Minnesota’s last party-line phone system

January 19, 1975

Sigrid Gellerstedt mans the Cotton telephone exchange switchboard at her home in January 1975. (News-Tribune file photo)

Operator rings for last time

News-Tribune

“Hello, Cotton…”

Miss Sigrid Gellerstedt, chief operator of the Cotton telephone exchange, the last hand-crank system in the state, answered a call to her switchboard one afternoon last week.

The late evening sun poured in the windows of her cozy little white house just behind the Wilbert Cafe in Cotton, known far and wide as a good watering spot about halfway between the Iron Range and Duluth on Highway 53.

Miss Gellerstedt sat at the massive old oaken switchboard, a headset crowning her curly hair. On top of the board and the closet full of circuits behind it were a picture of her parents, a plaque with the opening lines of the 23rd Psalm on it and two small American flags.

At her elbow stood her “assistant” and confidante, five-year-old Gwen Rogers from the country store kiddie corner across County Highway 52.

Gwen drops in almost every afternoon after school to chat, “help” tend the switchboard, and play fetch with Miss Gellerstedt’s small but very vociferous dog, Cookie.

The old switchboard looked very much like an upright piano and Miss Gellerstedt “played” it with the skill and artistry of a true virtuoso.

“Hello, Cotton … Oh, it’s you Brenda…”

The switchboard started buzzing and a little brass flap flipped away from one of the plug-in connections on its face. That indicated someone wanted “Central,” the “Operator,” or more often, just plain “Sig,” as Miss Gellerstedt is known by most Cotton denizens.

“Can you hang on a minute, Brenda? … Hello, Cotton … Yes, Liz … I’ve been ringing her all afternoon and she doesn’t answer, must’ve flown the coop … Are you still there Brenda? What is it that you want? …”

Brenda, evidentally another operator, was wondering about a billing or service call or a new listing or something at the Somebody residence.

Miss Gellerstedt explained that Mr. Somebody is now deceased and Mrs. Somebody has entered a nursing home but Mr. Some One Else is now living on the Old Somebody place and has kept the phone in the Somebodys’ name for convenience sake but it’s all right because Mr. Some One Else is the Somebodys’ son-in-law.

More buzzing in the switchboard and about six little flaps dropped at once.

“Hang on Brenda … Hello, Cotton … Just a moment, please … There you are … Hello, Cotton … Well, you’ve certainly called the right place …”

Such was the inimitable style with which Miss Gellerstedt handled the Cotton telephone exchange one afternoon last week.

But it’s all part of history now. At 7 a.m. Saturday, Cotton’s hand-cranked telephones were disconnected and 200 subscribers joined the outside world’s dial system in the form of Arrowhead Communications Corp.

Switchboard “assistant” Gwen Rogers, 5, watches Sigrid Gellerstedt examine the new Cotton phone book in January 1975. (News-Tribune file photo)

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The party lines with up to 17 persons on them are no more. Cotton residents now have automatic dial phones. No longer do they have to “crank up the operator” to place their calls for them.

Instead of having phones operated from 6 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m. with only emergency service in between, Cotton residents now have 24-hour-a-day service and direct dialing to just about anywhere in the country.

Yes, “Sig” and her two assistants, Madge Peterson and Dagney Kwiatkowski, have been replaced by a small windowless building filled with automatic dial equipment. It’s located on County Road 52 about three miles east of Cotton.”

“It’s the end of an era,” said George Nustad, independent company relations supervisor for Northwestern Bell. He had mixed feelings about the progress that comes with the discontinuance of the crank telephone.

“These people don’t know what they’re going to miss,” he predicted.

The new dial system will obviously be faster, more convenient and efficient but the hand-crank did have some unique advantages and characteristics.

For one thing, Cotton residents will be deprived of a free answering service. Under the old system, they were hooked up to party lines. If one family wasn’t home, a neighbor would answer.

For another, there probably won’t be any township-wide fire alarm. Under the old system, Sig or Madge or Dagney could give a “general ring,” four long rings on all the phones in the area, to alert volunteer firemen of the time, place and intensity of fires.

For another, they’re going to miss Sig, Madge and Dagney. The operators, particularly Miss Gellerstedt, recognized many called by voice. That’s personalized service you probably won’t find in other places.

And if you were lonely or bored, Sig, Madge and Dagney were glad to discuss local events, give evaluations of the weather or chat about anything you cared to mention and had the time to talk about.

They were a social service and a news medium all rolled into one.

“People could save on the News-Tribune” joked Miss Gellerstedt. “All they had to do was talk to us.”

