250th Anniversary of Shenandoah County: Switchboard Operators Connected the Community | Everyday

Check the weather with the phone.

Speak and see in real time a sibling or co-worker thousands of miles away with the phone.

Check out sports scores or recent election results on the phone.

Deposit money, perform financial transactions or pay a bill over the phone.

These are examples of the actions of every millisecond that 21st century society has become accustomed to because of the cell phone – a hand-sized device that has become as familiar to a hand as it is to fingers.

It’s hard to believe that just 65 years ago a telephone, a lead device the size of a shoebox costing $2.48 a month with no long distance service, was a prized possession, an object not even found in every house let alone in every hand even though telephone service in Shenandoah County had existed since before 1902.

Around this time a small group of Edinburgh men came together to form the Farmers Mutual Telephone System. This first service, where customers and communities even erected their own poles to be served, was only possible thanks to the switchboard operator, the essential key to the success of each call received and each call made.

“The operator did it all,” said Norma Copeland, a 48-year-old employee of what is now ShenTel, a makeover of that first company: Farmers Mutual.

It was the operator, a physical network of women who worked as a team 24 hours a day, who operated the phone. At first, these operators were women working from their homes. Later they moved to telephone companies located in cities and then to the county telephone service building in Edinburgh, the current headquarters of ShenTel.

The 21st century telephone customer has few memories of when the telephone was wall-mounted with a 4-foot coil that prevented the speaker and listener from leaving the cord radius, or even before the individual line to a home phone when all calls go through an operator.

Unlike today’s telephone, the mid-20th century telephone was a tool for emergencies, a single line connected to a female voice that could help residents and non-residents communicate.

In the early days of the telephone, these carriers—often nameless, faceless voices referred to simply as “operator”—connected all services in Shenandoah County.

“People called the operator for a doctor, for a fire, for the police,” said retired ShenTel telephone operator Jean Stover. “We were even asked to send a tow truck.” She laughs as she recalls the calls she’s made from her switchboard position during her 20 years with the company. “The phone was for emergencies”, a cost of 0.37 cents per hour. “It was a lot back then,” laughs Stover.

Joining five other operators at the Mount Jackson office, Stover went to work for the Shenandoah Telephone Company in June 1955 at the encouragement of his aunt Dora Biller, who was also an employee. Stover, newly married, had just received her very first telephone. “I never had a phone before I got married,” she admitted.

When Stover became Carrier 21, because each carrier had a number, not everyone in Shenandoah County had a phone in their home. And if they did, the phone line was probably a party line, meaning more than one person was using the same phone line. Sometimes these lines had up to 20 people on a line. When the phone line had more than one customer on the line, operators sometimes had to ask one person to hang up so another could make a call.

Before auto-dial phones, “people would call” and ask if the operator could “ring so-and-so. We [operators] would hook up the call,” Stover said.

Stover said the lines can get busy in the morning when people are checking on neighbors, but the phone is primarily for emergencies.

“Oh, there were people hanging in there, gossip and stuff,” Stover recalled of the party-line system, but she said that in most cases people used the phone infrequently and with respect. If people didn’t have phones in their homes, they often went to local stores to use the phone, so calls might be limited as a courtesy to the next person.

She explained that customers with a party-line phone in their home would know who the call was for by the number of rings the phone made. “One short and one long, or two short. That’s how you knew, she said.

Stover remembers the blizzard of 1962. She said that night she logged more calls than any other night in her career. “It’s before the highway. The trucks could not pass. People lined up, trying to make calls to their homes, to give news to their people.

By the late 1960s, the number of party lines had dropped to two or four people on a single line as the telephone company made leaps and bounds with service.

For Stover, the ability to connect people to their loved ones was rewarding. “It made you feel good,” she said.

At 87, Stover said that even though she had a cell phone, she always dialed the number. “I still remember every number,” she said proudly. “I can still dial” a phone quickly.

