Cliffside Telephone Office Memories
These are the memories I have of my days of growing up at the Cliffside Telephone Office. There may be some errors but certainly none are intentional. Rather, these are due to the time that has elapsed since those days were reality. Now, they are the memories of a much older woman. These were the times of a young girl probably sometime around the 5th grade years up to about the 9th grade. My brother Sam, Mother (Pearl), Daddy (M.B.) and I lived here and called it home for several years. Sam did not learn to operate the switchboard. I don’t think that he ever had a desire to learn (which, at that time, we would have considered using his head).
The house itself was rather large. There was a large back porch enclosed with windows that extended the length of the house on the back. There was also a basement with two rooms downstairs. The front room housed the switchboard itself and all of the wiring associated with the functionality of the telephone office itself. The wiring was on structures directly behind the switchboard. This took up all of the space of the left hand side of the room.
Located in this room was also a “telephone booth” for long distance calls. People would come to the house to place a long distance call if they did not have access to a telephone in their home. The method of payment used by subscribers is something I do not remember. I am just not clear as to how that was done. The long distance calls made from the Central Office were paid for at the conclusion of the call. There was a cigar box located on top of the switchboard that kept change for the calls made. The long distance operator would give the charges to the local operator after the call was completed.
The room also had a cot, which my daddy used to sleep on at night as he “manned” the switchboard. He was the one who operated the switchboard at night. This was a 24-7 situation. Someone had to be near the switchboard every single minute of the day and night the clock ticked. The cot was folded up during the day and placed in a back corner of the room until he needed it again that night and the nights to follow. He did this every night except for a short period of time when Dr. Becknell was afraid that he was in danger of having a heart attack. He took him off for a while until his condition improved.
Mother and I pulled the “night shift” during that time. Mother also worked the switchboard a lot too. There were hours when the other operators were through with their shift and someone had to be there, so Mother worked too. She also cooked, kept house, and did whatever was necessary for her to do.
The way that I remember the long hours and the demands of the job was that it took a lot to keep the switchboard going day and night. That is probably one reason that I disliked having to live there and be tied down so much. But, I cannot ever remember my Daddy complaining or being upset that this was his responsibility. He genuinely loved people and enjoyed helping anyone that he could.
The way that the operator would know when a call was coming in at night would be a type of “alarm” sounding. There was a lever/crank on the bottom of the switchboard that could be set. Then, when the “cap” dropped open (on the number on the switchboard) the alarm would sound. You would shut it off, get up off the cot and answer the call. Weeknights were not so bad but the weekends, particularly Saturday nights, were horrific! Daddy, rarely if ever, got an hour of uninterrupted sleep. He was up and down, answering calls all night long.
Sunday afternoons were usually my designated times to work (unless somebody else was willing to work). I hated having to stay home and work on Sunday afternoons. That’s when a good friend of mine, Shirley Ruppe, came into the picture. We spent a lot of time together and, I am sure, she was probably “persuaded” to learn to operate the switchboard. So, Shirley became an operator and worked a good bit at the telephone office. She was the only one of my friends that did work there. She was a very good operator too.
Some of the telephone numbers that I remember were:
|1 & 2||Main Office at the mill||54||Hawkins Hardware|
|3||Ellenboro||100||Hamrick’s Grocery at Fairview|
|4 & 5||Maurice Hendrick residence||101||Graveyard Grocery|
|6||Charley Haynes residence||102||Long Distance|
|14||Dr. Moss||103||Long Distance|
|16||Mills Drug Store||105||Long Distance (booth)|
|39||Hamrick’s Grocery (downtown)||109||Jim Goode|
|41||Hubert Ruppe residence||133||Henry Davis (Deputy Sheriff)|
|45||Bowling Alley & Cafe||142||Mr. & Mrs. James Lester Ledford (my grandparents)|
I’m not sure what the last number on the switchboard was but I think it was 150. I think there were 15 numbers across and 10 rows up and down. I cannot be sure about this but number 16 (Mills Drug Store) as I remember it was on the left hand side of the switchboard beginning a new row of numbers.
There was a rotary dial located on the left hand side of the switchboard that was used to dial Caroleen, Avondale, Henrietta, Forest City and Rutherfordton (Lake Lure may have been included with the Rutherfordton numbers, I’m just not sure.) For Caroleen, Avondale, and Henrietta, you just dialed the number. For Forest City I think that we dialed “7” as a prefix and then the number. For Rutherfordton, the number “29” comes to mind as a prefix and then the number.
