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The Good Ol’ Days: Party Line

By Staff | Jan 15, 2016

Back in the day, the idea of carrying one’s personal telephone around in your shirt pocket was as likely as putting a man on the moon. Nobody thought that either were possible in the early 1960’s, despite JFK’s challenge to America to put a man on the moon no later than high noon of New Year’s Eve, 1969. He didn’t use those exact words in 1962 but it was a thrilling prospect. And we did it, with about four months and 10 days to spare.

Depression-era New Deal programs brought electricity to many rural areas of America. Some states were wired up sooner than others. North Dakota actively sought to bring electricity, and later telephone service, to farms and rural communities. Ask older Pierce Countians if they remember not having all of the essentials until the 1940s or even early 1950s.

In order to provide basic telephone service to farms and rural homes, the telephone companies would string a single line out to between three and six rural residences and run a wire from that line to each house. It came to be known as a “party line”, not because people celebrated while using their phones, but because each separate “drop” off the telephone line was a “party” in the telephone company’s vernacular.

Once America was wired for direct telephone service, the term “party line” morphed into a slang term to identify a political group’s doctrine.

Rugby and Pierce County finally got direct-dial telephone service after the so-called “Million Dollar Fire” that destroyed the Jacobson’s Department Store building in March of 1954. One of their tenants, a Northwest Bell telephone office with 24/7 switchboard operators, had to set up a temporary switchboard on the second floor of the Gronvold Motor Company building in what was then the K.C. Hall up over the big garage door. I didn’t know that until I read about it in the Tribune’s 60th anniversary article in 2014.

If you were on a party line, you were assigned a special ring. Two longs and a short meant the Smith farm, two shorts and a long would mean the Jones farm, and so on. These party lines were meant to provide cost-effective telephone service until such time as the phone companies could develop the technology to use something called multiplexing to enable multiple calls to be made using the same telephone line.

One of the drawbacks of a party line was that there was no privacy. If the other subscribers on a particular party line heard the Smith’s distinctive ring and they guessed that Sheila Smith was getting a call from her boyfriend Gilmore, what was to stop them from listening in? One never knew who else was listening, so conversations sometimes had to be done using a sort of verbal code.

Occasionally you had to wait your turn to make a call. This sharing of one’s link with the world could lead to unneighborliness between neighbors. I recall visiting in a farm home and hearing the telephone ring. Instead of a “Rugby ring”, which was brrrnnng every few seconds until you answered, my hosts’ phone rang brrrnnng brng brrrnnng. I looked around to see who would answer but everyone acted like they hadn’t heard it. “Oh, that’s the Jones’ ring,” someone finally explained.

Around 1960, a lawsuit arose over a conversation over a party line that was being monitored by other parties on the line who were acting as witnesses on behalf of Party B to a conversation between Party A and Party B. An argument over an issue quickly escalated and both parties’ tempers rose to well over 98.6.

Party A called Party B a “communist”. Party B sued Party A for slander and won the case in district court, but the decision was later overturned by the N.D. Supreme Court because the testimony from the aural witnesses for Party B was considered to be “hearsay evidence”, i.e. under normal circumstances they would not have been party to a conversation that would have otherwise been private if both parties had access to a single, non-party line. Or something like that.

While I was serving in Korea in 1971-72, our military phones at that time were one big party line. All of the telephones displayed bright orange stickers the size of credit cards that said in bold black letters THE ENEMY IS LISTENING. When your call had ended and you wanted to make another one, you had to pucker up and whistle a certain frequency to get the microwave relay to disconnect, which alerted a switchboard operator somewhere that you wanted to disconnect from the first call.

Hey, let’s have a party! I’ll make some calls on the “party line”, and I’m not just whistling Dixie here.

Bill is a Rugby native, graduating from RHS in 1966. His family operated the Gronvold Motor Company until 1968. He is a retired FAA air traffic controller and although he resides in Orlando, Florida, his heart will always be with the Heart of America

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