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"My phone number is Hillcrest 7 ..."

Michael Hillman

Occasionally, and becoming rarer by the day, you can hear one of the area's senior citizens use this phrase when asked their telephone number. Hillcrest, for those that don't know, was the designation given to the Emmitsburg phone exchange when dial up service was introduced back in 1954. Eventually its use fell out of favor and it was replaced by the current '44', a victim of society's never ending rushed to throw out the old and make way for the new.

The '44' used with today's Emmitsburg phones still represents Hillcrest. The Hillcrest exchange, as was the case of all "named" exchanges, was dialed as "HI" which is "44". This system was true for the entire Bell Phone Company. The third number "7" (447) was added as more phone customers were placed on line.

While most everyone agrees that having the ability to pick up a phone and dial anywhere in the world is wonderful, some do miss the nostalgic era of the switchboard operator, where your voce was instantly recognized and all you needed to say was "Gimme out home," and you were connected to your house.

The first legal record that mentions telephones is in 1895. In that year, the first telephone poles were installed in Emmitsburg, which where promptly ordered to be removed by the town government ...

According to a story in the '1957 Bicentennial' edition of the Emmitsburg Chronicle - an edition that is unfortunately riddled with inaccuracies -  the first telephone's was installed in Emmitsburg in 1882.  Unfortunately for the early promoters of the local Emmitsburg phone company, few in town subscribed to the new service, and in 1891 its ceased operation.

On February 26, 1903, out of concern over the proliferation of power and telephone poles, the town passed Ordinance No. 104 which gave it power to regulate the placing of telephone poles and wires in the streets or alleys of the town. The ordinance, according to town minutes, specifically prohibited poles on the main street of the town.

How early phones worked

In 1893, the first central office exchange with a common battery for talking and signaling began operating in Lexington, Massachusetts. This common battery arrangement provided electricity to all telephones controlled by the central office. Each customer's telephone previously needed its own battery to provide power. Common battery had many consequences, including changing telephone design. The big and bulky wall sets with dry batteries providing power and cranks to signal the operator could be replaced with sleek desk sets.

A basic manual switchboard for magneto telephones was provided with magnetically -released "drops" so that the operator would not have to watch constantly for the transient indication of a lamp or anything similar, and the calling line could be easily identified. A party desiring a connection would call the operator by several turns on the magneto, and the ringing current would release a drop at the switchboard. When a drop fell, the operator would plug the answering end of a patch cord into the jack. Then, she would manually close the "drop." The caller would then tell the operator whom they wished to be connected to. The other end of the patch cord was then plugged into the jack for the called party, and the phone "rung" by the operator. When the called party answered, the connection was complete, and the conversation could take place. When the caller, or the called party, rang off, the drop would again fall, and the operator would remove the jacks connecting the two.

When a new common battery switchboard was installed. All the subscribers were able to reach the operator just by lifting the telephone handset. Telephone numbers became colorful, with the party lines being referred to as red, green, blue and white. Most residence lines were shared by three or four families, but this situation was much better than what the rural subscribers endured. The rural farmer lines had eight-to twenty party service, and users were still required to crank the telephone in order to reach the operator.

The multiple-party farmer lines were quite special. The rural subscribers were reached by coded ringing. For example, someone's telephone number may have been two longs, a short and a long. To reach an individual, the operator or calling party would have to turn the crank on the telephone for two seconds, pause, turn the crank again for two seconds, pause, crank for one second, pause, then crank again for two seconds.

The long ring was considered a multiple of ten, i.e., two longs meant twenty. Using this rule Bill Garner could give his family's ring of two long and two short as 22. While Polly Baumgardner Shank could give out her parents ring at their great Fort Henry mansion: two long and three short as 23. Of course, it was up to the operators to remember what party line to ring the number on.

 Browse the 1922 Emmitsubrg Area Phone Directory

This system of multiple-party lines, with coded ringing, had it's own unique phone number system. The number for Thornton Rodgers (in the 1940's) according to his son, Don Rodgers, "was 134F4; '134' indicated the line and the "4" was the number of rings. There were four homes on N. Seton Ave. on the line with the Rodgers' but four is not a large number compared to some who lived out side of town. Don  had a good friend who lived outside of town and his number was 36F13. "That meant there were at least 13 people on the line all of whom could (and often did) pick up the phone and listen to your conversation. More important was the fact that if one phone out of the thirteen was busy you couldn't get through and there wasn't anything you could do about it except, in an emergency, ask the operator to break in."

If you were calling someone on your own line, you didn't need to go through the operator, but ring their "ring" directly. You only had to go through "central', as the the operators were called, if you wanted to call someone not on your line. People would call central with any kind of information; from death announcements weddings, fires, accidents, &c.

