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Plugging back into history

By Staff | May 16, 2014

Tim Chapman/PCT Jan Norsby, of Rugby, tries out the old switchboard equipment she first became familiar with when her parents had Newburg’s lone switchboard in the 1950s. Norsby’s sister, Grace Marchand, worked in the Bottineau Telephone Office, which was donated to Prairie Village Museum in 1976.

The memories of earlier telephones are never too far from Jan Norsby and her sisters.

Their parents ran the only switchboard in Newburg when they moved off the farm in the late 1940s. Jan learned how to operate the technology as a third-grader and the family business led her to a three-year stint at Northwestern Bell in Minot. Older sister Grace Marchand spent a short time at the original Bottineau Telephone Office, which ran from 1896 to 1964 and was donated to Prairie Village Museum in 1976.”I remember being scared stiff because I came from this little town with a little switchboard, but right off the bat I got a raise because I had experience,” Marchand said.

The experience began on a small Western Electric switchboard with about 30 lines at the family’s home in Newburg.

“You pretty much knew what was going on in town and you couldn’t rubberneck,” Jan said.

If an out-of-town call came in, the sisters would run around town and get whoever the caller needed to speak with. In return, the sisters received 25 cents per trip.

Jan said she loved working in Minot after graduating and learned about every town in the state as that office had 25 switchboards and a far greater reach.

She said long-distance calls cost between $3 and $4 for a five-minute call to Minneapolis and between $25 and $30 for a call overseas.

“In Minot, for Christmas and Mother’s Day, nobody got the day off because it was so busy,” Jan said. “Dad gave me a tough time because I had to miss Christmas to work.”

The sisters enjoyed seeing bigger operations, but especially enjoyed the unique experiences of the home switchboard in Newburg.

“One of the interesting things with the little switchboard here in town was everybody was heating their house with coal,” Grace said, “so they’d get a carload of coal on the tracks and we’d send out a general ring to let everyone know there was coal on track and the farmers with their little pickups would come pick up their coal.”

Jan is busy working on new curtains for the Bottineau Telephone Office ahead of this year’s Museum Comes Alive Day on June 1. She will share stories and educate visitors on the history of telephones and how the switchboards worked.

Though telephones have advanced quite a bit, some things haven’t changed. Jan said prank calls were even an adolescent pastime in the days of early switchboards.

“Kids would call and say, ‘There’s a fire!’ ” Jan recalled. ” And you’d say, ‘Where?’ They’d say, ‘In the furnace!’ “

The museum recently received $800 from North Dakota Telephone Company and $200 from Rugby Eagles Club for renovations to the Bottineau building, which was donated by the Asmundur Benson family.

The small office displays switchboards, a collection of glass insulators, telephone manuals and a break area with a stove and a small bedroom.

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