The Switchboard Operator

Just about everybody this day and time owns a cell phone, and if you don't have one, you're definitely considered a member of a minority group. With just the touch of a button, wherever you happen to be, a person can get in touch with someone in another part of the world, something that not too many years ago was unheard of. The telephone system has come a long way since the days of the switchboard operator. I had the opportunity recently to met someone whose family was at one time involved in the operation of Livingston's first telephone company, a business called the Home Telephone Company. That lady is Mrs. Dorothy McAlpin Armour. She celebrated her 94th birthday this past August 16th. Walnut Grove community was her home for many years, but for the past 68 years, she has made her home in Rockwood, Tennessee. Her parents, Virgil and Laura (Abney) McAlpin, had nine children. She was number six of those children. Her father, Virgil McAlpin, would never have been accused of having idle time on his hands. Aside from owning Livingston's first telephone company, he also, at various times in his life (and not necessarily in the order listed here), taught singing school, operated the poor house, had a mail route, served as a constable, a deputy sheriff, ran a taxi service all the way to the state of Michigan, owned a service station, and worked as a substitute mail carrier. I'm sure I have not covered everything he was involved in, but this gives a pretty good idea of what a busy person he was.

During the years the McAlpin family operated the Home Telephone Company, it was located in the same building that now houses Rocky Top Realty on the corner of Henson and North Church Streets here in Livingston. It was required then that whoever operated the phone company live on the premises. Virgil McAlpin bought the business from Henry Moore, the person Dorothy believes started the phone company. While operating the telephone company, there were five members of the McAlpin family living in the home. All five (including Dorothy's two brothers, Buster and Earl) sometimes helped with the daily operation of the switchboard, but it was Dorothy who took care of most of the calls. They opened early each day and closed usually around 8:00 p.m. each night. Sundays were for emergency calls only. If anyone had an urgent matter on a Sunday, five rings from a caller let the McAlpin household know something was wrong. Repairmen who looked after problems with the telephone lines were Earl McAlpin, Abi Gore, and Bill Watkins. The rate of pay for Dorothy and the other family members was ten cents an hour. Dorothy was only 16 years old when she started working as a switchboard operator.


94 red roses mark the birthday of Dorothy McAlpin Armour who once served as a switchboard operator for Livingston's first telephone company.

Some three years after the McAlpin family began operating the Home Telephone Company, it was bought by Ed Knight and relocated to West Main Street. The name was also changed to Southern Continental Telephone Company, and long distance service was added. Calls to Celina and Jamestown were not considered long distance at that time. The charge for telephone service was .65 cents a month. Other switchboards were operated in the Allons, Oakley, Windle, and the Hilham communities. Dorothy remembered that Nettie Robbins, a blind lady, was the switchboard operator at Hilham, while Sallie and Lorrie Watkins maintained the one at Allons.

Some days were extremely busy ones for Dorothy while taking telephone calls, and others allowed her time to piece together some quilt tops. She still has one quilt she pieced together while sitting at the switchboard.

Some of the families (but certainly not all) Dorothy remembers having telephone service in their homes were Alfred Windle; Perry Windle; Irene and Ruth Lee Mitchell; Charlie Mitchell; the Mofield family; L.P. Jernigan family; Jess Fleming; Dr. Capps; Dr. Qualls; Dr. Breeding; Dr.
M.J. Qualls; Dr. Dowell; Jim Myers; Ed Knight; Turley Knight, Bro. Henry Geiger; Blount Funeral Home; and Roy Carr. Dorothy sometimes had the opportunity to visit over the telephone on less busy days, and one person she remembers talking quite often to was Mrs. Alfred Windle.
Although their friendship developed through the telephone, and Dorothy considered Mrs. Windle a good friend, they never had the opportunity to meet in person. Another person Dorothy talked quite often to was Mrs. Roy Carr.

Dorothy remembered the day the German dirigible, the "Graf Zeppelin", was visible over Livingston. The date was October 25, 1933. The first person to call her telling her to run outside and see this historic event taking place overhead was Mrs. Ruth Dowell, wife of Dr. C.H. Dowell, a dentist in Livingston. As she started for the door, another call came in. She returned to the switchboard to take the call only to hear another person's voice telling her to run outside and see the Zeppelin. Over and over again, just as she hung up from one call, another call would come in, and just as the Zeppelin was about to disappear from view, she was able to finally catch a glimpse of it.

I asked Dorothy if she ever felt really tied down and bored with her job as a switchboard operator. She replied that yes, she was tied down, but she did have an opportunity sometimes to get away for a little while. With a laugh and a big smile, she remembered how on one occasion, she had asked her brother, Buster, to fill in long enough for her to attend a ball game at Monroe. He promised he would take care of the switchboard while she was gone, but just as she and the girlfriend she was going to the ball game with got to Monroe, who did they see on the road there too? None other than Buster. She asked her friend to take her back to Livingston, worried that the switchboard was unattended. And who was sitting there taking calls when they returned? It was Buster! He beat them back to Livingston.

Although Dorothy worked around eight years as a switchboard operator, she later helped her father for a while when he served as superintendent of the county home, or the poor house as it was always known. Dorothy had married by this time and she and her husband had moved to Indiana
when her dad asked that she return to Livingston to help him. In fact, Dorothy's son, Johnny Ward Cole, was born while she was working at the poor house. She told me she likes to tease her son by reminding him he began his life in the poor house.

Dorothy poses at a switchboard similar to the one she used while working for Livingston's Home Telephone Company.

  Dorothy visits in Livingston quite often with her niece, Naomi White, and great-nieces, Patricia Stephens and Venita Lightsey. A big birthday celebration was held in August of this year at her home in Rockwood to celebrate Dorothy's reaching 94 years. A huge bouquet of 94 red roses
was presented to her, but what she seemed to like best of all the gifts she received that day was 30 fried apple pies Venita made especially for her.

One of Dorothy’s very favorite past times is playing cards. She told me when she was young, her mother was afraid what their father would say when he found out his children learned to play cards while he was away from home once. But when he given that news, he surprised them all by saying he was glad they had learned how because the whole family could all play together, and they did. The McAlpin home was the neighborhood gathering place, especially on Saturday nights, something Virgil McAlpin encouraged.

He said that was a good way to keep a close eye on your own children, and helped to keep them pointed in the right direction. Playing cards continues today to be something not only Dorothy enjoys, but many of the family members share an interest in as well. They described themselves as a "card playing family."

Many changes have taken place in our world since the days when Dorothy sat at the switchboard taking calls all day long, but she, like a few other diehards, remain in that minority of being cellphoneless today. But no doubt she's doing just fine without one. Besides, who wants to be
interrupted with a cell phone call right in the middle of a good card game? Not you, huh Dorothy!