Fulton, NY: A History, Podcast Episode 3

Man stands next to switchboard
Alec Seymour stands with the old communications switchboard at the Pratt House museum.

Transcript of podcast.

Voice: Kassadee Paulo

Within the past 50 years there has been so much change in technology, especially within my own generation. I am one of the last people who experienced a childhood in a world without cell phones, without smart devices, without social media. Children no longer need to remember phone numbers, know how to use a phonebook or entertain themselves without an electronic device. I am part of the generation that adapted with the rapidly changing innovation within a span of less than a decade. Older generations have experienced this on a much larger scale than mine. Alec Seymour, a member of Friends of History in Fulton, has dedicated much of his time to researching and collecting the history of the telephone and how it connects to Fulton. 

This is Kassadee Paulo with Oswego County Today, and you’re listening to “Fulton NY: A History,” a podcast dedicated to uncovering the vast history of the City of Fulton and its population.

Voice: Alec Seymour

My name is Alec Seymour. I got interested in telephones through the military, in the Air Force. I worked four years in the Air Force as telephone communications then three years out of Sydney. Then I came here to Fulton and hired on as an installer and I was here for 34 years before I retired in 2000. I’ve always been fascinated with phones. In 1968, I was cleaning the garage and found parts. And I’ve been asking “What’s this? How does it work?” and like this ever since. So I’m interested in the phones and I’m also interested in the people that worked here. So I didn’t come to Fulton until ‘66, so I’m a newcomer to Fulton area like this. 

About 1906, I believe, [the phone company] first started and it was the Oswego County Telephone Company, and it changed names in 1968 to Midstate, and in 1970 Mid Comm System, and then Alltel in 1987, and just about 2002 it went to Windstream. So it’s been bought out, moved up until technology made it so it wasn’t as valuable as it was when I first started. It’s been through a lot of changes here in town. 

Before the dial system came in, all the calls had to go through the switchboard, okay? And what would happen, is you would crank your phone on the crank on the side of it, it would – a light would come on. The operator would take the cord in the back, plug it in, take this cord, push it forward and say, “Operator” or “Central, can I help you?” And then you would tell them, “Well, I want Dr. So and So” or “I want Sue Brown” or whatever name is. And she’d say “Okay, that’s such and such a line,” reach over here and put the plug in, take the back key and push it – every time she pushed it forward, it would ring, okay? So then the two people would talk. When the talking was done and whoever hung up, the light would go off. She would go up there and say, “Operator, can I help you?” If you want another number, she would call it for you. 

But if, at that time, any calls came on that went out of the city limits, it was a toll call. So they’d take one of these cards, put it in the time clock, like this, and she would start it, put it in the slot right next to the cords here, and say “Okay.” When we got all done, she would pull this lever, put the time stamp on it, then it went upstairs to Finance. And they would say, “Okay, you talked to Phoenix for six and a half minutes. The price is so and so, like this.” And that’s how you got billed for long-distance calls. But they, all the calls, went through a switchboard when they first started. And there’s switchboards from this, about 12 inches by 12 inches to massive. There’s ones in New York City were so big that the supervisors had roller skates so they could skate round back of the gals, like this. And they were very strict at the time, because posture was very important. If you slouched at the switchboards, he’d come tap you on the shoulder, told you to sit up straight, like this. 

So, the switchboards were a very important part until the dial system came in. Once the dial system came in, they didn’t need the switchboards much. Here in Fulton, I can’t tell you when the switchboards came in. And they had four of these together, so that’s eight operators. And so they not only had the shift changes, like this, they had to have night people, they had to have supervisors and like this. So there was a lot more people involved in the telephone industry. 

When I came , in ‘66, there was about 118, 120 something or more than that, like this. When I retired in 2000, there was 24. I think there’s six or seven now. So, the telephone industry as far as I know, is gone. It really is just evaporated. The cell phone’s done it. I mean, here’s a thing that you had to hang on your wall, now you carry it in your pocket. I mean, it’s that much easier. So, I can really see what it’s done like this. 

You gotta stop and think there was a full telephone office in every town, so it gave a lot of people throughout the United States a great deal of work, because you had to have operators, you had to have people climbing poles for construction, you had to have installers/repairmen, then you had to have all the bosses and the people in Finance and like this, and the gals that kept all the records. So it really, truly, was a good thing for all the working people in the whole wide world because there’s a lot to it. You not only had repair on the switchboards and everything else, it was – even if you had a business and you had a switchboard, quite often, they would patch the calls from inside the factory or wherever the switchboard was, to the outside line. So they controlled the flow of traffic until the dial system came out. And then the dial system replaced the operators. The cell phone replaced the rest of the telephone people. 

The cell phone’s a wonderful thing. I’m not crazy about it, but I didn’t grow up with it. I have a next door neighbor that is 11, and he knows more about how to run this cell phone and everything on it than I do. I mean, I have a problem, I go talk to him. *Laughs* He’s real good to me. 