She has been the Cotton operator for more than 30 years, starting her career in the communications industry on May 4, 1944. At first she had it all alone and worked about 15 hours a day, seven days a week, although her mother helped out.

Now Madge Peterson, an 18-year veteran switchboard operator, works Mondays and Dagney Kwiatkowski has Tuesdays and they split the duty on Thursdays. But sometimes they switch days and then the schedule is different.

The rest of the time Miss Gellerstedt is on duty. She said she works about 76 hours a week.

The duty is not without certain hazards in the summer when thunderstorms are prevalent. A lightning strike can really make the phone wires snap and crackle and several times fuses have been blown in the closet behind the switchboard.

“Last summer we had a few bad ones but they always seemed to happen on Tuesdays when I was off,” Miss Gellerstedt said. “I was just lucky, I guess.

“And don’t forget our faithful lineman, Ernie (Ernest) Nordberg,” she added. “Without him, I don’t know what we’d do.”

Now Miss Gellerstedt is looking forward to getting the big switchboard and its accompanying wiring out of her house, although the unit will remain in service for a short transition period.

“There’ll be a lot more room and you can’t even clean the dumb thing the way it is now,” she remarked.

What does she plan to do? Surely she is too young to retire.

“Now don’t you try and flatter me,” she said. “It so happens I probably could retire if I wanted but I plan to stay on for a little while yet.”

She took out the new Cotton Telephone Directory, which reads like a “Who’s Who in Cotton.” On the back it says for reporting trouble and service requests to call a certain number with the new 482 prefix.

“That’s my number,” Miss Gellerstedt said with a certain hint of pride. “That’s how I found out what I am going to be doing.”

She reported she’s already gotten a number of calls from people wanting to buy the old phones as antiques. Apparently people think the Cotton residents have the old box-type phones that hung on the wall but actually they have standard desk model instruments with cranks.

The dial unit can be installed in the old phones, she said. The old wall models were replaced many years ago and sold for about $5 apiece; now they’re worth more than $100, she added.

Miss Gellerstedt claims she isn’t sentimental about the passing of the old hand-crank system but she has collected a large scrapbook of information on them.

She said the Cotton exchange was the last in the state and one of only three remaining in the country.

One is in Bryant Pond, Maine, and has about 400 subscribers and plans to stay in operation for some time yet.

Miss Gellerstedt was just going to tell where the other one was when the switchboard started buzzing.

“Hello, Cotton…”

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This story reminds me of a passage I’ve always liked in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days, in which he writes about a former switchboard operator for whom it seems Sigrid Gellerstedt could have been a model. Here are a few lines:

The pantry off her kitchen holds the old switchboard, still in good condition, and also the steel cabinet with the switching equipment that took over from it when they went to dial telephones in 1960. … If someone doesn’t answer their phone by the fifth ring, she does, and usually she knows where they went and when they’re expected. … If you do reach her instead of your party – say, your mother – she may clue you in on things your mom would never tell you, about your mom’s bad back, a little fall on the steps the week before, or the approach of Mother’s Day, or the fact that when you were born you were shown off like you were the Prince of Wales.

But modern, 24-hour, direct-dial phones are better… right?

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Share your memories of “old-time” telephones in the Northland by posting a comment.

12 thoughts on “Minnesota’s last party-line phone system

  1. My husband Bob helped put the new lines in. My brother was always amazed when he would call us from Mpls. and they would say, “Oh, Penny and Bonnie are working at the Wilbert today, so I’ll ring them there for you.” I still have my phone. 2F12 if you want to call me, lol. That will be one long, two short rings.

  2. I lived with my parents in Quincy California for a few years in the mid 90s and up to the late 80s according to residents they had an operator you would dial to.

    Quincy despite having 3,000 people and being the biggest Plumas County town was so remote the courthouse elevator was manually operated till our last year in 1996.

    Now THAT’S backwards!

  3. I was the little girl in the second picture. I used to go and vist Sig after school. She used to let me play on the switchboard. Fun memories!

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  5. I remember the wall phone. I remember the desk phone with the crank. And I remember the circular dial phone. Also remember the thrill of listening into conversations on the partyline!

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  7. Madge Peterson was my Great-Grandmother. She lived in Cotton until the early 90′s when my family had to move her to a nursing home in Duluth. She died in 2002 at 102 years old.

  8. I remember in the late 1950′s when we trained in as operators at NWBell in Duluth, the gals on the Cotton switchboard seemed to have the cutest Finnish accents. Nice to put a face with a voice.

  9. My grandfather with a 628- number in Duluth was billed at the party-line rate until he died in 1982. In the early 70′s there was only one family left, at least the only party talking all the time, on their line and by the mid to late 70′s he was the only person left on the line.

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