Phyllis Freeman's Old Crank Telephone

I love old stuff—old songs, old quilts, old cars, old letters, old books, old people (especially old men), etc. I suppose I am somewhat of a retrophiliac, a person who has a strong passion for things from the past. I also love hearing the histories behind objects, and so that makes me a bit of a palaeophile, too.

And so when Phyllis Freeman sent me a story about an old, crank telephone, I couldn't wait to add it to Project Keepsake.

Phyllis Qualls Freeman wrote a lovely story about an old, crank telephone that she and her husband have had for years. Her story begins on page 219 of Project Keepsake.

Phyllis Qualls Freeman wrote a lovely story about an old, crank telephone that she and her husband have had for years. Her story begins on page 219 of Project Keepsake.

In the Seventies, my family gathered around our big, boxy television set and watched the weekly episode of "The Waltons." I loved John Boy (played by Richard Thomas), not only because he was a handsome, kind young man, but also because he was a writer and so devoted to capturing all of the family stories—something I was interested in doing, too. I remember several episodes showing John Boy or one of the other members of the Walton clan at Ike Godsey's General Store yelling into a wooden contraption mounted on the wall—an old, crank-style telephone. Phyllis' story reminded me of that phone.

I don't actually remember the crank style telephones. Both sets of my grandparents had already graduated to sophisticated rotary dial phones by the time I came along and began plundering around their homes. Remember those? To dial a particular phone number, you inserted a finger in the hole that designated a particular number, and moved the dial clockwise around to a metal stop. When you removed your finger, the dial would spin counter-clockwise back to its original position. 

I worked with a young woman a few of years ago, and at some point I asked her to "dial a number for me." She obliged and called someone for me using the touchtone phone in her office. Afterwards, she said, "I wonder where that phrase comes from—dial a number..."

Thank you, Phyllis!  Thanks for sharing TWO wonderful keepsake stories, and thanks for your love and encouragement throughout the process.

Thank you, Phyllis!  Thanks for sharing TWO wonderful keepsake stories, and thanks for your love and encouragement throughout the process.

I looked at her in disbelief, quickly did the math in my head, and realized she was probably born in the mid 1980s. It was feasible to assume she had never seen or used a rotary style phone in her lifetime. I explained the terminology to her and she looked at me like I was a relic from the past (which I am, I guess).

But back to Phyllis and her story... Phyllis contributed two pieces to the first collection of keepsake stories. She also writes devotionals and has contributed articles to Chicken Soup for the Soul. She's an excellent writer and a very dear friend.

Her story about the old, crank telephone starts on page 219 of Project Keepsake. I love the names Phyllis used in her story—Myrtle, Minnie, and Ola. Enjoy this excerpt.

While I fought the battle of ticks, Uncle Harvey showed Bill his collection of antique phones. Uncle Harvey opened up the body of each phone, placed a radio inside, and sold the unit as a phone-radio. He offered to do this for my husband, but Bill wanted the phone in its original condition. My husband selected an early 1900s’ model and carried it to the car with pride. The beautiful oak piece held a prominent place in our small home. Now, almost fifty years later, we still have the lovely chunk of history.

Through the years, so many of our friends lifted the ear piece (with the old cord still attached), rang the bell, and pretended to talk to the operator.

Why would someone want to keep an outdated, non-working piece of wood? Memories.

I have a few memories of my Grandmother Qualls using a similar antique crank phone. Bbrriinnggg, bbrriinnggg . Yes, you rang the bell to talk to the operator.

“Hello, Myrtle, please ring Ola Duncan.”

“Oh, hello Miss Minnie. Everyone at your house okay?” the operator would ask.

“Fine, Myrtle. Just get Ola, please.”

Granddaddy Qualls was issued a telephone, similar to the one we obtained, by the fire fighter’s service in the 1930s, when he was the warden of forest fires for Perry County, Tennessee. Granddaddy’s phone’s ring was two short rings and a long one. He had a crew of eight to ten neighbor men who were on his team.

When the lookout man in the tower rang the Qualls’ farmhouse to say there was a nearby blaze, Aunt Mona rode the mule to notify some of the men while Granddaddy roused others to help fight the fire. The men walked miles carrying their fire-rakes to the burning field or farm. They used heavy-handled rakes to clean out small brush and bushes to keep the fire from spreading. Sometimes they stayed at the site of the fire for days. When the blazes and smoke were safely extinguished, the men walked miles back to their own farms to resume their own work.

Today, Bill and I have moved into the twenty-first century with our own cell phones, but we still like to hear the bbrriinnggg from the old one occasionally. It always elicits a smile.

Since we relocated to Hixson, Tennessee, our new friends and those of Kent and Daris sometimes crank the phone just to listen to the bell’s buzzy ring. It’s a friendly ring with memories attached, and I hope it will bring a smile as it rings on for another century.
— Phyllis Qualls Freeman from Project Keepsake
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