But there’s all kinds of different phones that you can have with it, all kinds of different equipment. Not only the equipment itself, but the people – I have a book here of operators, of how many hours they worked, different shifts they worked. And that’s what I ask everybody that comes in. I will say, “Take a piece of paper, and write down what your first job was, with whatever telephone company you worked for, how much you got paid.” Here’s another book. This gal worked 44 and half hours, her rate was 92 cents. She made $40.94 in 1945. *Laughs* So, in that time, that was pretty good money. It depends on how you look at things, like this. 

What happens is, the smaller independent companies come along and then they get bought out by bigger companies. Come in, and say, “Okay, we’d like to buy you out and like this.” And when they get bought out, a lot of the history gets lost because the new companies aren’t interested in old history; they’re interested in doing their own and making it better, more improved. So the old company kind of gets lost on the base side, and that’s where I come in. 

I collect any kind of pictures, information that I can get, and I talk to anybody who’s ever worked for a phone company to ask a lot of questions. Now all these people, when I came in ‘66, these people were all here. Like I said, there’s eight left now, like this. And it’s – you gotta remember that all this knowledge that all these people had, really was something to bring them all together, to get everybody to work together and put out what they needed. 

This is half the fun of collecting. I collect any kind of pictures, any kind of memorabilia – buttons, pins, advertising. Pictures are as hard to come by as the old phones themselves. How many times have you ever taken a camera to work? How many pictures have you got where you work that you kept yourself? Most people don’t ever take a camera to work and like this. So, I spend a great deal of time looking for pictures, memorabilia, anything I can find written. But it’s been a great deal of fun and it’s a great deal of enjoyment. 

And the young kids that came love [the switchboard]. They really, truly do because everything else is is ‘Don’t touch, don’t touch.’ This, they come in after being told ‘Don’t touch, don’t touch, don’t touch,’ this is hands on. And they get to talk in it like this and having a wonderful time, and especially when I ring the phone, I’ll crank it like this.

‘Cause you gotta remember, on a party line, you had a series of rings. I have written proof of 32 people, including three businesses, all on one line. In other words, when it rang in my house, it rang in your house also. So you got 34, 36 different combinations. Two short, one long; one long, three shorts. So every time that phone rang, everybody knew who was getting a call and who wasn’t like this. 

In the small towns, if there was a fire in the town, the operator would reach down and plug in all the lines and just ring continuously. It would ring for probably a minute, minute and a half. And that told everybody in the little town there was a fire or an emergency and where to go from there. Nowadays, if you told everybody you had to have a party line with 32 people, you’d have mass murder. You just couldn’t get along. 

And it’s a shame because there’s so much different history told to me by different people that it’s, it really was amazing. And I started to ask when I do – I do lectures. Quite often I’ll say to them, “Alright, when did you first use a telephone all by yourself?” And I had a lady call and says to me, “The first time I used a phone all by myself is I graduated high school, I called my grandmother on the phone to tell her I was going to graduate.” 

You tell the kids now, and most of them raise their hands because they got a cell phone with them. 5th, 6th graders got them. They all know how to use them and everything else. So technology has really changed the whole world. I don’t know if it’s for the better or not, but it’s here. 

But there’s anywhere you can go with this. If you’re interested, I can have you come to the house. I have about 300 antique telephones in my home. I have books, I have pins, memorabilia, anything to do with telephone history that helps explain the jobs and like this. And as you can see from the chart here, you can go from most anything you want to picture taking telephones. 

When I first started, if you put a phone in, it was good for 15 to 20 years. When I first started in ‘66 here, I spent about an hour and a half Monday morning putting new information in my book. When I retired in 2000, I spent an hour every morning putting new literature in the books. That’s how fast things changed. Fast enough that I don’t believe they can get ‘em printed and get ‘em out in the field before they started changing. 

It’s been a wonderful experience for me. I truly enjoy every minute of it, but I’m a little bit strange, a little bit different, because I sit in my room and look at all my phones and think how lucky I am and all the people I’ve talked with. We had 5th and 6th graders come in whole classes at a time [to the Pratt House], Boy Scouts, Girl Scout troops like this. Every once in a while, I’ll have somebody call me and up and say, “I’m here in your area. I collect phones. I’m out of Nebraska or Wyoming, like this.” I had a gentleman call me up and said, “I’m in Syracuse University. I collect stuff. I’m from Australia.” I went and picked him up, brought him home and we had a wonderful time, and I still send him Christmas cards. It’s never ending, I mean it just continues. 

