The earliest telephone systems in Beltrami County connected people, eased some of the loneliness and isolation of homesteaders who lived far from other family members, provided alarms in times of emergencies, and introduced people to the forerunner of social media. The party line was an eavesdropper's dream. For the switchboard operators, the job of connecting people with cords and plugs could be demanding and the hours, long. Today, the switchboard operator is a memory, a photograph in a museum. But the ladies who worked the boards have clear memories of this bygone profession.
Part I of this story tells about Blanche O'Brien, just a teenager when she became a wife, mother and fulltime operator of the Hines Telephone Association from 1917 to 1956. Coming next week is Part II, which continues with the recollections of three Bemidji switchboard operators who worked in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s for Northwest Bell, located on Sixth Street and Beltrami Avenue where CenturyLink is now located.
HINES, Minn.-When Blanche O'Brien's husband, Guy, started the Hines Telephone Association in 1917, she became the first and only full-time switchboard operator in Hines-a job she held for 40 years.
The little lady of Norwegian and English descent-all 100 pounds of her-raised eight children while running the switchboard out of the living room of their home.
Lowell O'Brien, son of Guy and Blanche, wasn't born yet when the telephone company started, but his mother's story is still alive in his recollections.
"She was just 16 when she married my dad in 1917," Lowell said. Guy O'Brien went off to WWI in 1918 and spent a year in France. Their first child-a boy-was born while Guy was away. A second son followed in 1920; and Lowell, the third of eight children, in 1922. By then, the family had moved twice and had built a house between Hines and Blackduck and moved the telephone switchboard into it.
"They had 20 lines coming from all over the country and coming from Hines Township. It covered quite a big area, covered part of Blackduck even, and Langor Township, Hagali Township. It went up to Nebish, Turtle River, Taylor Township, Birch, and the village of Tenstrike. Hines was supposed to become a great city," Lowell said, "but it never did amount to much.
"I never saw Mother without a kid on her hip when she was doing all that work," he recalled. "Everybody became an operator. As we grew up, everybody had a turn at the switchboard."
But it was different for the kids. "Mother was so used to operating it. She had so much of it in her head," he said, pointing at a picture of his mother at the switchboard. "See these plugs right here? When somebody rings, a jack falls down, shows you what line. Then you'd hear that buzz. It was pretty loud, so you didn't have to sit there. Mother could go ahead and do her work (between calls)."
Familiar with the callers and the sounds, Blanche could tell which line a call was coming in on by the buzz. "'Go over there and answer line 10,' she'd say. She knew that. How did she know?" Lowell wondered, still amazed. "So, I'd say, 'Number, please.' 'Give me Ole Olson.' Well, I didn't know the numbers. Mother had that all in her head. Everyone was so used to her, they'd just give her the name."
Seven days a week
Working out of the home while raising eight children was no easy task. In her spare time, Blanche put up about 600 quarts of canned goods-garden vegetables, blueberries, venison-to get the family through the year. "We ate good," Lowell said.
With the switchboard in one corner of the house, the O'Briens operated it seven days a week-from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 1 to 10 p.m. on Sundays. "After 10 p.m. was for emergencies only, but," Lowell recalled, "sometimes it wasn't an emergency."
Like the time a young lady called around midnight and Blanche asked, "Is this an emergency?" The earnest voice on the end of the line said, "Oh, yes, it is. I have to talk to my boyfriend or I'll just die."
Blanche put the call through.
Real emergency calls resulted in an alarm. "Mother would ring a long ring and everybody would know there was something happening," Lowell said. "She'd say, 'So 'n so has got a chimney fire and needs some help.' That's how the message got out. It was the alarm for the volunteer fire department. The telephone system got everybody together."
While party lines allowed for the quick spreading of emergency messages, they also kept things lively for eavesdroppers. "Everybody could 'rubber' on a party line," said Lowell, referring to the common practice of listening in on one another's calls.
Before electricity, a hand ringer was used. "The more people that rubbered, you could hardly turn the crank at all," he said. "You'd have to say, 'Please get off the line so we can put a call through,' and you'd hear 'click, click, click.' Then after you'd get done ringing - 'click, click, click' - they'd be back on."
The expectation of privacy was low. "One time," Lowell recalled, "two women were talking back and forth, and one of the neighbors cut in and said, 'That ain't the way it was!'"
The phone company didn't make the O'Briens rich. Between the two of them, Guy, the lineman and manager, and Blanche, the operator, took in about $25-$30 per month. And the payments didn't come until the township issued an order and enough money came through the bank to cash it.
Eventually the Hines Telephone Association was taken over by the REA and Blackduck Telephone. Lowell reflected on the hectic days of growing up with a switchboard. "If I'd had that thing in my house, I'd have thrown it out in the garbage."
Today, visitors to the Blackduck Museum can see an exhibit on early communications in the area with Blanche's switchboard as the centerpiece.