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Life before smartphones: ‘Number, please’

In 1956, looking at some of the new dial telephone technology. (Right to left) Betty (Chinavare) Smith, Margaret Smith Cousino, Katie Smith, Norman Smith, and Margaret Smith Cousino. Most adults now can recall a period before smartphones controlled our lives, or when old-school cellphones were a technological marvel much better than handsets that were plugged into the grid. Some even recall fondly the days when sophisticated push-button phones replaced dial phones (making it much easier to win our local radio station’s “be the tenth caller” contests).

Party lines and operator-assisted calls were common in American life by the early twentieth century. By 1914, Michigan Telephone company, a pre-cursor to Michigan Bell, had over 1,100 phones in the city of Monroe, but in the rural areas of Monroe County, where it was not economically viable for Michigan Bell to provide service, it was common for local farmers to take on the task. Many local phone companies sprang up in this time, including Ida Telephone, Maybee Telephone, and the Farmers Telephone Company of Dundee.

It’s only the truly seasoned among us, though, who can recall the days when a phone call required direct contact with an operator, who answered with the familiar, “Number, please” phrase. Meanwhile, on the other end of the line, entire families had to stop what they were doing to listen intently as the call came in. Was that one long and three short? Or two long and two short? Whose call is it?

Most of these locally owned businesses were eventually absorbed by Michigan Bell or large independent phone companies, but one of the last holdouts was the Newport Telephone Company. Originally started in 1906 as the Newport Farmers’ Telephone Company by Alfred Niedermeier, the company was later purchased by a hard-working couple with experience in telephone work. George Smith was born in Newport in 1878, and he met his bride, Katie Birdwell, while working as a lineman for the Independent Telephone Company in Alabama. The couple moved to Newport in 1916 and purchased Niedermeier’s enterprise in 1920 for (according to family lore) $50 and a team of horses.

The Smiths hired local young ladies to do the “shift work,” including Jean (Manor) Zochowski, who remembers working as an operator when she was just out of high school. Norm Smith explains the new dial equipment to his mother, Katie Smith, before the changeover in November 1956.
“The switchboard was a large grid with phone numbers, and a light lit up when a customer called,” Mrs. Zochowski recalls. “I would plug into it with my earphones in place and answer it. The customer would give me a number or a name, and I’d look up the ring sequence on the sheet next to my desk, such as, one short and three long.” Multiple families would share the same number—a party line—and each family had a ring sequence. The operator would reach over to a crank near the desk and make the necessary long or short turns.

The Smith family sold their business to the Independent Telephone Company in 1961. Left to right: Betty (Chinavare) Smith, Norman Smith, Katie Smith, Charles Yoas, Margaret (Smith) Cousino, Ervin Cousino, and an unknown representative from Independent Telephone. The Smiths operated the company from their home, which still stands today on Swan Creek Road in Newport. According to granddaughters Roxie Ferguson and Karen Smith, the switchboard was in the living room, while a closet held all the wiring. George could often be seen climbing high poles to fix connections, and Katie did the bookkeeping and sometimes worked the switchboard. The couple even had a ringer installed above their bed, so if someone called at night, George could go down and answer it.

Life with a party line was interesting; deciphering the correct rings could be difficult, and calls were often answered by the wrong person. It could be hard to get an open line to make a call, and anyone on the line could pick up the phone and hear someone else’s conversation. “It got quite complicated at times!” Mrs. Zochowski jokes.

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  • Life before smartphones: ‘Number, please’
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