Hopkins County Folk Lore
The Party Line
By Contributing Editor, Carolyn Buntin Eveland
Situated in our homes today, on every available tabletop, desk, wall and night stand sits the mighty telephone. Its lines connect our computers, faxes, and more. By pushing a few buttons we have instant access to hospitals, ambulances, stores, garages, restaurants, local and government agencies. We have 911, call waiting, caller ID, call forwarding, conference calls, etc. Our society today couldn't function without the telephone.
Just as the automobile began to push Hopkins County into the modern era, the telephone added much to the progress. Hopkins Countians were to enter a life they had never known was possible and there was no turning back.
When telephones first became available to the American public, they were considered to be a miracle, nothing less. How could a human voice, spoken into this device, speed along a wire to someone else many miles away and be heard. It was a mystery indeed, but one that was soon grasped and utilized by all who could afford one.
Some of the first machines were large affairs. The cabinet was made of wood measuring anywhere from one foot to a foot and a half and hung on the wall. It had two chimes sitting side by side at the top of the "box" and a bracket on the side to hold the receiver. The receiver looked something like a miniature bullhorn and was attached to the telephone by a wire wrapped in thick cloth tubing. On the other side of the phone box was a crank. When one turned that handle, the chimes would ring. If you wanted the operator, you could make the chimes ring one long sound. For awhile that was the only way you could be connected to anyone else.
Shortly the phone design changed to black, squatty desk phones and each family was given a phone number that could be dialed instead of turning the crank. One line would accommodate as many as 8 or 10 households and this was called a Party Line. When phone numbers were dialed now on the party line, each household had a combination of rings that designated who the call was for. No matter who might have been receiving a call, all the phones rang in each and every home. Mrs. Jones might have two short rings, Mr. Brown might have two longs, Mrs. Smith could have a long and a short ring and so on. Everyone on the party line instantly knew who was receiving a phone call.
Now folks, this was just too good to be true. Private phone calls? Unheard of!
Mostly neighborhood women were the culprits who listened in on private phone calls. Never let it be said that gossip didn't rule the day already and party lines were just the icing on the cake. Now they could get the latest news straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. Everyone knew who was having a baby, who was fighting with their husband, or who was getting married, divorced or sneaking around. No more second hand gossip! Ahh, the world was a wonderful place.
Everyone knew that any call they might receive would be overheard by half the neighborhood. Teenagers talked in vain using pig latin. Of course they forgot this method of speaking had been around for ages and all the adults had learned it themselves when children. Most men only talked business and women tried without success to guide their caller away from personal or tell tale conversations. It didn't work. Any gossip was better than no gossip at all.
Busybodies soon gained the skill of being sly and cunning when eavesdropping on their neighbors. It became an art and various ways were incorporated to hide this occupation from the rest of the family.
Some women adopted the method of "act only when alone." After Papa was sent off to work and the children were fed, dressed and fairly pushed onto the school bus, the innocent looking little wife and mother waited impatiently for the phone to ring. It didn't matter who's ring it was, it was news and that's what she craved.
The phone rings at last. Two short rings, not her number but who cares. With hand extended an inch above the receiver, she quietly picks it up an instant after the ringing stops. That was a clear indication that someone has answered it. With hand over the mouthpiece she stands quietly, breathing suppressed and listens intently. Most of the time the call isn't newsworthy at all. Women talk of the day's chores, their children and the errands they need to do.
Every now and then however the telephone bandit is rewarded with such a magnitude of information, she can barely control her excitement. On these occasions, when the gossip gets good and promises to be lengthy, the little lady seats herself on the sofa nearby and prepares to listen until the bitter end.
Pay Dirt! The news is juicy and ripe for telling! Mr. Brown (not his real name but certainly a real person) has just been rushed to the doctor. Seems he showed up at work once again with a quart of moonshine having substituted for his breakfast. The lady listens closely, phone pressed hard into her ear, it's all she can do to keep from asking questions herself!
It seems that a Mrs. Holeman was seated in the waiting room of the doctor's office when Brown was brought in. After gathering all the facts she could by listening in on the hilarious retelling of the event by the men who had brought him in, she rushed right home and began her rounds of calling. The first person she called was her sister who just happened to be a member of the party line.
Mr. Brown was a miner like most everyone else in the neighborhood. There was a mule, Old Ike, who pulled the coal cars into the mine and was about to make his first run of the day. As Ike was being fitted with his harness, Mr. Brown, who was feeling no pain what so ever decided for some unknown reason to grab Ike's tail.
