One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy

Lily Tomlin's Ernestine the Operator was comedic gold on Rowan and Martin's "Laugh-In," which ran 1969-1973.

If you don't remember it, look it up on YouTube and return to a simpler and funnier time. The character is based on the many hard-working woman employed as operators who made the telephone system work in the days before computer switching.

The telephone systems in Sweetwater County had such operators, though not as snarky as Ernestine. I have been unable to find a date for the beginning of local phone systems, but an educated guess would put it at before the turn of the century. Casper's phone system began in 1902 and usually communication systems came to the railroad towns of southern Wyoming first.

I was able to interview two ladies who worked for Mountain Bell Telephone Company during the years 1943 to 1973. Margaret Warby began working for the phone company in the spring of 1943 at age 18 right after she graduated from Rock Springs High School. She also worked on and off in the 1950s and 60s in the Green River office. Marcella Romero worked from 1966 to 1973 in the Rock Springs office. Both women worked as operators.

Warby recalled beginning work during World War II when the operators were under strict rules of security. The twin industries of railroad and coal mining which were such a part of the local economy were considered sensitive industries. She remembered special interviews before hiring and railroad agents who stood guard at night.

She recalled working the switchboard as a confusing challenge at first.

"Well, I'll tell you, the switchboard then, they were a lot different than the ones today. We had these neck pieces that were heavy and a black horn that we spoke into. And then we had these dumb hearing aids, or earmuffs, for sound, you know that fit over our ears. The switchboards were narrow and they had four to six different cords on each group of numbers. And you moved the key a certain way for a certain number. If somebody was calling, say four-six-seven-M, you'd push the key to the right and ring four times. And then if it was a different number, you might push it to the left. But there were all these different keys and it was just a maze. And sometimes we'd get the cords all tangled up."

Warby remembered that all of the operators were women, but the managers were men. She also recalled that the linemen, those who maintained and installed the telephone lines, were, naturally, men. They did not use lifts to access the wires, but were required to scramble up the poles using spikes strapped to the side of their boots. She remembered one lineman she knew who was a newlywed.

"He and his wife were getting used to each other. There were a lot of squabbles, she was kind of picky. And one day he came in off the line on his lunch hour and one of the other operators, she told him, she said, 'She's got your dinner all ready for you.' And he said, 'Yeah, and its's probably cold shoulder and hot tongue.' Afterward, we asked him what he got, and he said, 'Peanut butter sandwich.'

Warby remembered that being a telephone operator sometimes required you to be in other people's business.

"Matter of fact, we were practically babysitters for some people," she said. "And the doctors, if they were going to be gone in the evening, they would call in and let us know where they were going to be."

She also remembered a lot of listening in on party lines.

"I know a couple of the gals ... that got dumped by their boyfriends [would listen] on his calls," she said. "People did it all the time, especially on the rural lines. There'd be half a dozen people at a time, listening on the lines."

She recalled working the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

"That switchboard business was usually slow on Sunday ... and we were sitting there doing something that we weren't supposed to do, having a cup of tea at the switchboard. And all of a sudden it lit up like [it had] been hit with a bomb. Lights all over the place. I put in the longest day I ever put in on it ... everybody was crying and it was just a bedlam."

The Green River exchange continued in operation until about 1952 when the local system went to dial telephones. Because some operators were still required to complete long distance calls, there was still work for them in the Rock Springs office.

Marcella Romero was born in Superior and lived there until they closed the mines when she was 16. Her family moved to Rock Springs where she completed high school in 1965. After a year at the University of Wyoming, Romero returned home and found a job with Mountain Bell. Things had changed a bit in the world of telephony by then.

"We wore the big, old headsets in those days. And we had cards, sort of like an IBM card or a computer card, and when the number came in we would key it and dial it and get their number. And punch it [the card]. And then when they were punched your card again and that's how they were charged. ... and we had mobile. We had a little station at the end that were mobile operators ... The guys in the oilfield, or whatever, had mobile radios and they would call us ... to make their contacts. And then we had Information, which was fun ... we had these big turn style things [which held the telephone numbers] ... and people would call in and they'd say, 'I need so-and-so in Rock Springs,' or 'so-and-so in Green River.' And we'd go down and find it, and give them the number.

Romero also recalled working through a major blizzard in 1971.

"... Ray Miles was the manager then and he called and said he was sending a truck for me. Oh, we had a horrible, horrible blizzard. And there were three or four of us in that truck, and they took us up to Mountain Bell. We packed a little bag, and we were there for like two days ... just working because it was so, so busy."

She remembers working through the early days of the 1970s boom as well.

"I remember the people coming into the business office, and they were angry and no phone service ... it was hard, and all these subdivisions were just starting up," Romero said.

From its humble beginnings of manually operated switchboards to cellular service today, telephony has come a long way. But, no longer can we count on the cheery voice of someone we know answering "Operator." We can't expect the phone company to know that the doctor is at so-and-so's house playing bridge anymore either. The modern system, though vastly more efficient and powerful, lacks the soul that these thousands of operators gave to the business. Many of us miss the voice of Ernestine saying, "Is this the party to whom I am speaking?"


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