The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge


By Conway Smith © 1988

Issue: April, 1988

Only a few senior citizens remember the old party line - and the hand-cranked telephone housed in a wooden box that hung on the wall. At the left of the box was a fork that cradled the receiver; and on the right was a hand-crank for summoning the operator, or "central" as she was called. Attached to the box above the transmitter were two bells.

The party line, with its hand-cranked phones, is a thing of yesteryear. But modern technology can never replace it. There was a time when the party line was a source of entertainment and a news medium - in addition to being a means of communication. It held the place in American homes that TV holds today - and it was much more useful.

When a call was made every phone on the party line rang: "R-r-r, r-i-i-i-ng" - and Grandma would say, "Somebody's calling the Bogles." "R-i-i-i-n-g-, r-r-r, r-r-r" - and Grandma would say, "Who could be calling Tabitha Spriggs?" Everyone on the party line could tell by the ring for whom the call was intended. If the household chores were pretty well up, most of the womenfolk on the line would take down their receivers, drop into a rocking chair that always stood by the phone, and listen in. Should the conversation be highly interesting, it was not unusual for a third party to join in the chitchat - and a fourth - and a fifth. Such talk-fests on the party line provided a pleasant diversion for the ladies of our village.

In addition to furnishing entertainment, the old party line rendered services that can not be provided by today's highly technical telephone complex.

There was the time the Preacher was coming to dinner, and Aunt Gertie wanted to fix something special; so she rang up Mrs. Romeo Hicks for suggestions. The call brought in not only Mrs. Hicks, but Tabitha Spriggs, Mary Jones and Emmie Johnson. They all collaborated by telephone - and the dinner was a huge success.

In case of emergency the party line could be relied on to bring help. Had it not been for the party line the handsome old Minitree mansion might not be standing today. It was some eighty years ago that the parlor curtains caught fire from an oil lamp. Aunt Cindy, the cook, discovered the fire and ran madly to the telephone in the hall. She cranked the telephone with might and main, all the while screaming the direful news into the mouthpiece. Aunt Cindy's clangorous alarm brought people to their phones all along the line. They rushed to the Minitree place. A bucket brigade was formed from the well to the house - and the old mansion was saved.

When good old Doctor Weems was urgently needed, the party line could be relied on to track him down. Like when the stork began circling the Potter home days ahead of schedule. Meef Potter grabbed the receiver off the hook, and with trembling hand signaled the central - asking for Doc Weems, quick. The doctor's wife answered the call ... "That you, A'nt Samanthy? Le'me speak to Doc real quick! What? He's gone to fix Snake Hoskins' broken arm... and, oh me, Snake ain't got no phone!"

A voice breaks in... "Meef, this is Sarah Billups. Doc passed here over an hour ago. He ought to have Snake fixed up by this time."

Another breaks in... "Meef, this is Ellie Peach. Doc just stopped by here to give Sylvester something for his cold. Said he was going to look in on little Sammy Wilson."

And another break-in... "Meef, this is Amy Perkins. Doc is coming out of the Wilson's gate right now and getting into his buggy. I'll run and tell him y'all need him quick."

So Doc Weems' old gray mare trotted up to the Potter's gate in plenty of time. Thanks to the party line, several neighbors were ahead of him, chopping wood, heating water, and comforting Meef. The baby boy who caused all of the excitement was seventy-nine on his last birthday.

The old party line is no more. Only nostalgic memories remain. Today by swiftly tapping a few buttons one is immediately connected with any point in America. This could not be done with the reliable old party line, with its hand-cranked phones. But the end of its era left a gap in community life that modern technology can never fill.