Some of the functions that were necessary in order to keep the telephone system going were:
1. There were telephones to be installed. (Daddy did this)
2. There was trouble-shooting to be performed. (Daddy did this.)
3. Daddy performed any repair work that had to be done.
4. 24/7 operator assistance had to be performed by someone.
Some of the telephone operators that I remember were:
Mary and Evie McDaniel, Sara Rollins, Corrine Johnson, Betty Dale, Shirley Ruppe, Daddy (M.B.), Mother (Pearl) and me.
Corrine Johnson lived in Forest City and had to ride the bus every day back and forth. If there was bad weather the bus did not operate, which meant that someone either had to pull double duty or call and hope that she could find a willing soul to come in and work.
The wage for the operators was 50¢ an hour.
There were telephone books but I do not remember how they were “published.” I only wish that I could remember, or that we had had the forethought to keep one. Alas, I can’t and we didn’t.
“When I was about five, in 1939, our family lived in Cliffside and acquired our first telephone—the kind that hung on the wall and took a long ring to reach ‘central.’ I stood on a stool, turned the crank, and told the woman I wanted ‘Sister.’ ‘Whose little girl are you?’ she asked. ‘Sam Haynes’ little girl,’ was my reply. In a few seconds, Sister was on the line.
“Thank goodness for small towns!”
— Betty Haynes Lyles
Some funny experiences that I remember:
Gigi Padgett, Joan Wilson and I were at Joan’s house one evening. My Dad called and asked to speak with me. He told me that I needed to come home as quickly as I could. I remember jumping the rock wall at the Brown Willis’ house, running in the back door to the porch and flying into the front room to see what in the world was wrong. Daddy needed to go to the bathroom! After it was all over, we all had a good laugh. That was an emergency in his mind. Someone had to be sitting in that operator chair every single minute so he couldn’t just leave it and go take care of business.
I also knew when Dean Scruggs’ other girlfriends would call him. (We were sort of semi-dating at the time. He and I married later so I guess that maybe “my tracking of his calls” wasn’t too bad after all.) They would call Dewey McDaniel’s home. Dean’s mom and dad did not have a telephone at the time. The calls would be from Forest City, Bostic, Shelby, etc. I would ring the number for the McDaniel’s 434 (the number was actually 43 and it was a party line so the last 4 was 4 long rings on #43). (There were long and short rings. The last one or two numbers after the actual switchboard number determined the rings.) And, of course, I needed to stay on the line to be sure that they answered the phone (ha). If you rang the number, you would need to go back on the line to see if the party answered. If not, you would repeat the process all over again. There was no way to know if someone had finished talking other than checking the line.
There was also the time when daddy was checking a line for “trouble” and the telephone pole just happened to be located in a pasture. Well, that would have been OK except that there was a bull that reigned over this pasture and he violently opposed anyone who dared to enter his territory. He evidently spotted daddy on the pole and decided that he was going to get him down from there and out of his pasture. My dad called back to the switchboard with his “portable phone,” part of the repair gear that he had fastened onto him. Somehow he could clamp onto the telephone wire, crank the “phone” and reach the switchboard. He used this to call back and check the line after he had made the repairs. He asked mother to have someone come and get this bull away from the pole so that he could climb down. This wasn’t funny however until it was all over.
There were “answering keys” and “ringer keys.” These were situated on the switchboard in two rows. The front keys were black and the back ones were red. The black keys were the answer keys and the red ones were the ringer keys. There were cords with a “plug-in” at the end that fit into the number on the board. You would have the cord plugged in to answer and then a second plug was inserted into the number slot for the person that was being called. So, you were operating two keys (red and black) and plug-ins for each call that was placed.
The “Central” Office proved to be just that on many occasions. If a doctor was going to be gone he would call “Central” and ask the operator to take his calls telling her/him when he expected to be back and that he would check on the messages for him when he got back. The same type of modern-day answering service was true for the dentist, drug store, and any of the businesses that had an exception to their normal schedule.
I hope my “walk down memory lane” has brought back a lot of memories of the days when Cliffside was a wonderful place to live and call home. I would not trade any of those times or memories for anything else in the world.
The telephone shown above is an authentic “Cliffside” phone used in the household of the late Mabel Cargill. It currently hangs in her daughter Anne’s home in Greenville, S.C. Anne provided the photo. The switchboard shown is similar but not exactly like the one used at the Cliffside Telephone Company. Rebecca Callahan Scruggs, the author of this piece, and her husband Dean live in Seneca, S. C.
The era of old-style phones in Cliffside ended in the summer of 1955, when Southern Bell assumed the role of telephone provider.