Liverpool Telephone Operators

From an interview with Annabelle Long Stephens, January 2005:

I started working as an operator in December 1942 when I was 18 years old. The job required two weeks of training, but I got paid 25 cents an hour so I didn’t mind. The night shift was 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and it was usually pretty quite. People didn’t make many phone calls during the night. I slept on a cot next to the switchboard. I could set a switch to sound a buzzer when a call came in and that would get me awake. There were no bathroom facilities or running water. I just used a scrub bucket if I had to "relieve myself", but I had to be sure to empty it in the morning before the next shift arrived. I made $2.00 a day. My first paycheck had 2 cents deducted for Social Security.

The day shifts were divided into shorter segments, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and I, as would other operators, worked a "split shift", with 3 or 4 hours off between shifts. Madge Stailey often worked the night shift. Her kitchen was just off the room where the switchboard office was located.

If 3 or 4 calls came in at once, the people had to wait their turn to be connected. The caller gave me the phone number, or often just the name (like Peanut Long or Doc Kunkle). I plugged into that party line and rang the correct number of longs and shorts for the family. I had a master list, but I knew the rings for most families by heart. Lester Hebel was 10 R6 which meant party line 10 and 6 short rings. Herman Long was 29R12, which meant party line 29, 1 long, 2 shorts. Some of the party lines had as many as 10 families. There were only a few private lines like number 55 for W.W. Boone and number 38 for Edna Knisely’s home.

Number 12 was the Phoutz Valley line, privately owned by Abe Long. Edna and Ruth Knisely were operators for the Phoutz Valley line. It merged with United Telephone in 1930. Number 36 was the Bucks Valley line. It was owned by United but was privately maintained by the farmers in Buck’s Valley. They did the maintenance like mowing along the telephone line and taking care of downed poles. Jennifer Meyers collected money from the families on that line and paid the phone company.

I remember there were 60 holes in the switchboard. One part of a row was for long distance calls. One was for Selinsgrove/Sunbury, one for Harrisburg, 1 for Newport/New Bloomfield, one for Duncannon and 2 for Millerstown. The Millerstown operator took all other long distance calls for other areas. These calls were just "patched" to her to be connected elsewhere.

Operators had to listen in on conversations, at least intermittently, so they knew when it ended so it could be disconnected. This was especially important for long distance calls. (If the call was especially interesting, we may have listened longer). Toll calls were recorded on yellow tickets by the operator, listing the start time, date, operator number, calling from, calling to, and the stop time. The operator then calculated the charge according to a chart. If I wasn’t aware of when the conversation ended they would get charged too much, so I had to check in frequently. There was also a box to place comments. This was there to indicate if I thought someone was using the phone who shouldn’t be, like a child. Then there would be a record of it and I would be in the clear. It cost 23 cents to Harrisburg and 17 cents to Selinsgrove for a 5 minute call. A person-to-person call was 3 minutes for about the same price.

Telephone operators, especially in small towns, were often used as message services for some individuals. Ed Bay had a store and when he left the store he called me and asked me to tell any callers that he was out and when he would return. Peanut Long called me and said, "I heard my phone ringing but I couldn’t answer. Could you tell me who was calling?"

Operators were also responsible for sounding the fire alarm. If a fire was reported I sounded the alarm. Then all of the volunteers would call me to find out the location of the fire. That usually created a flood of calls all at once.

When a mother went to the hospital to have another baby, friends and relatives would call the children at home and instruct them how to cook. I learned how to make lots of dishes that way!

There were some pay phones back then, located at Mountain Springs Hotel, the Friendly Tavern, Owen’s House, Lesher’s Diner and Mountain Side Tavern (Art Bruaw’s). Each quarter, nickel or dime that was dropped into the phone, made a different sounding "ca-ching" so I could tell how much was being deposited.

I remember the following people who worked as operators:

If anyone knows of other women who worked as telephone operators at Liverpool, please let us know and we will add them to the list.

In an interview with Lucille Hepner Barner, she remembers having to learn how to tend the coal stove when she first started there as a teenager in 1943. She worked the night shift and went to school in the morning after her shift ended. She remembers sleeping on a cot and being awakened by the buzzer whenever a call came in. Part of the operator’s responsibilities was to empty the ashes and bring in a bucketful of coal for the next operator.

Mary Rauch Esch lives in Florida now, and she related these memories from 70 years ago. "Roy Tharp’s daughter, Anne Kathryn, an operator who lived up the street from the parsonage, asked if I’d like a job there. She said she’d teach me and I said yes. I started working part-time and then went on full-time, for a total of 4 years. I worked from 1934 to 1938 from the time I was a sophomore in High School. I found it to be very exciting and was glad for a wage, too. I did a lot of reading or crocheting when not busy. Once, I got a call for Liverpool, Ohio by mistake.

Madge Stailey was the Head Operator and lived in the double house. Her brother, Warren and his wife Jennie, lived on the other side. There were double doors between her apartment and our office and Madge kept us on our toes. (Ha)

Ruth & Edna Knisely also were operators. I visited with Millerstown operators, Mr. & Mrs. Moose, by phone. Our office looked out over the beautiful Susquehanna River: sunsets and mountains, ice breaking in spring with flooding sometimes; boats & swimmers too. My sister, Dot got my job when I got married in 1938. I have a lot of fond memories of those days and enjoyed working at the Exchange".

The United Telephone Exchange was located in the "Stailey Building" on Front Street in Liverpool [photo]. It is thought to have begun operation sometime prior to 1924. The building is now owned by Greg Hoffman and has several apartments in it.

Written by Gail Shumaker Stephens, with thanks to my Aunt Annabelle Stephens, my husband’s Aunt Mary Esch, and Lucille Barner, who all contributed information for this article.

Email Gail Stephens at

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