Now Ike wasn't a very amiable mule and he didn't like what he had to do for a living. The old mule had worked many years at the mine and he didn't like going down into the darkness every day, time and time again. He had acquired a reputation for being surly and stubborn and above all he didn't like many people at all. Just as Mr. Brown latched onto the tail, Ike let out a bellow and promptly kicked backwards. Just in the nick of time Mr. Brown jumped out of the way. In his present condition Brown thought the mule stupid and slow. With his reputation on the line, as fellow miners were obviously watching and admiring his agility in avoiding that kick, he immediately made a dive for Ike's tail again. He could handle this stupid mule, no doubt about it. With that he gave the tail a good hard yank. The two legged kick was so fast and so well aimed, the man instantly crashed backward onto the ground. With the fallen tailholder lay moaning and gasping for air, it was apparent his ribs were probably broken. Ike just stood there, one eye half closed, one ear forward, and totally confident in his ability to handle the situation. Looking over his shoulder, Ike seemed to be thinking "sucker"! and if ever a mule could smile, Ike did it then. He stamped the ground with another challenge just for good measure. "Damned Mule, Damned Mule" was all Mr. Brown could manage to say between moans and gasps.
While co-workers decided who would take poor Brown to the doctor, the foreman promptly fired him on the spot. The mule was glad.
This news was getting so good the secret listener could hardly contain herself. The phone call ended finally. Our little lady still held the receiver to her swollen ear and heard three more hang-up clicks after the initial caller had hung up. Guess the story got around pretty good that day. No telegraphs needed here.
There was only one drawback to listening to other people's phone calls. It wasn't as easy now to pass on the gossip without incriminating oneself. After all, what good was gossip if you couldn't tell anyone about it. Just seemed to defeat the whole purpose. But somehow ingenious methods were incorporated such as, "I heard from a reliable source that so and so....."
Sometimes the ladies became so adamant in their secret activity, they even forgot to turn on the radio. Some of the ladies lived for the soap operas that were broadcast daily over their local radio stations. Now that was real dedication.
Frequently the listener was having such a rewarding day she forgot the time. Suppers were late and frequently food was scorched. Wet clothing lay in baskets waiting to be hung on the line while little babies got far more cookies than needed just to shut them up. Children returning home from school burst through the door in typical chaotic fashion. Instantly pushing the hang up button, Mother promptly began rearranging all the knickknacks on the table.
Lovers were well aware that passionate calls to each other were monitored by the entire neighborhood. Secret codes were worked out in advance to fool the town's busybodies. There were two lovers who made everyone's days for months and months. They were married, but not to each other. For instance, the man would say to his sweetheart, "I really enjoyed the dinner you made for us all the other night." The love struck woman would reply, "Oh yes, Vice Versa." Now this code broke down to be, "I loved being with you the other night" while she replied "Me too." "Is your (husband's name) going to come over here tonight"? To which she answered, "No he's going to visit his buddy over at the school house for awhile." Now don't you just know this message meant "Is HE going to be at home tonight? Her reply naturally meant "No and I can meet you in the school parking lot." "What time does that new radio show come on tonight?" Why I believe it's 8:00 PM sharp." "Okay I'll tune in then." "I'll tell (innocent hubby's name) that you called."
Sounds like a pretty smart scheme doesn't it? Well, the only mistake they made was not changing their codes to confuse the silent witnesses. Within a week, the busybodies had figured it out. Now one of the ladies, a Mrs. T. was a real Bible Thumper and adamantly abhorred the shameful shenanigans that was taking place right under all their noses. Evidently eavesdropping on private conversations was not considered a sin as she let everyone know who would listen to her daily report. It was her duty to inform others of the atrocities that were being committed to the sacred vows of matrimony. Besides the wife of the adulterous man was none other than her own third cousin, twice removed.
There the telephone pirate listened with hand cupped over the receiver. Mrs. T. had taken breakfast early. She knew this rascal always called just after the woman's husband had left for work. She had a handkerchief to muffle her breathing lest the receiver pick it up and a pillow at her back. She had closed all the windows to seal out unwanted noises from outside. Her own husband was working, no problem there. Her children were long grown up so no worry about an intrusion from them. The conversation was winding down now. It had been an extremely "personal" one and Mrs. T. had become totally absorbed in it. The married man softened his voice and in a low whisper said that he had certainly enjoyed the radio show the other night, more than anything. Before the lady could say a word, Mrs. T., with eyes closed and rocking gently back and forth in her chair, breathlessly chimed, "Vice Versa."
