Telephone Party Lines

I’ve always had a problem with historical context. As a kid growing up in a small German farm community in rural southwest Texas in the 1950’s, about an hour from the Mexican border at Del Rio, we were at least one generation behind the times, perhaps two.

Modern conveniences moved very slowly from the big city to the little city to the nearby town to the country farm. News, too.

Radio was reliable.

At the farmhouse, Grandpa mostly listened to the morning weather and agriculture reports beamed from the radio station in a small town, the County Seat, a dozen miles away.

Newspapers were slow.

Grandpa also read the big city paper. It was delivered by bus, a small bundle dropped off outside the post office in town. People would just take theirs… honor system. Generally, the news was a day late.

ex- train grabs mailbag as it passes by (person stands clear)

Non-stop mail train

Mail was both picked up and delivered by train, which did not stop in our little town to pick up people or the mail. It did not stop.

A heavy leather and canvas mailbag would be tossed out as the train went by… landing in the dirt across the “street” (gravel road) from the post office. The postmaster would be ready to get it.

The best part was watching the mail be picked up, though. The outgoing mailbag would be hung up on a special pole near the railroad tracks and, as the engine went by, a metal arm would snag the middle of the bag and someone would pull it inside the train. It happened in a blink.

TV was iffy.

A big antenna atop a towering 40 foot galvanized pipe mounted on one side of the farm house, with long guy-wires to keep it from swinging in the wind. We got somewhat regular TV service from the big city sixty miles away. Only two or three channels were available and, even then, could be fuzzy due to weather interference. We really didn’t watch it that often.

Television was “black and white” or, as I used to point out, mostly shades of gray. I studied it as a kid from about ONE INCH away. Most of the time, adults were telling kids to MOVE BACK from the TV as we watched and we always sat on the floor and scooted closer. I think there was a semi-serious concern about X-RAY emissions or something like that. The TV itself was huge, held vacuum tubes, rheostats, capacitors, and all kinds of mystical electrical components that could KILL A KID if they opened up the back and touched anything! Well-known fact.

Telephones were modern!

(dial; post crank-handle)

Grandpa was an early-adopter for his time and place. Having built a respectable farm equipment repair business in the little town nearby, as well as being a part-time farmer and cattle rancher himself, he saw advantages in modern equipment. This afforded a few conveniences, such as a telephone for the business… which ALSO rang the telephone at the farm house, a few miles down the road from the repair shop. If Grandpa was busy at the shop, perhaps Granny would pick up the incoming call. More often, a farmer with a broken-down tractor was calling after hours needing help.

Modern phone features

Did you think the feature of a call ringing on two phones was new? No, BUT, here’s how the phones worked on a “party line”:

The Telephone Company (which consisted of a man named Andy) in our tiny town served about 400 people but far, far fewer homes and phones. There were several main telephone lines serving the area, all emerging from a small, white house with a big switch in the living room.

Our particular phone line ran across the highway from the Telephone Company, where a line dropped off at the shop, then ran down the highway and along a county road where, at 6–7 farm houses a mile or so apart, lines were dropped off. We were all on the same party line. When someone dialed your number on their phone, it had a distinct ring on the party line.

early sponsored advertising on a calendar from Grandpa’s tractor repair shop

Our phone number at the shop and at the farm house was 21. When someone in town dialed 21, it would ring on ALL phones on our party line… sounding like 2 long rings followed by 1 short ring.

Two longs and a short = 21.


It was YOUR job to listen and count the rings, decide if the call was for you, and then pick up.

But anybody on the party line COULD pick up. At any time.

This means that, if someone called you incessantly… a neighbor might pick up and complain to the caller. Or take a message and ensure its delivery. Folks were like that.

Or, someone might— as quietly as possible — pick up the phone while YOU were talking to someone else, eavesdropping on your “private” call. Think little old ladies with not much else to do. Or curious kids.

Or, you might simply pick up the phone intending to make a call and INTERRUPT someone else’s call… hopefully, before beginning to dial and putting the handset up to your ear and hearing that someone was already on the line. It was considered polite to excuse yourself and put the phone down deliberately so it made a distinct click as you hung up.

The saying in our small town was that, if you wanted to keep a secret, you would be better off advertising it in the big city newspaper since NOT EVERYBODY read that.

Local news traveled pretty fast.

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