Is your phone ringing? If so since it’s likely a cell phone you’d probably pull it out of your pocket or purse to answer it. Yet years ago you’d more likely make a dash to grab the receiver off a stodgy squat black plastic instrument. But of course no matter what you use you have to have the right connections and that means the telephone operator.
So what was phone service in Athens like? In his 1929 Henderson County history J.J. Faulk wrote: “The first telephone [in Athens] was installed here in 1901 or 1902,” then he stated, “It was a local concern, but was quite convenient and answered our needs at the time,” However, it was a problem , as Faulk added, “Sometimes it ran and many times it did not.”
This early system was centered in a switchboard located at the local railroad station, and was operated during the daytime by one man who also handled the paperwork involved. In fact, the switchboard was closed at night unless a railroad employee could stay the night at the depot.
The Athens Telephone Company was formed in 1905 in a building on the courthouse square, and there was enough business to employ two female operators. However, the ladies only worked in the daytime, and then a man took over at night since it wasn’t “lady-like” for women to work at night.
To make a call you reached the operator, and then when you stated who you wanted to call you were connected. However, you were asked to not call the operator in a thunderstorm since there was a real danger of a lightning strike. Also, you were discouraged from dropping by the office to chat with “central” (the operator) since that might distract her (or him).
In 1910 a fire in the telephone offices caused relocation across the square to above a hardware store in rooms that stored empty coffins. However, getting anywhere on the square was sometimes difficult, particularly after a heavy rain when the dirt streets became mud holes. Still, some storekeepers did place planks outside their businesses to enable customers to gain access.
Telephone subscribers often paid their bills to company owner J.A. Jones who circulated to collect their money and to provide written receipts. Occasionally some customers tried to avoid Mr. Jones and it wasn’t unusual for him to have to duck into a business – maybe a saloon – to seek his payment.
In 1913 company employee Ben F. Taylor was digging a hole for a pole near the telephone offices and struck water – to the delight of the property owner. He installed a pipe and a hand pump, attached a tin cup, and thus provided cool drinks for thirsty Athenians for many years.
Women became overnight operators in 1916 and two years later they were paid $30 a month.
In the 1930s operators worked 12 hour shifts, though they were allowed to nap during lulls. According to the 2012 Henderson County history, two operators worked from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. but both of them were on duty only from 7 to 10. Then they each took two hour shifts until morning where one worked and other dozed.
Employee comfort was important to management and we get that idea when in a hot day in 1932 a visitor dropped into the office that was barely cooled by ceiling fans. When he mentioned the heat, the employees did not complain, but the man was still concerned. And since he was the company president he could do something and he did – the next day a window air conditioner was installed as the first one in Athens.
Yet the operators didn’t just connect customers, they also performed as a community connection of sorts. One way they did this was when there was a fire and as the warning siren blared the operators called the volunteer firefighters to duty and also called to warn the property owners around the fire location.
Also, when law enforcement officials or a physician needed to they could leave a number where they could be reached if necessary. Another local history states: “The town’s night watchman checked in by telephone or called the operator when he passed the building at night to make sure all was well (and to make sure she was awake!)” Operators even took messages and tracked down customers who were away from home.
Then in September, 1939 when the British liner “Athena” was sunk off Ireland with two Athens girls on board the Athens operators received many calls dealing with the tragedy. About the time of the radio broadcast about the ship, operator Elsie Matthews tried to answer as many calls as she could until the chief operator came funning from her nearby home to assist. (The girls both arrived home safely).