Sometimes, all out wars took place between some of the party line members. This time a man was involved and we shall call him Mr. A. for his children still live there today. Mr. A. was famous for listening in on every call that came through to anyone. He was known as the biggest snooper on the party line. Well, next to Mrs. T. that is. Mr. A. was a disabled miner so he was home all day. In the summertime he would stretch the phone cord right outside his front door, prop a chair there and begin his anonymous listening. Day after day he sat on the shaded porch participating in monitoring calls, only rising when nature called or to slurp down his "dinner." That's lunch to you city folk.
Mr. A., probably due in part to his weight and self-reported "constant stopped up nose" had a loud breathing problem. Everyone knew when he was around even if he didn't speak up. It was said that you could hear him breathing three rooms away. So everyone on the party line knew when Mr. A. was lurking online.
One time a caller who we'll call Jasper, became so exasperated with the listening and loud breathing, he proceeded to tell Mr. A. to get off the phone and tend to his own business. Whereas Mr. A. lost all sense of having been found out and instead proceeded to curse the man outright. A yelling match ensued, becoming very heated indeed. Soon word of the altercation was passed along by those who had been listening right along with Mr. A. Each time Mr. A's phone rang, anyone who was home jumped to pick up the receiver. A good show was on the way and no one wanted to miss out on the goin' ons which were sure to be juicy.
When Mr. A. received a call, his opponent, who was retired and also home all day, would pick up the mouthpiece and grunt like a pig which I'm sure made reference to the breathing problem. Mr. A. was beside himself with fury. "I know who you are! I'll track you down and shoot you like a dog"! At this point the other man would send out a series of chicken cackles. The whole neighborhood was in stitches.
Now the man responsible for the pig imitations was a tiny slip of a fellow. In his middle 70's, he weighed probably a good 110 pounds soaking wet. His back was bent and hunched from his long years in the coal mines and he may have stood five feet tall, on a good day. He drove an old faded chocolate sedan. Daily routine saw him driving to the store early each morning, meeting his cronies there for a "pop." Seating himself on a thick cushion and proceeding to peep through the steering wheel, the top part of his head was barely visible above the dashboard.
Every day at the appointed time of the store visit, Mr. A took himself to the edge of his porch and commenced to curse and shake his fist the minute the brown car came into view. Unperturbed, Jasper was steady as the Rock of Gibraltar. Poking his bony arm out the window and never moving his head nor eyes from the road, he slowly stuck his middle finger in the air and kept it there long after he had driven past Mr. A. The feud lasted for years, much to the delight of all the silent eavesdroppers.
It was several years before private phone lines became available in rural Hopkins County. Eventually each and every household had their own private line installed. Needless to say service was much improved and everyone's private business became just that. But it wasn't nearly as much fun and the neighborhood ladies secretly mourned.
In looking back on those days we pledge our thanks to you Mr. Bell for the entertainment your invention made possible. I wonder, if he could have become a member of a party line, would he have enjoyed it like our neighbors did. You know, I think he would have gotten a kick out of it.
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Copyright © 2000 by Carolyn Buntin Eveland
All Rights Reserved
My husband, Howard Trice, grew up in Hopkins and Webster counties, right on the county line west of Slaughters. When he starts talking about his childhood, one of the stories he always tells is of when the telephone first came to this area. He was a child, and they had an 8 party line. Most everyone on the line was 'kin'. When the phone rang, it didn't make any difference how many long or short it was... if you were home, you picked it up. 'Have you seen Howard [or whoever they were looking for]?' 'Yes, he passed here about 5 minutes ago, heading towards [fill in the blanks... home, the store, school, or someone's house].' 'Nope... hasn't passed here yet.' 'Will you catch him and tell him ...' whatever.
Howard 'worked' for the phone company. When there was a problem on the line, he would go out and follow the line from one house to the next, looking for the problem. Usually it was something simple, like a small twig that fell on the line. He carried a long stick with him and would knock it off, and everything would be ok. If he found a broken line he would have to go to another house not on their line to call and report it. He never says how much he was paid... I rather think it was probably just something he wanted to do. After all, this was the late 30s or early 40s, and the kids then always found something to do that was interesting... and this was interesting, and fun!
Nancy Trice, © 2000