To connect to someone in another town, you had to tell the operator the town's name and the phone number of the person you wanted to connect to. If the town you were calling was local, the operator could connect to their counterpart in that town, and once they contacted the person being called, you were connected. If you were calling a distance town, you might have to be connected through several operators before your call was connected.

Whenever anyone on a party line would receive a call, everyone on the line knew it because his phone would ring as well. Everyone was able to quickly distinguish his ring without much effort. Anyone on the line could also "listen in" on the conversation and even participate.

If the operator received a call asking to be connected to "Hillcrest-X," she knew it was an out-of-towner. The word would spread quickly, and others on the party line would pick up their receivers and listen in. "Of course," Polly added with a smile, "I never did that. My mother however occasionally listened in, and one day she heard them talking about her listening in on phone calls. She laughed out loud upon hearing this, which of course gave her away."

Listen in on other people calls was considered impolite ... but everyone suspected it was done. Ruth Richards, in her story, The Women of Main Street, recounts that a "Miss Warthen, a most efficient woman ... thought I was listening in on other people's conversations."

The best time to listen, if you were so inclined said Polly, was late at night. That's when all the boys would call their girlfriends. Unfortunately, you just couldn't pick up the phone and talk to her, but had to ring her ... a ring everyone on the line could hear.

As Don Rodgers already alluded to, party lines did have another down side, someone invariably was always on them!  When asked how this was resolved, Bill Gardener chuckled "You just picked up the phone and told the people talking you needed the line, and if they didn't hang up, you would tell them "Get off! You didn't mince any words or you would be forever waiting to get on."

For Betty Gardner, the era of the old phone system is a nostalgic one. "I can picture my self in my Grandmother's dining room where the phone hung on the wall at the foot of the back stairs. Don refers to the 'lack of privacy in the neighborhood.' Well, there was no privacy in the home either! When the phone rang not only alter everyone on the party line, but everyone within hearing distance of the ring.  And there was no whispering into the phone, you had to talk loud and clear.  You may as well have had a speaker phone!!

The era of switchboard service

The telephone exchange for the first phone company was opened in Emmitsburg in the Adolphus Harner building on West Main street in 1884.  The switchboard operator was Mrs. Theresa Ziegler, the daughter of Mr. Harner. 

When a second try was made at introducing telephone service to the town, the Harner building was once again selected.  It remained this until 1921 when it was moved to the front room of the Felix house, 200 West main street (just west of the Present Laundromat, which at the time was Troxell's Feed and Grain run by Chick, Hen and Peep Troxell).

The exchange was by the three Felix sisters, Anna, Nellie and Mary. The room quickly became a favorite gather spot, as it the one place you could go to get the very latest on who was doing what with who and where they were doing it.

In a 1954 interview, Mrs. Nellie Felix Sullivan, one of the three Felix sisters recounted some of her memories, "[When I first started], there weren't many telephones and there weren't many calls, and a lot of the time we had time on our hands. That idyllic existence change though, as more phones were put into service as the demand increased. Eventually the one panel board, which had served for many years, had to be increased in size and another panel was added.

As a little girl, Polly Baumbardner would often wander out of her grandmothers Helen Morrison's house (now the funeral home) and go next door to the Felix house, where she would site quietly and listen to the operators talk. "At the time they had two switchboards. If thing were slow, one girl would work both boards while the other girls would sit and chat with visitors. When thing got busy, another girl would take a seat and they both worked together. They were constantly reaching across each other's boards, but they never seemed to get in each other's way.

The girls would time the length of each call with a clock, and the call's length noted in a legal ledger. At the end at the end of every month your calls were totaled and a bill sent.

In the days of the switchboard, answering machines came in the form of your neighbors. They frequently helped each other by answering calls for one another. It was not unusual to have a neighbor tell you the person you were calling was making hay or had just driven by on his way to town.

The Felix girls and those that followed them, performed similar services for the businesses and residents in town. From the window in the front of the house, the girls could monitor the coming and going of the town's resident. A calling party might be told by the one of the girls that the person he was calling was not in his office, but was seen going to Troxel's shop, so the call would be connected there. Mary Hoke remembers "We were even told of calls that came for us when we happened to be out, if they were from a distance or important." Polly Shank can remember picking up the telephone and calling into the switchboard and asking to be connected to such and such. "The operators always knew who was in or out of town."

If the person being called didn't have a phone, then the person closest to them with a phone was called, and a message was left with them.

