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A System Upgrade in 1937
Written by Larry Roeder, Editor


Fire companies respond to loss of 24-7 phone operators


            It was in the fall of 1937 when technology brought a major change to many of the communities around here.  It was the end of the hand-cranked phone and the beginning of dial-up service.

            Baby boomers remember the first time they used a telephone.  Many recall the large black instrument that required one to keep an index finger rigid to avoid being pinched when the dial hit the stopper.  There was a certain amount of strength and endurance needed to lift the heavy receiver to your ear and then hold it in place while you tried to engage in a conversation. 

When the social room of the East Greenville firehouse was

open, the steward would take emergency calls and sound the

alarm to alert the volunteer firefighters.  Between the hours of

5 a.m. and when the social room opened a gong, wired to the 

payphone inside the firehouse lobby, would sound alerting

neighbors to go to the firehouse, take the call, and sound the


It's not hard to remember style changes with the introduction of the sleek wall-mounted or dainty princess models.  Over time, plastic telephones with lightweight dialers replaced the heavy cast metal finger busters. 

            Even though it took a decade, folks seemed to adapt from the dials and pulses to push buttons and tones without too many problems.  The innovation from plug-in to cordless phones was a convenience welcomed by many. 

Then came the cell phone.  Do you remember some of the early models?  They looked like bricks with antennae extending from them and barely fit into your largest pocket.  How about the early 'bag phones'?  They replaced the bulge in your jacket with a strap over your shoulder and a 10-pound bag on your side.

            In less than 20 years, cell phones were reduced to micro-mini sized that were just a bit larger than a credit card and today our smartphones can connect to the internet and more. 

            All of these changes to the way we communicate by telephone have come and gone over the past 80 years without much ado.

From 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. emergency calls were taken by the

security guard at the Perkiomen Bank who would run a

block to the firehouse to sound the alarm.

            But, with that major change in 1937, you could no longer simply turn the crank and ask the operator to connect you to your friend or favorite store's phone by name.  You now needed to dial the three or four-digit number that was assigned to them.

            With the new phone system came a larger phone directory (120 pages).  Instructions for using the new phones included an introduction to strange sounds like "hum-m-m", "burr-r-ring", and "buzz-buzz-buzz."  The instruction guide also made reference to something called a "party line."  Anyone born after 1965 has, most likely, never had to share a phone line (and their conversation) with the prying ears of a nosy neighbor. 

            The party line may have been a good way to save a few cents, but you paid triple the price in privacy lost.    

            But, as with most technology upgrades, something was overlooked.

            The telephone operators of Bell Telephone's central office in Pennsburg, which

The hand-cranked phone service came to an end in the 

Upper Perkiomen Valleyin 1937, eliminating the oper-

ator and making callers dial callers dial a three or four

digit number to make their call.

served the Upper Perkiomen Valley, were on duty 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week.  No longer would the folks around here enjoy that service.

            That presented a problem for the local volunteer fire companies.  If you called the local operator to report a fire or other emergency, they would simply plug in the call to the right person and help would be on the way.

            There was no "911" back then.  You needed to know what number to call, and someone needed to be on the other end to answer it.

            Most of the calls could be taken at the social halls of the local companies during the hours the club was open.  Arrangements needed to be made for other times.

            Green Lane Fire Company didn't have any phones in the firehouse, but there would be no problem there since C. W. Hunsberger, who lived across the street, had taken fire calls in the past and would continue to do so in the future.  He guaranteed that someone would be near the phone all day and night – every day and night.

            Red Hill fire calls would be taken by Trauch Store during the day and the Hoffman Restaurant at night.  In Pennsburg, daytime calls would be taken in the fire company's social hall and nighttime calls would go to the Pennsburg Bakery.

            East Greenville was a bit more challenging.  Its solution was to have calls go to the social hall when it was open, and from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. the calls were to go to the Perkiomen Bank, at Third and Bank streets in the borough, and the security guard on duty would sound the alarm.  For all other times, a different solution was developed.

            After 5 a.m., all fire calls would go to the firehouse and a gong would sound – loud enough for neighbors to hear.  Anyone who heard the call could enter the front hall of the firehouse, answer the phone, and sound the alarm.

            The move to dial-up phones came somewhat late to our area.  Most of Pennsylvania had made the switch from crank phones to dial-ups 15 years earlier.  But, on Sunday, November 21, 1937, at exactly 7 a.m., the Pennsburg Central office that served the Upper Perkiomen Valley area was shut down and service transferred to the Pottstown Central office of the Bell Telephone Company. 

            All of the calls coming from our area were now transferred through Bell's new $77,000 switching facility at Fifth and Dotts streets in Pennsburg.

            As one appreciative telephone user said in 1937 when he heard of the long overdue phone service upgrade, "The automobile got rid of its crank long before the telephone did."






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