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The Telephone on P.E.I. - Life on a Party Line!

Telephone Co. of P.E.I.
I have set up this page to carry your telephone tales, stories of working for telephone companies, and tales of life on party lines on P.E.I. and elsewhere. It was an interesting era, which I remember well. There are many amusing stories to tell, and I will post all of your telephone stories here! This page is being updated frequently - please check back from time to time.

For many years, the telephone was not only a necessity, but also great neighbourhood entertainment! Rural lines were party lines for many years. Each subscriber on the line had a unique ring, i.e. two longs, or one long, one short, two shorts, etc. This system was called "coded ringing". The phones of every subscriber on the line rang at the same time, and it was great sport to listen in to the conversations of everyone on the line. There were still party lines in the country in P.E.I. until quite recently, the number of subscribers on each party line gradually reduced, and party lines finally eliminated across the Island around 1997.

There are many amusing stories about this sport, and in general about early telephones and exchanges, and I intend to pass along some of these on this page as it develops. Every one who has lived through the history of a rural telephone system until more recent years is bound to have some interesting stories. Those who worked for telephone companies as linesmen, installers, or operators will have other interesting stories.

Please share your stories with us. These need not be limited to P.E.I. - If you have a story you would like to share, please email me!

Telephone Office

Photos from an unidentified Summerside area office taken pre 1917. Can anyone identify it? This may have been a wire chief's test board with the main distribution frame in the background. To the right, the manager's office (possibly the board is in the same room - note the wallpaper and chair rail in both photos). Both photos show Northern Electric Brass 20-AL Candlestick phones.

These photos from the collection of Faye Pound, found in a Brennan family photo album..

Telephone Office

Local Manager's Office

And Now, On To The Stories!

My story:

Until approximately 1990, we were on a party line. Starting out in 1978 when I got the first telephone installed in this house, we had six sharing the same side of the line - this number was gradually reduced, till the party line was eliminated completely.... One of the things about being on a party line, is the more that listened in, the weaker the signal on the line would become.

We got used to it, but never got used to a lady down the road (who shall remain unnamed), who listened in to every call on the line.

Each time we received a call, we would be aware of someone listening on the line, as the phone volume would reduce seconds after we answered the call.... We usually didn't bother to say anything, but occasionally, when an important call would come in, we would say, "Good night, M...". Click! The volume would return to normal! Occasionally, we would intentionally say something scandalous, just to see how long it would take for the rumour mill to spread the story. My, how quickly our planted stories spread and grew! I always wondered if it bothered M... that we knew she was listening in.

Another common occurrence was often, during a call, another neighbour was known to pick up the phone, and hearing voices on it, would say, "Is Dis line busy?" Argggh! We gave up and let him have the line.

From Belle River, P.E.I. - Robert Davidson:

"A story is told in our family (Compton, Belle River) of a business man, Myron by name, from Massachusetts who was married to one of our family. They were on an annual visit to the Island one summer in the 1950s and staying with family. Myron, ever the businessman, had a need to telephone his office in the States. He used Dan Compton's party line 'phone. The connection was bad due to all the eavesdroppers and their breathing noises. Myron announced to all on the line "I don't mind your listening, but stop wheezing" The listener, although on the line secretly, promptly answered in defense "I'm not wheezing!" thus giving away their lurking presence.

We always got a chuckle on the retelling of the story."

From St. Lawrence, P.E.I. - W.L. Carl Myers, Halifax, a former St. Lawrence resident:

"As in many Island communities, monthly Women's Institute meetings were family events in St.Lawrence (West Prince). While the women gathered in the living room for their meetings, husbands and children socialized in the kitchen.

Associated with the meetings was food for all, contributed by each member.

One Instutute member was generally known in the community as not putting great care into cleaniness. While many visited their family house, most were imaginative in finding reasons to leave before meals were kindly offered.

The day before one "Institute Meeting", while talking to a friend on a party line this woman stated that she was at first puzzled as to what food item she would bring to the meeting. However, she said her son found a large nest of eggs in an abandoned barn, and that she was bringing egg sandwiches. (The expiry date of these "vintage" eggs was open to speculation).

After that nights Women's Institute meeting, the host found egg sandwitches stuffed under every sofa, and in every nook and cranny. A solid testimony to the number of committed "listeners" on the party line in this community."

From Minnesota - Pat MacEachern, P.E.I. McEachern researcher:

"I grew up in a fairly large family on a small farm near a small town in Northern Minnesota. I think we finally got telephone service 1940-50's, I can't remember exactly, but they were such a godsend. We lived only 2 miles from the nearest small town, the winters were fierce and isolating, especially for farm mothers who were frequently "snowed in" for weeks. Of course every one listened in on everyone.... or at least a bit. One funny story I have to pass on is that when my parents wanted to call us all home for dinner or any other reason, (and we could be a mile away or more), they would frequently use the car horn to call us with our telephone "ring". So after hearing a car honk a short-long-short, my brothers and I would head home or look for the car. I probably will still turn around if I hear that sound. Thanks for sharing that great collection and all your good work. Pat MacEachern."

