Column by Arthur Raymond Thompson





     It’s a far cry from our early telephone system to modern Direct dialing.  I was night operator at the telephone office in Almira, during the 1911-12 school term and I thought the tiny switchboard was a marvelous instrument.  Sixty years later, while in Fort Smith, in Canada’s North West Territory, we telephoned to relatives in the Seattle area, over a combination microwave and wire system that defies descriptions, except to an electronics engineer!

     The GRINSTEAD sisters, LUTIE and ORPHA, operated the Almira telephone system, in 1911 and they offered me $10 per month to man the station between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m., an offer I was glad to accept.

     I slept in a room in back of the office, where a bell  - (that sounded like a fire alarm)  - woke me when late callers rang in.  On such occasions, I had to hop out of abed and dash into the office and “plug in” to answer the call.

     Ten rows of indicators, ten rows of “receivers”, and ten sets of plugs attached to long cords, plus a mouthpiece and earphones for the operator, and a hand crank for “ringing in” were the main components of the switchboard.

     I rarely went to bed before 10:30 p.m., and often farm women wanted to “visit” with their friends, about 6 a.m.  One time a “drummer” banged on the office door after midnight and gave me a bad time, while I tried in vain to get through to a party in Spokane.  The salesman finally left, cussing the telephone company, and me in particular, for our “lousy service”!

     During the winter, a high school student, who was only a casual acquaintance, commenced hanging around the telephone office, after I took over for night duty.  A few visits later, he wanted to stay overnight to “keep me company”.  He seemed to be sincere, so I agreed to the proposed arrangement.

     Everything went okay for a week or so and even the boy’s father stopped by to tell me he was pleased that his son could “help a schoolmate” by manning the switchboard, while I did my high school lessons!

     Them the 16 year-old Freshman commenced bringing his dress clothes to the office, and attending dances and house parties, on the sly, as far as his parents were concerned.  Twice, he woke me late at night by rapping on the back room window!

     This turn of events annoyed and worried me, but luckily his father discovered what his son was doing and put an end to the “helping a schoolmate” caper.

     A few years ago, I read a story about Mrs. RAY WETZEL (an operator of the Almira telephone in 1910) in the Wenatchee World.{ Mrs. Wetzel, the former GENEVIEVE SHAFFER.}

     Rural telephones in those days were a great convenience to farmers, and many connections from the main line into the farm homes were by means of barbwire.  I have no statistics on the subject, but I suspect there were many more telephones in such rural areas, before World War I, than there are now.  Consolidation of farms into much larger operations has been the cause for this.

     Telephone lines, especially the barbwire sections, were often out of order in “The Ridge” area, north of Almira.  Early in February, 10911 (a date I well remember, as it was shortly after my father’s funeral) ALFRED NORTHRUP and I drove with a team and sleigh called a “cutter”, out to his homestead on the plateau between the dead end of Northrup’s Canyon and the mouth of Grand Coulee.

     Enroute, Al and I crossed The Ridge in a section where barbwire fences were completely buried in snow.  I doubt if telephone service, depending on barbwire lines in that area, was functioning, at the time.

     I thought of that incident last summer, while visiting the BOB O’NEIL family on the O’Neil farm, about 12 miles north of Almira.  While we were there, Mrs. O’Neil talked to her husband, who was operating a tractor a mile or so away, by a wireless intercom system!

     The barbwire telephone is just another casualty of technical improvements in communications systems.  In its day, the far from perfect rural telephone was, itself, an incredible instrument, when compared to Indian Smoke Signals, the Moccasin Telegraph or the Pony Express!

Submitted by Linda M. Thank 10/19/2003,  from The Almira Register Section of the Wilbur Register, Thursday, September 5, 1974.

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