by Susan Taylor Block
(Click on photos to magnify. Double click and scroll to see more.)
At the age of 19, my grandmother, Flossie Mae Stone, left her family home in Mount Vernon Springs, North Carolina, and went to work for the Southern Bell Telephone Company. The year was 1909 and telephone service was still in its infancy. Nana trained in Greensboro as an operator, then was promoted to chief operator. Occasionally, skirmishes occurred at the switchboard and Nana showed a talent for bringing peace and restoring productivity.
After two and a half years in Greensboro, she moved to Charlotte, where she organized the department and improved conditions. When serious problems arose in other cities, she relocated and tried to solve them. Next, the company transferred Nana to Burlington, where the exchange included 560 subcribers and 48 “farmer’s lines.” She then worked in Hendersonville, Durham, and Darlington, before moving to Wilmington on September 20, 1920.
If the Burlington office had had a punchy motto, it would have been, ahem, “Sell Phone!” They were still selling the concept, and promoted it through photos and press releases. I found the following document in my grandmother’s papers:
“This seems to be the ‘Golden Age,’ with its operators at the Burlington Exchange. The work is moving along smoothly and the girls seem bouyant with life and helpfulness. ‘The best service for our customers is their slogan.’
“The public is awake to the high ideals of the Burlington operators and show their appreciation in numerous ways. Some days ago the Motor Car Co. of this place donated to the operators the use of one of their best cars for an outing.
“The day operators, Misses Willie Trollinger, Beulah McKeel, Anthea Clapp, Abigail Fitzgerald, Sue White, Myrtle Patterson, and Annie Hawkins, accompanied by the Chief, Miss Stone, took advantage of this demonstration of appreciation and went to Greensboro on a pleasure trip, and paid a visit to the Exchange of that place.
“The girls feel great pride in being a part of the Great Bell Telephone Company.”
The Wilmington business world was unique because the port city was headquarters for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. The ACL paid higher wages than anyone in town and lots of employees at other companies kept an application on record there at all times. Nana was hired by the railroad and worked as a clerk and receipt manager for freight traffic until she married my grandfather, Grover William Hill, in 1927.
Nana never tired of reminiscing about her days with the telephone company and she stayed in contact with some of her old switchboard friends for years. She liked to tell the story of the time when she herself fell victim to primitive phone ways. Her parents’ telephone was part of a multi-member party line. Nana’s mother was on one line telling someone Nana, age 22, had Typhoid Fever, while another conversation contained the news that an elderly neighbor had just died. The next day’s newspaper carried Nana’s “obituary.” As it turned out, she lived to be 93 – and enjoyed a lively telephone chat to the very end.
Copyright, 2010. Susan Taylor Block.