"The Lady in the Box"

The following is a story, possibly only an "urban legend", but one which pops up often. The author of this story is unknown. In the early days, operators were real live people - something forgotten in these days of automation and computerized information services. Some time around the late 60's, taped operator messages for time and other services began to appear in different areas of North America, and gradually grew in use throughout the continent, replacing information operators. The story is about a relationship which developed between a little boy, and his "Information, Please" operator. While the story might only be a fabrication, the story's content exemplifies what many operators were to their communities. They knew everyone in their exchange, and would help out in any way they could - some far beyond the requirements of their jobs.:

"When I was quite young, my father had one of the first telephones in our neighborhood. I remember the polished, old case fastened to the wall. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother talked to it.

Then I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person. Her name was "Information Please" and there was nothing she did not know. Information Please could supply anyone's number and the correct time. My personal experience with the genie-in-a-bottle came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbor.

Amusing myself at the tool bench in the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer, the pain was terrible, but there seemed no point in crying because there was no one home to give sympathy. I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway. The telephone!

Quickly, I ran for the footstool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, I unhooked the receiver in the parlor and held it to my ear. "Information, please" I said into the mouthpiece just above my head. A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into my ear.


"I hurt my finger." I wailed into the phone, the tears came readily enough now that I had an audience.

"Isn't your mother home?" came the question.

"Nobody's home but me," I blubbered.

"Are you bleeding?" the voice asked.

"No," I replied. "I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts."

"Can you open the icebox?" she asked. I said I could.

"Then chip off a little bit of ice and hold it to your finger," said the voice.

After that, I called "Information Please" for everything.

I asked her for help with my geography, and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped me with my math. She told me my pet chipmunk that I had caught in the park just the day before, would eat fruit and nuts.

Then, there was the time Petey, our pet canary, died. I called, Information Please," and told her the sad story. She listened, and then said things grown-ups say to soothe a child. But I was not consoled.

I asked her, "Why is it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to families, only to end up as a heap of feathers on the bottom of a cage?"

She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, "Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in." Somehow I felt better.

Another day I was on the telephone, "Information Please."

"Information," said in the now familiar voice.

"How do I spell fix?" I asked.

All this took place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest.

When I was nine years old, we moved across the country to Boston. I missed my friend very much. "Information Please" belonged in that old wooden box back home and I somehow never thought of trying the shiny new phone that sat on the table in the hall. As I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left me. Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity I would recall the serene sense of security I had then. I appreciated now how patient, understanding, and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy.

A few years later, on my way west to college, my plane put down in Seattle. I had about a half-hour or so between planes. I spent 15 minutes or so on the phone with my sister, who lived there now. Then without thinking what I was doing, I dialed my hometown operator and said, "Information Please."

Miraculously, I heard the small, clear voice I knew so well."Information."

I hadn't planned this, but I heard myself saying, "Could you please tell me how to spell fix?"

There was a long pause. Then came the soft spoken answer, "I guess your finger must have healed by now."

I laughed, "So it's really you," I said. "I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time?"

I wonder," she said, "if you know how much your call meant to me. I never had any children and I used to look forward to your calls."

I told her how often I had thought of her over the years and I asked if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister. "Please do,"she said. "Just ask for Sally."

Three months later I was back in Seattle. A different voice answered, "Information." I asked for Sally.

"Are you a friend?" she said.

"Yes, a very old friend," I answered.

"I'm sorry to have to tell you this," she said. "Sally had been working part-time the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago."

Before I could hang up she said, "Wait a minute, did you say your name was Paul?"

"Yes," I answered.

"Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you." The note said, "Tell him there are other worlds to sing in. He'll know what I mean."

I thanked her and hung up. I knew what Sally meant."

From St. Nicholas, P.E.I. - Faye Pound:

"In St. Nicholas there was a woman who was a very fine cook and her name was Eileen (Poirier) Gaudet and she worked hard for many years at the Queen Hotel in Summerside. She went to work on the train and stayed in town for blocks of time so when she returned home to 'Muddy Creek' she always had the news. The hotel and the train were great sources to her and over time her nickname became Eileen 'Journal-Pioneer' because she had the news before it went into the paper.

But as an older woman Eileen was back at home in St. Nicholas and time was long on her hands. She took to picking up the telephone when it wasn't her 'ring' and she would silently enjoy the news she heard on the old party line. Two women in the community decided they would hatch a plot to catch her in the act.

One woman called the other on the phone and asked for a recipe for molasses cookies. "First you get a good sized bowl," she said, "Then you get a half a cup of lard and two cups of molasses." Eileen 'Journal-Pioneer' couldn't help herself and blurted into the phone, "It's only one cup of molasses!" And the dear old soul was caught red handed."

From the E.T.'s - Bill Jackson:

"When I was a teenager in a small town in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, we still had crank telephones. I had continuously flirted with one of the operators, who had a very sexy voice - she egged me on, and I finally got my nerve up to make a date with her. She said she finished work at 10 p.m., and would me in front of the building where the operators were (in the center of the village).

