Dave Larson took the time to write up a very nice article on the Bell Telephone Company’s office in Ellwood City and I set it aside to make sure to use it. Unfortunetly, it got mixed in the shuffle and I never used it, until now.
Located on 5th Street, The Bell Telephone Company’s office in Ellwood City was relatively new during school year 1958-59. I remember it then, as I passed by it on weekdays walking to and from 7th grade at Hartmann Elementary School. The previous telephone office, as I recall my dad pointing out to me, was the brick building located on the corner of 5th Street across from Lincoln High School and up the hill from the public library.
My father, L. Norman Larson, worked at the new 5th St. office since it was first opened. His job was to maintain the wired switching systems. Bill Lemon from Hazel Avenue lived next door to us and worked there, as did Keith Beecham. These men were telephone men, “inside men” who brought a black lunch pail and Thermos with coffee to work. They alternated shifts 8 to 4 and 4 to 12 with someone “on call” for nights and weekends.
The equipment housed in the concrete building was “state of the art.” The office was managed by Frank Potter who lived on Line Avenue, near Pinky James’ Gulf service station. My cousin Jimmy Aubel from Ellport worked as a telephone installer as did Alex Warren from the North Side. Installers worked out of the facility on Bridge Street where the handsets and service trucks were located. The 5th St. office was the “switching station” where parties were connected automatically without the use of a telephone Operator.
My dad had joined the Western Electric equipment division of the Bell Telephone system in Pittsburgh in 1935, and married an Operator…my mother Elizabeth Larson…before transferring to “Ma Bell’s” Ellwood City office sometime before World War II. He retired out of the Pittsburgh service office in 1976 as a maintenance station supervisor.
Those were simpler times. I have an ice pick from the Ellwood City Ice Co as evidence. The phone numbers printed on the handle are 314 for their Ellwood City facility and 187 for Zelienople. These would have been numbers you gave to an Operator to connect you. Dial phones allowed you to connect direct, unless you were calling “long distance.” Then you needed to dial “O” for an Operator. She could also give you someone’s number…for free.
In the early 1950′s we had a party line. Pick up the phone and if you heard another voice other than a family member talking, it was the other “party” sharing the line. Protocol was to check back later for a dial tone, then make your call. If someone would pick up on the line while you were using it, you would say “working” to announce the line was in use and politely signal the other party to hang up. No one accused anyone of “listening in” as the use of the phone was still considered a luxury, a convenience, a privilege…not a right.
I remember being with my dad walking in town while shopping and frequently people would pass by and say “hello, Red.” My dad had had a full head of red hair when he was younger that got him that nickname. I asked why so many people recognized him, and he answered “because I installed their telephone.” My father went on to explain that during World War II he was exempt from the military as a telephone man, and if you could get new phone service, he would be the one to install the handset for you. We lived out by the country club in 1951. I remember then my dad drove an olive drab telephone service truck, a pick-up truck with parts and tool compartments in the back instead of a hauling bed.
The door to the 5th St. office on the street level was metal. Step inside, and if you went down a flight of stairs, you were in the room where the diesel powered generators were located. They kept power to the switching system in case of an emergency. Go up the flight of stairs and there was a foyer with a lunch table near the window facing 5th Street. During the warm months that window would be open, and the men took turns sitting on the window sill sunning themselves after lunch. Suffice it to say there was plenty of security in that metal-door, concrete building. I knew my dad was inside. America was at work.
Times have changed. There is no “Bell System” anymore, no Telephone Pioneers organization for the old timers, no $25 dollar awards for good suggestions, and small chance you could find a job you could keep for 41 years. Instead of a black hand set or a beige one, those were the two choices, you now can carry your phone in your pocket. Ask “where’s the pay phone” and you won’t get an answer. Look for the phone booth, and it’s gone. Those were the days when calls were “private.” Conversations took longer, because there was another person involved instead of a machine talking back to you, letting you know “your call is important.” Nicer times. I miss them and Ellwood City.