PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The Presque Isle Historical Society’s Maysville Museum is now home to a new exhibit where folks can learn about the impact that the invention of the telephone switchboard had on the city and even try out a restored switchboard and antique rotary phones.
On Saturday, the museum hosted an opening for “Talking Wires: The Social Impact of the Telephone Switchboard on rural Northern Maine,” with more than a dozen people gathering to learn about the economic and social impact of the system.
Following the invention of the telephone in 1876, the technology brought more connectedness to Aroostook County, a region that has always been geographically isolated from the rest of the state. Switchboard operators, including those who worked at the Presque Isle Telephone Office, became crucial in helping people communicate with family and friends and business acquaintances and also served as lifelines for people in emergency situations who needed access to medical services.
Four of those former switchboard operators for the Presque Isle Telephone Office — Peggy Erwin, Katie Buck, Frances Cushman and Roberta Keirstead — were special guests at Saturday’s event and got to visit with David Thompson of The Telephone Museum in Ellsworth, who restored the Presque Isle’s former telephone switchboard to working order.
“I remember when my friends and I worked there, we weren’t allowed to talk to the people next to us,” said Buck, who now lives in Mapleton. “We [also] couldn’t stay on a line once we connected a call for somebody, so I never heard anyone’s conversations.”
Buck worked at the telephone office for 30 years beginning in 1957 after she graduated from high school. She spent two years as a telephone operator before becoming a clerk in a special section of the office where residents’ telephones were sent for repairs. She remembered living in the Bellstead, a former mansion that had belonged to Aroostook County starch factory owner Thomas Phair and served as a dormitory for female phone operators.
“It was a good place to live because I worked different hours and could just walk over to the office,” Buck said. “I had a roommate and I remember some rooms had as many as four twin-sized beds. I never went to college, so that became the closest experience I had to going.”
One of the highlights of the exhibit opening was the chance for many community members, including the former operators, to test out the newly restored switchboard and antique dial telephones. The restoration project began this year after Kim Smith, secretary and treasurer for the Presque Isle Historical Society, met Thompson at The Telephone Museum in Ellsworth, where he also repairs and restores phones and switchboards for exhibits. Smith told him about the switchboard that the historical society had acquired several years ago.
Thompson spent two-and-a-half months this summer using donated parts from the Ellsworth museum and rewiring the parts that could be salvaged from the switchboard.
“There was so much dust on the surface you couldn’t see anything and there were wires on the back side that were cut,” Thompson said. “I think I spent about 380 hours fixing the switchboard with whatever parts I could find or build. The phones that are here I brought from Ellsworth.”
During the ceremony, Presque Isle Historical Society President Craig Green presented Thompson with a special plaque in honor of his restoration work.
Throughout the morning, Thompson served as the “operator” as visitors both young and old took their turns talking to each other on the rotary phones. The exhibit, which was made possible through funding from the Maine Humanities Council and the Presque Isle Rotary Club, features written narratives of how operators used the switchboard and how Aroostook County was positively changed by the telephone. A three-ring binder containing records of interviews conducted with former switchboard operators and old photographs of the telephone office is on display.
The exhibit explained that switchboard operators would perform long-distance calls with a rotary and a calculagraph, a machine that resembled a time punch card. When a call came in, a light would illuminate on the switchboard and the caller would indicate who they wanted to speak with. The operator would then connect a cable to a certain slot in order to connect the caller with their chosen number, which caused a second light to illuminate.
If the caller wished to make a long-distance call, the operator would insert a card into the calculagraph and stamp it at the beginning of a call. When the call was completed, the operator disconnected, the lights would go out, and the operator would stamp the card again and place it in a box for later billing.
Thompson, who has volunteered with The Telephone Museum for 23 years, stated that the Maysville “Talking Wires” exhibit will serve as a unique way for folks in the Presque Isle area to learn about an important and not often thought about aspect of their city’s history.
“They can come here and learn how to use the switchboard and phones and see how it all worked,” Thompson said.
The Maysville Museum is located at the corner of Brewer Road and Route 1 in Presque Isle and will celebrate the closing of its second season this fall. Other events and exhibits planned include the addition of a Civil War soldier diary and the second annual Teddy Roosevelt Day on Oct. 27. The museum is open through October from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday.