ground wire. We hear about using the top wire of a fence for the phone connection. I have never seen this, but it can't be very effective, because wooden posts are not very good insulators in wet weather, and gates would be bad news.

The U.S. Forest Service used these phones to connect their mountain top fire lookout towers together, and one line was run to a ranch far out, but nearest to the forest system. That line could be switched onto our farmer line.

One thing I regret now is, when the dial system came in, the old crank phones could be picked up for a couple dollars. Most of them were trashed, the kids took them apart for the ringer to use to get worms out of the ground, or they were just burned. I thought about them, but then I got to thinking about how smart I would be having, say $20 tied up in 10 of them! I ended up with three of them.

Gus Peterson has lived in the Monument community since 1929. He collects a variety of things, mostly antique power machinery and is a member of the Early Day Gas Engine and Tractor Association, a national association made up of 112 branches.


Back when the switchboard was in Boyer's Store, Dempsey Boyer claimed that he could tell who was ringing the phone by the sound of the ring, and several people have their old phone books, telling each ring for the subscriber. Grandson Jerry Boyer of Monument has not been able to locate records showing just when the switchboard was put into the store, but it seems to have been there when Dempsey took over the store in 1927-28. Cottonwood Telephone, serving the Cottonwood and Hamilton areas, was organized in 1912, and M.J. Thompson went door to door to get elected as the first president. Papers reveal that in 1940 negotiations with Boyer's Store took place so that the Cottonwood line could connect to the outside world through that switchboard.


Van and Betty Richards of Monument talk about "rubbering." Seems that if you knew the technique, you could lift your phone at home so that the folks talking couldn't tell what was happening and listen in to conversations. Betty tells the story that she was to go out to get her milk from her mother-in-law, Hazel, who called to say don't come, I just spilled the gallon of milk all over the kitchen floor, and the lady across the street, having "rubbered" into the call, couldn't keep from exclaiming "Oh No!", thus revealing her listening habits.

These notes about telephones in the Monument area are from Joan Silver.


The Main Line, which encompassed Beech Creek, Fox, Hamilton, John Day, Long Creek, Monment, Spray and Chet Brown.

Other lines included the following: Private line for C.J. Holmes and Home Cafe, White Line, Deer Creek Line, Mountain Line and the River Line.

Boyer's Store was on all lines and had a phone ring consisting of three short rings and a long ring.

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