With just about everyone relying on cellular telephones these days and taking that form of communication for granted, most older people probably have forgotten the days when independent phone service was not available.
This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the implementation of direct dial telephone service by Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. to its St. Clair customers.
The official turnover date was Dec. 15, 1963.
At the same time direct dialing became available, the MAyfair-9 phone numbers replaced the old local two-digit system.
Today, most individuals probably also are unaware that the MAyfair-9 numbers remain in place. The current “629” St. Clair-area prefix is derived from the MA-9 combination.
Research showed that in the process of changing to the new system, the party line letters “J,” “M,” “R,” and “W” were eliminated. According to the old St. Clair Chronicle newspaper, there was no explanation why those four letters were used for the party lines.
Again according to the Chronicle, Direct Distance Dialing, which enabled subscribers to dial their own nationwide calls, started at the same time. Prior to that, customers had to tell the operator where they were calling, and they then were connected to an operator from that city whose duty it was to complete the connection.
Making a local call before dial service was instituted entailed picking up the phone, listening to the operator say, “Number, please” and telling her the desired number. She then manually would connect the line to the other party’s line on her switchboard. The local operators were often referred to as “Hello Girls.”
Local operators Dantzelle Duff, chief operator, and Edna Hayhurst chose to retire when their positions were eliminated as staying on with the phone company would have meant transferring to another town, the Chronicle reported at the time. Receptionist Marilyn Hoffman began her new duties at the new Bell building on Ridge Avenue.
Assistant Chief Operator Berniece Fellenz as well as Fern Maupin, Janet Stokes and Dorothy Mueller all transferred to the district substation at Union. Prior to the changeover, Fern Vera Finley, Tiny Dace, Nettie Girardier, Alice Brown, Rose Landing, Mrs. Weida and Clara Perkins transferred. Several temporary workers had taken over their positions, including Mae Chisum.
Edna Hayhurst had worked as an operator for 40 years and opted to retire to her farm at the time of the conversion. She had transferred to St. Clair from St. Louis in July 1953 to help care for her aging parents.
Dantzelle Duff had worked for Southwestern Bell for 36 years. She told a Chronicle reporter that she had started as a relief operator when Maynard Lay owned the telephone company. Lay had been splitting the long hours with her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Lay.
Duff had been trained in 1938 to replace Elizabeth Lay, who was engaged to marry Edgar Murray. She recalled working seven hours a day without a lunch break, the Chronicle stated.
Minnie Shoults then was hired as a part-time operator, and Elizabeth Lay absorbed any extra hours.
At the time, the switchboard was located in a front room of the Lay home on Ridge Avenue, which was leased from Dr. and Mrs. E.J. Canan.
These ladies worked it out between them and were able to cover the switchboard 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including holidays and during inclement weather. When necessary, they napped on a cot beneath the switchboard with an alarm to be sure they didn’t miss any calls.
By 1948, there were 500 local phone subscribers, the Chronicle reported. Southwestern Bell bought Elizabeth Lay’s telephone agency, making Duff chief operator.
From 1938 to 1963, the system had made no substantial changes other than adding employees to cover the increasing number of customers.
More than 20 years after dial service was instituted in St. Clair, some of the customers in rural areas still had to be on a party line, according to the Chronicle. That worked well if everyone was cooperative, but sometimes people would not release the line, even when another user really needed to place a call.
Of course, anyone on the line could pick up the phone and listen to the conversation in which the others were engaged.