And even though every operator remembers numbers, remembers ringtones, remembers locations, people making calls often didn’t know the operator because few people saw the operator behind the voice answering the phone. Even so, Stover maintains that she “has really met a lot of interesting people. The most important thing for someone was to receive that call.

“Before I went to work at the telephone company, I didn’t really know that people worked there. [the phone] was kind of magical,” laughs Gail Payne. Payne will mark 50 years of employment with ShenTel in August. She started in accounting – when each customer’s invoice was filled out by hand in an envelope, but Payne worked in various departments, including service.

Instead of writing down service calls on paper, paper that was given to supervisors and later shared with service technicians, she now operates a computer system where there is little contact with maintenance/service employees who, instead of receiving paper jobs every morning, check aps for service calls and file reports on the computer. Payne said the changes – an evolution in every department – have been smooth. She said there has never been less work, just easier ways to get the job done because the service has expanded over the years.

When Payne went to the telephone company, individual phones were still something people dreamed of because many residents still had party lines.

The party line was one reason, “if you wanted to keep a secret in Shenandoah County, you didn’t say it on the phone,” laughed Evelyn Poland. A telephone company employee for four decades and a former long-distance operator, Poland still has her rotary phone, a souvenir bought in 1972. “Oh, I still use it,” she said.

In 1954, the telephone company had just over 3,000 subscribers, connected by 10 different switchboards. By 1959, the switch from switchboards to rotary phones was complete and some people could make calls without using an operator.

It was Poland’s dream to be a telephone operator, a desire she often shared with the new 1954 general manager, Warren B French Jr. She and others remember him fondly, a leader who cared about every employee.

Because all the operators were women with families, Poland said the French allowed women to work in split shifts – several hours in the morning and several hours in the evening – so the women could have time for their families.

When Poland had just come out of high school, she said, “I’d stop there and talk to him,” explaining that when the city standards were moved to a centralized location in Edinburgh, French asked her to join the team as a long distance operator. His dreams had come true because the idea of ​​making long distance calls was growing not just in Shenandoah County, but across the country.

Long distance is a thing of the past. But not so long ago, when people needed to make a long distance call like a call to Winchester or San Diego, CA, they had to go through a long distance carrier, and there was a charge for the hour the day the call was made, the location of the call, and the length of time the person was online.

Poland was that long-distance carrier voice.

When not updating its call logs with newly assigned numbers and various different area codes that were established and brought online, Poland said it and other carriers monitor the switchboard when long distance calls had passed. She said customers didn’t want to pay a second more than their call, so operators had to pay close attention to the lighted switchboard and quickly disconnect calls, calculating charges on punch cards.

In addition to long distance, Poland and other operators have worked with directory assistance. It might be hard to believe, but instead of Google, people used to call the carrier to get new phone numbers — or even established phone numbers. Poland chuckles a little as she remembers the calls she would get – people looking for new numbers and old ones.

“We had a daily newspaper that showed all the new issues,” she said. For all the other numbers, the operators did what the customers did not: they looked in the telephone directory. “Yeah, we just looked it up in the book. People just used to call and ask us for help. We were always there to help.”

“It’s true. The operators did everything,” repeats Norma Copeland. Copeland has worked for ShenTel since 1974, when the company had just taken the name of Shenandoah Telephone Company. Copeland recalls that the store of his big Her father at Zepp had the crank phone, the square box that was the precursor to the rotary phone. She said people came to the store to make phone calls, calls connected by the operators who sat at the switchboards.

Copeland remembers his early days as a company secretary: manual typewriters, carbon paper, and duplicators instead of copiers. “You couldn’t make a mistake,” she laughed, as one mistake could cost hours of work as new copies were made using old methods. She said the personal computer brought a whole new set of problems. “We had to get used to seeing what we were doing on a screen,” she laughed. “There is a world of difference in the phone. There is a world of difference in the way the whole business operates.

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