Another use of coded ringing was known as the line ring. One of the consistent users of the line ring were grocers who would come to the telephone office each week to line ring each party line to give his grocery specials of the week. This same line call also was used to distribute news and call attention to special events:

"I remember standing next to my mom on the back porch of the farm," reminisced Polly, "listening to all the church bells ringing. Dorothy, my oldest sister came racing up to farm on a wagon pulled by two horses, I can still remember her pig tails flapping in the air she was going so fast. When she ran into the house, my mother told her to call the operator to see what was going on ... that's how we found out that the first World War had ended."

Businesses where the first to embrace the telephone, as it soon became a necessary of doing business, and depending upon where your business was located, you might have more then one line. Shanks Mill for example, had one line connecting them to the Emmitsburg switchboard, and another connecting them to the Fairfield switchboard.

William Hays, in his At the End of the Emmitsburg Line, fondly remembers the switchboard era:

"We had a telephone, although not in the house. It was in the shop. At the Exchange, the operator was Miss Nellie Felix, who lived some nine or ten houses down the street. Her switchboard was in the front room of her home, with her chair near the window, so as to be able to report whether or not a particular person was in town. Papa never really came to terms with the phone. He didn't ask for a certain number; he simply asked 'Miss Nellie' to get him the freight office, or the College or what have you.

I recall one man from out of town, I think his name was Dick Stull, who would come to the shop and, while there, would use our phone. But, instead of trusting it to do its work, he thought he should shout loud enough to be heard without it. Apparently, the person on the other end was so stunned by the shouting, that his attempt to answer never got through to Dick, and this resulted in him turning up the volume and ultimately to curse the damned thing 'to Hell and back.' It was a splendid performance.

Then there was Miss Georgia Moore, who lived near the college. Miss Georgia had all sorts of problems, mostly minor household ones, and not necessarily limited to plumbing, but each of which led her to call the shop. If Papa answered, which he avoided if possible, dear Miss Georgia would tell him of some terrifying thing that had happened and would he come right away. Once she said that a strange man had just walked past her door, and what should she do and 'Please, Mr. Hays, you must come right away, etc, etc, etc.' At this point, Papa would, if he could spot one of us, hand the telephone over saying it was Miss Georgia and to just keep listening."

While business and town residents were well served, the cost of running a line to rural customers often far outweighed the return to the phone company, so it was up rural resident to fend for themselves when it came to procuring phone service. John Fuss in his story The Life and times of John and Helen Fuss recounts how his father became:

"...involved in a business relationship with the telephone company. An association called the Locust Grove Telephone Company provided telephone services for eight subscribers in the Harney Road area. J. Rowe Ohler had been one of the founders. This line connected to the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company lines at the Taneytown Road.

That company sent only one bill to the Locust Grove Telephone Company. When John moved to the Locust Grove farm, he was appointed head of the association. He received the bills from the telephone company and had to pay them in their entirety. Then he would have to collect from the individual subscribers. Sometimes the subscribers claimed they hadn't made the call and then John would either have to work it out with the telephone company or pay it himself. He did not relish this function."

Over the years, the Emmitsburg exchange saw many operators, in addition to the Felex girls. These included the wife of Thornton W. Rodgers, Lucy R. Bollinger, Inus J. Glass, Betty Ann Glass, Margaret V. Bouey, Darlene J. Brewer, Marian E. Boyle and Virgina Wageman.

The switch over to Dial up service

Through the years, as business increased; Emmitsburg remained an "agency office," that is Mrs. Sullivan, hired, aided, handled business and was reimbursed by the telephone company. Only in 1953 did the office become a company-owned, with the company paying operators directly and employing the young ladies who handled the exchange.

Dial phone service in Emmitsburg officially went into effect on Wednesday morning, January 7, 1954 at 7:00 a.m. The old switchboard was replaced by modern switching gear located in a newly erected building at the intersection of Potomac St. and Chesapeake Ave. [The plane cinder block building behind the post office). The manual exchange passed out of existence on January 27, 1954.

Dial up service brought with it the idea that one had a "phone number" not "ring." Three new exchanges were created to serve the area: HI (Hillcrest) to serve the residents of Emmitsburg and the areas to the east; HU (Hubbard) for residents along old Tract Road; and ED (Edgewood) for residents north of Emmitsburg along Route 15.

At first, it was not necessary to dial the first two letters of the exchange if you were calling someone locally, but only the last five digits. However, when dialing for long distance the exchange letters had to be given. Only after further "improvements" were made did it become a requirement to use all 7 digits. Of course, today, after the most recent round of improvements, you have to dial 10 digits - or is it 11? - and cross your fingers that you did it right.

Frankly, if given the choice, I think it would be nice to just pick up the phone like Tom Gingle used to do and simply say "Nellie, Gimme out home!"

Read other history articles by Mike Hillman

Have your own memories of the old switchboard telephone system of Emmitsburg?  If so, send them to us at history@emmitsubrg.net