I arrived at the appointed hour, and not wanting to get stuck with some awful looking old hag, I stood across the street in the shadows from the entrance to the telephone office. I waited, and waited - after about 15 minutes, no one had come out, so I chalked it up to experience and went about my business. What I do not remember, is whether I had any further flirtations with her on the phone? And what I also did not realize at the time is the operators knew exactly who they were talking to!

Years later, I was walking through the village one day, and saw up ahead, the local plumber, now retired, and his wife sitting on a park bench. As I got closer, they were laughing even harder, so I went over to them and asked what was making them fall off of the bench.

He said to his wife, "You tell him." She said to him, "no, you tell him." What came out was a story about my youth that each of them had. She told me about the date I had made with her. The one he recounted cannot be told here!"

From Alberta - Carrie Layne Mashon/Machon:

I'm not sure why they (phone company) forgot about us in Southern Alberta, but we didn't get our phones until about 1969, it was party-line phones then, and we got our private lines about 1984-85. My husband and I were married in 1977 and we shared our phone line with my husband's parents and my husband's cousin Andy. We had been out very, very late one night, the kids were at Gramma's house (in the same yard). It never failed that when we were out late, Andy would call very, very early. He didn't fail us this morning, and called quite early. My husband was probably still a little "tipsy" after only a 3 hour sleep, and was totally disinterested in what Andy had to say. He was saying things like "oh ya" and "uh-huh" etc. I got up , went and got the kids from Gramma's house, made some breakfast for them and then laid down on the sofa. The kids were watching TV and playing some games. I dozed off and when I woke up , a friend of ours from town was sitting in our chair. I asked him what he was doing there, and he said he'd been trying to phone all morning and the phone was busy, so he thought he'd drive out. (30 miles!) We peeked in at my husband, there he was, sound asleep, propped up against his ear. When Andy realized my husband was falling asleep, he hollered and hollered at him, to no avail obviously, but he knew that if my husband fell asleep, NO ONE would be able to use the phone!

A Cape Cod Story - From Betty Dean Holmes:

"My Mom told us when she wandered away from a baby sitter in 1907, at age three, Harwich, Massachusetts, located on the elbow of Cape Cod, had a little ten plug switchboard.

Fortunately, the woman who found her, had a telephone and called the switchboard operator so the telephone operator could let her family know she was safe and where they could come to get her. The telephone office was right in the center of the tiny village and her family was at church, across the street, where Grandpa Munsell was minister.

Dad had been the only night operator at the Harwich exchange before he married, but I don't know for how long.

Later, after their marriage, my parents Louis and Esther Dean worked together as the night telephone operators in Harwich, from 1923 to 1926. The early date is approximate, but I know they were there up thru Feb. 1926 when their first child was born. Dad continued to carpenter during the day. When the switch board was quiet, he napped on a cot and Mom manned the switchboard, so he was in shape to go to his day job.

One night late in her pregnancy, Mom thought she had gone in to labor as things in the telephone office felt very strange. Not until the Chief operator's desk began to move and rolled across the floor toward her station, did she realize she had not gone into labor, it was an earthquake.

Dad used to tell the story of the time an elephant got loose from the circus and had gone way up a dirt road and into a lady's garden and was feeding on her vegetables. She'd never seen an elephant before. She got on the phone and told the operator, "I have a strange animal in my garden and it has two tails. You would not believe what it is doing with one of the tails!"

Now that was pretty sassy stuff to tell his children, and we were quite grown up before he shared that naughty story!

My mother in law, from PEI, had moved to Lynn and was an operator from about 1914 or so, until she married in 1921.

Back in the 1930's I can remember that the phone book was very small, and very thin. Our telephone number was Harwich 276 and the store in Hyannis was Hyannis 376. Not a whole lot of phones even then.

In the 1940's my sister was long distance operator in Hyannis, Mass. In the late 1960's during high school one of my daughters also was a long distance operator, in Lynn, Mass.

Those are my early telephone stories.!"

From Rita Offer, Summerside:

"Last night hubby, two grandaughters and I were down at the cottage to gather apples and pears and to cover our tomato plants so there will be some to harvest on Saturday. We did a few chores inside the cottage and were getting ready to leave when the youngest, Alicia age 7 1/2, says. "Poppy you have one of those olden-days phones, the ones that chase your fingers". It was a dial phone and with today's technologies children do not see many of these. So on the way home we gave them a short history of the various phones that we have used over the years, wall crank phone, desk type, long neck with detachable ear piece, then the veritable 'black only' cradle phone, princess phone and dial phone... in colour yet. We have seen so many changes in phones. What changes will these two girls see in their lifetime?"

New Story! From Jay Schinkel:

"I'm now 39 getting ready to turn 40 and all this happened 30+ years ago. When my mom was at work during the summer I used to pick up the phone just to see if anyone else was on it. One day I picked it up and recognized the voices as that of women down the road. Well I thought I would mess with them and I held the phone up to the speaker on the TV. Well when I put it back to my ear, I heard one of the ladies asking "Jay....Is this you ?". I was never so scared in my life!"

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Last Updated: 3/19/2007 4:49:08 PM
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