When telephones were more personal

Fairleigh C. Woods (seated, front) smiles for a photo with other switchboard operators in Trenton.

Many years ago, Fairleigh C. Woods started her career with the old Bell Telephone Co. in the Edgoten community, which is now Oak Grove, and she later moved to Trenton and several other places. She last worked in Sharon Grove and retired after 27 years with the telephone company. During that time, Mrs. Woods knew just about everybody in those towns and their telephone numbers.

Everybody didn’t have telephones back then, but she knew enough people that she would find someone to go and give them a message.

Just about everybody was on a party line, but in Trenton, Dr. Jesse Woodall probably had a private line.

I got all of this information from Mrs. Woods’ son, Clyde Woods, who remembers many things about those days and the telephone operation. It was very different from the cellphones that we have now.

A New Era employee mentioned that I had written about Mrs. Woods in the past and said I needed to do more about the differences between phones back then and cellphones of today.

She said she would never be able to do her job now without the new technology. Thinking of all the good stories she wrote in her earlier days, I think I convinced her that she did a fine job without the cellphone. In fact, there was more personal contact before everyone had a cellphone.

Mrs. Woods sat in a telephone office next to Dorothy’s Beauty Shop in Trenton. Between the two of them, they knew everybody and everything that was going on. Trenton is a little bigger now, but not enough to make that much difference.

Clyde said his mother would take an incoming call and connect it to the outgoing call. Oh those party lines. There were people that loved to listen to conversations, especially when boys and girls were talking about going on dates.

Mrs. Woods was known for such things as taking calls from women who would say, “My husband is at the service station. Would you holler at him and tell him dinner is ready?” And she would. That was the kind of personal service we had. We were in good hands and we knew it. There were no recordings or anything else that was impersonal.

A man took over the switchboard at night — Clyde and I think his name was Mr. Stevens. Mary Dickinson and Alma Seay were among other operators at Trenton. The person who worked nights had very little to do. People used to go to bed soon after dark in the days before television. Night calls were rare, but there was always someone on duty.

If a call came at night, it usually was bad news, and it would be the operator’s job to get that news to the person.

The telephone office was also the place where people went to place a telegram, which was very popular in those days, especially during World War II.

Some people would get the dreaded telegraph message that someone was missing or killed in action. There were few of those in a little town like Trenton.

It seems that everyone was taken care of in those days — when one person was on duty and everything was done by hand.

Personal service was the key. There was always someone at the telephone office, and they made sure that you got your message. Everyone knew everyone else.

The same type of service existed in Hopkinsville but on a larger scale with more people working on a switchboard.

While cellphones might be convenient and a lot of fun, they lack the personal touch that Clyde and others remember.

“My mother died when I was 9, and my father remarried. Actually, Fairleigh was my stepmother, but she was so good to me,” he said.

In the days when every town had a switchboard, being a telephone operator was a good job. Operators were proud of the old telephone company, which had no competition, and they usually stayed at their job until retirement.

Mary D. Ferguson is a New Era columnist. Her column was transcribed by Opinion Editor Jennifer P. Brown. Ferguson receives mail at 4345 Pembroke Road, Hopkinsville, KY 42240.

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