I belong to two antique clubs and this year I was very fortunate. I added two pieces of the collection that were fairly expensive and two real cheap ones that weren’t expensive. But I’m just as happy with the cheap ones than I am with the other ones just because they’re different, alright? Every time you look at a phone, there are a lot of different shapes and sizes like this. And you can’t collect them all. Some people just collect the candlestick phones like this. Some people just collect the wood phones. I talked with a gentleman out of Oregon. His whole collection is 1918, before. Where mine is a lot newer, like this. Well, they’re new old pieces really. 

And after the change, you can see how things were made. At one time, they were a great deal of time and energy in how they were made. And a few years later, they were much plainer and easier to assemble and like this. So it depends on what you’re looking for and what you find. And I haven’t found anything that I haven’t been interested in. I have watch fobs, I have a jack-knife from a different company that gave it as advertising like this. I have all kinds of things that I’ve collected. 

Most people will tell you it’s better to have a cell phone, like this. They don’t have to worry about being home getting a phone call and like this. To the telephone people, it’s a shame because it was a good place to work, it was a good, steady income. And I have a lot of friends that were telephone people. It depends on how you look at it. 

It was more than just a job to me; it was a career. I enjoyed being an installer. I worked very hard at when I came into your house, to please you, how you wanted everything done. So that’s how I looked at it. It really is a wonderful thing. It really – the telephone industry gave the people a lot. We had to have line trucks, big, heavy construction trucks, we had to have cars for the bosses, we had to have vans for the telephone installer and like this. Then we had to have rain equipment, we had to have this and that. So the telephone industry brought in a lot of business all the way around. We had to have ladders, had to have climbing hooks. We had to have all this, and then quite often, we went to school. There would be a school here, a school there, on how to climb poles safely, how to do first aid and like this. So there was a lot more to it than just saying ‘telephone company.’ It kind of just spread out to all over everything.

I talked to a fella in World War II and he said the telephone man was replaceable real fast because all they do is follow the wire, because every phone you had at that time had a wire come back to the switchboard. So they were expendable. They had phones way back in World War II, or World War I. I have some pictures of the German phones like this. Nowadays, everything is electronic. The only thing I’m worried about being electronic, is if they come in and jam, there’s no communications. 

Desert Storm came up. I was scheduled to go to Desert Storm because I was part of the International Guard. I spent 17 and a half years in International Guard doing telephone work. Desert Storm came up, they were going to take telephone people. At the last minute, they canceled and took radio people. When the colonel came back from Desert Storm, he said to me, “I missed you.” I said, “You did? Why?” He said, “‘Cause we could talk to anybody in the world. We couldn’t talk to the tent nextdoor. If we wanted someone, we had to send a runner to get whoever we needed to talk to.” He said, “I missed your communications.” So, again, there’s a lot to it. 

I got introduced in the Air Force, uh, ‘59. They were going to make me a clerk typist. I said, “This is a mistake. I don’t spell very good. You really don’t want me as a clerk typist.” They said, “Well, we’ll train you.” Well, first day in the class as a clerk typist, I was told that I would never make a clerk typist. At that time, there was a telephone school down at the other end, and it was the school for inside plant. In other words, where all the equipment was that made the phones work, and that’s what I went to school with. 

When I was there, at one time, we had an armed forces day, and they wanted me to put on a display. Well that kind of helped me start to looking for information like this, how to do something like this, and that’s been a wonderful experience. I learned how to display a lot of things and that’s what I do here at the Historical Society. I build the displays. It’s fun for me because I have to learn everything that comes in is different, so I ask the girls, “How does this work, that work?” They gave me a button hook for shoes, and they said, “Here.” And I said, “This is for knitting?” The girl laughed like crazy and they said, “No, it’s to put your shoes on.” And I said, “Come on now. You know I’m gullible, but…” So I had to go find some shoes that I’ve got downstairs with buttons on them. It’s a learning experience everytime you do something here, ‘cause something different comes in. 

I was very fortunate. The military gave me my basic training, ‘cause I climbed poles for … telephone company as a construction person, I learned how to climb like this, to do construction work. And then I came up here as an installer/repairman, and that’s the job that I liked the best. And I was very happy. I enjoyed my work. I’m very, very lucky because a lot of people work for years and years that’s just a job. To me, it was much more than a job. The Air Force gave me training, gave me my hobby, gave me my career, helps pay for my insurance now, and I’m still lecturing; I’m still having fun at it. So I’ve won all the way around. I really have. I knew I couldn’t be a clerk typist, and I knew that I wasn’t ready for college. So the Air Force was very nice to me and I got into a career that went on forever, and it’s still going on. 

Voice: Kassadee Paulo

That was Alec Seymour with Friends of History in Fulton and this has been an episode of “Fulton NY: A History.” Much like many people in Fulton, Alec had a story to share about his passion tied in with Fulton history. If you or someone you know has a story to share, feel free to reach out to my email: [email protected]. Share your thoughts and memories to help preserve this city’s rich history and keep an ear out for next month’s episode.

Music: Traveling to Louisiana by Lobo Loco

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