January 22nd…..”WHAT KIND OF TELEPHONE DID YOUR PARENTS USE IN THEIR EARLY YEARS ON THE FARM NEAR KIESTER, MINNESOTA?”
The metallic “click” of Dad’s buckle loop could be heard in their bedroom as he swung his last shoulder strap over and fastened his farmer’s “suit of armor”(also known as coveralls) for another day of life and work on the family farm northwest of Kiester, Minnesota. Both our father and mother (Russell and Clarice) adhered to the sage advice of one of America’s Founding Fathers (Benjamin Franklin) who said, “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise“. I’m also of a mind to surmise that our “Planting Prince” would’ve also agreed with another of Benjamin Franklin’s sayings that went, “The early morning has gold in its mouth!”
In that summertime 4:30am darkness, the pleasant, invisible breezes coursing through our parent’s bedroom windows animated the curtains as they billowed and waved to our parents; it was as if that light-weight fabric was beckoning them to start in and relish this new day of life God had given us. Our humble country kitchen was just a mere hinge-swing away from our parent’s bedroom as they stepped from their slumbering abode and snapped on the kitchen’s light-switch. As automatic as waking up, the next thing our folks did was to bring out the “Drip-o-lator” drip pot to make some coffee to get their Norwegian “engines” running for another day of farm life. With a slurp or two of Mom’s hot coffee (and a cookie to tide him till breakfast), Dad gave his bride a peck of a kiss and strode out through our back pantry screen door. In the predawn shadows of the farm’s single yard light, Dad’s striped overalls were silhouetted as he crossed our graveled yard. His short commute complete, Russ disappeared through the dutch doors of our classic red barn to begin the morning milking of our fine herd of Holstein dairy cows.
As co-regents of their agrarian world, Dad was “King Of The Cows”, but when it came to our mother, Clarice, she was the unequivocal “Queen Of The Kitchen”. After seeing that her own morning chores were completed (such as feeding chickens, gathering eggs, etc.) she began what could almost be termed as her “symphony” of breakfast for Dad and her family. Breakfast was our father’s favorite meal of the day, so Mom always sought to meet the needs of her man. Dad could “polish away” three or four sunny-side-up eggs, lots of bacon, a bowl of cereal, orange juice, a half grapefruit and still had room left to wash all that down with Mom’s delicious hot coffee. So, to satiate that hefty appetite……….and with Mom’s deftness of wrist, those fresh eggs from the Chicken House were perfectly cracked on the edge of the skillet to allow those liquid gold contents to spill onto the the hot griddle. While they began to pop n sizzle, “soldier rows” of bacon “came to life” in another pan as they began a porcine prancing caused by the heat beneath them. Those fragrant food aromas, with a heady morning wonderment, filled the kitchen. Mom’s homemade bread popped out of the toaster; black, just like our daddy enjoyed it while he slathered its hot surface with sweet creamery butter. When Dad came into the house, after milking, to wash up, the ambrosia of that atmosphere was evident upon his smiling face.
That morning, while our father was savoring mother’s excellent breakfast, a ringing sound came from our family Living Room. On the east wall, above Russell’s farm business desk, hung a wooden, rectangular “coffin” crank phone (likely a Stromberg-Carlson model). The early wooden phones of that day had been dubbed with the title “coffin” phones because of the similar resemblance of the long wooden boxes that were used to bury the dead. Most of these early telephones consisted of two bells, at the top, to announce, in audio fashion, that someone was trying to reach you. There was also a hand-held ear receiver that hung to the side of the wooden phone on a hook switch. After picking up the ear receiver, you would place that device to your own ear to hear someone speaking to you. A transmitter arm, with voice cup, stuck out from the front of the telephone. A person leaned into this device and talked. Your voice was then sent by wires to the local or distant location of the person you wanted to talk to. Finally, there was a crank on the right side of the telephone’s wooden cabinet. Usually, to make a call, you’d give the crank a series of turns. That cranking action generated an electrical charge that caused bells to ring at the Telephone Operator’s office in our hometown of Kiester. Then, the Operator helped connect you with whoever you wished to speak with.
Unlike today’s cell phones, that are basically a hand-held computer, in those early farming days, families were thrilled just to be able to simply TALK to a neighbor or family member over the phone. These were the days long before “private lines” for phone service. Everyone was on a “party line” and when you picked up the phone receiver, you’d likely hear conversations, in the hand-held receiver, going on already. You’d have to be patient for folks to finish chatting and try again later with your call. Another facet of phone life was the way a call came to our farm. For our farm family, if we heard two long bells and one short bell, from the telephone, that was our signal to pick up the receiver and talk to someone. Another farm down the road would have a different patterned ring signal. If we Noorluns heard any other ring signal, other than our own, from the phone, we ignored it.
Weather across those Minnesota farmlands can change in a matter of a very short period of time. What began as a docile Summer morning, evolved into a broiling thunderstorm by late afternoon. An intense lightning strike near us had sent an electrical flash charge into our wooden wall phone that fried one of the wires inside the phone cabinet. Dad, our “King of Cows”, was also the “Sultan of Shock” when it came to being able to withstand electrical shocks to his body. Our folks needed to contact the Operator in Kiester to have our phone repaired, so here’s what they did. Russ found a piece of wire similar to what had been damaged by the lightning. Opening the hinged door of the wooden telephone cabinet, he placed one end of the wire on the magneto charging unit (that made the Operator’s bells ring in Kiester) and the other end of the wire to the proper place of the wire chassis. As he physically held the wire in place, Mom was then able to crank the phone (as the electrical shock went right through Dad) and got a hold of the Operator to report the problem. I’ll bet our daddy’s eyes even “lit up” when Mom spun that crank phone handle!!! 😉 The Operator was a bit aghast as to how our mother could call her if our phone was broke down. Clarice shared how her husband had been the “live wire” who had made things happen. Such were the “shocking” attributes of the farmer father of this Norwegian Farmer’s Son. 😉