I remember the first telephone that our family had. It was a big wooden box about one-foot-across by two-feet-long and one-foot-deep.
It hung on the kitchen wall. There was a mouthpiece that came out of the front of the box that you spoke into. The receiver that you listened to was on the side of the box. It hung on the metal receiver hook. When you wanted to make a call, you picked up the receiver and then cranked the little crank on the side rapidly three or four times and you would hear: “Operator” in the receiver. You would tell the operator the number you wanted to call or if you didn’t know it, you could give the name of the person you were calling and the operator would look up the number and connect you.
Phone numbers were easier to remember back then because they were much shorter. Local calls were only three or four digits long. For example, the DeForest Times Office number was 57R1. “R” stood for rings. Every line usually had more than one customer on it. Most businesses in town had just one ring but other phones could have anywhere from one to three or four rings. There were more customers per line on the rural phones. Many times when I was talking to someone I would hear a click which meant that somebody else on the party line had cut into our call. You were not supposed to eavesdrop on other peoples’ conversations but I know some folks would spend the better part of the evening listening to party line calls. You were also asked to keep phone conversations short and to the point but some folks would tie up the line with long-winded, nonessential calls.
If there was an emergency, one would cut in and ask to please clear the line so they could get through to the operator. For the most part people cooperated. If there was a fire, the local operator would take the information and she would activate the siren at fire station. Firemen would then call the operator to get the address of the fire.
I lived on Market Street next door to the local telephone manager for the DeForest/Poynette area of the North-West Telephone Company. The manager and his family lived in the two-story house. The operators operated the large switchboard in the ‘telephone office’ which was a one-room lean-to addition on the north side of the house which fronted E. Holum Street. There was a barn structure in the back of the lot where the company stored the phone equipment. The telephone trucks parked in the driveway between the house and the barn.
Years ago the telephone company owned the phones and they would lease the phones to all customers. In the early 1950s, the company switched phones and customers could choose between two different models. Most offices and businesses chose the model that was in a stalk style with microphone on the top of the stalk and the receiver hung on the side of the phone while most homes chose the traditional phone with both the microphone and receiver in one piece and sat on a cradle on top of a more compact phone base. They had their choice of colors — black or black. These phones would connect to the operator when you lifted the receiver (no more cranking).
A new model came along in a few years with a rotary dial where you would dial the number yourself. At first, to dial local numbers you only needed to dial the last five digits of the phone number. To dial outside the DeForest area you had to dial all seven digits. The push button phones were introduced in the early 60s and these came in a wide selection of styles and colors. Remember the “Princess Phone”? Due to a court action against “Ma Bell”, folks could now buy and own their own phones.
Time marched on. The telephone company continued to grow. A big new office was put up at the corner of Holum and Market Street. The old switchboard and telephone operators were gone. The company was sold and eventually became a CenturyLink office. The office that served this area was closed and the building is empty except for the switching equipment and a few service people remaining in the DeForest office.
Cell phones became more and more popular and folks switched their phone service to Verizon, US Cellular, Sprint and other mobile telephone companies. If one calls the ‘local’ telephone office, the call is picked up in Tomah. Who knows what the future will bring for telephone service in DeForest.
IT’S GIRL SCOUT COOKIE TIME! I saw the Girl Scouts were selling cookies at the DeForest Pick ’n Save this past weekend and I was told they were also selling them at the local Fleet Farm store, too. The cost is about $4 or $5 per box. My favorite is the Thin Mints, but I also like the Samoas. I am thinking I might try the new Lemonades this year.
I remember way back in the late 1940s, my sister, Jeanne, used to sell Girl Scout Cookies. Jeanne was in a wheel chair and went to Lincoln School in Madison. Back then that was the only school in the area that taught handicapped children. My dad used to drive her back and forth to school every day and there was no government program to help pay for the transportation costs or a special school bus service. Lincoln School sponsored a Girl Scout Troop and Jeanne was a member. I don’t think DeForest had a Girl Scout Troop back then, so she really sold a lot of cookies. Strand’s Bakery in Madison made the cookies and for $1 you could get a pretty good sized bag of either molasses or sugar cookies. They were delicious.
Dick Emerson is the former publisher of the DeForest Times-Tribune.