Bygone Technology: The Party Line

I recently celebrated the anniversary of my birth 65 years ago. I am also the longest-tenured employee of the Peninsula Pulse and have been around Door County since 1970, before most of our staff was even born.

Given these facts, I occasionally regale my coworkers with stories and details of what Door County was like many years ago. While I assumed that I was largely boring my peers, it turns out that at least one member of the staff thought I should write some of these memories down, and, given the fact that this individual signs my paycheck, I felt I should oblige. Thus, the following.

As Door County works to bring broadband internet service to the peninsula, I have been reflecting on what “technology” in the county was like during the 1970s. My parents bought their home in Ephraim in 1974, and my mother and sisters moved to the village full time in 1975. Among the many adjustments we all made (particularly my sisters) was getting used to our phone line being a “party line.” 

For those who are unfamiliar with a party line (now long gone, thankfully), having one meant that we shared our phone line with several neighbors. And that meant that when we went to make a call, we frequently found someone else already having a conversation when we picked up the handpiece. Of course, etiquette dictated that we hang up immediately, and we would then wait five to 10 minutes before trying again to make our call. If we were lucky, the phone would be free. If not, we repeated the process until the phone line did become free.

Obviously, the inconvenience of this service was enormous, particularly if teenagers were part of the group sharing the line. And, of course, there were always the times when you picked up the phone, discovered someone else on the line, and – before you could carefully replace the handset – heard something that you wished you had never heard.

We were able to rid our home of the party line and step up to a dedicated line of our own when my mother started helping out Paul and Kay Wilson with off-season reservations for the Anderson Hotel – the hotel being a story I might share at some point in the future.

Another “interesting” thing about the phone service in the ’70s was that you often needed to dial only five numbers. The population of Northern Door was considerably smaller in that decade, so if my phone number started with the 854 prefix and I was dialing a number with the same prefix, I needed to enter only the 4 and then the last four numbers to complete the call. Likewise, if my number was an 839 prefix and I dialed a number with the same prefix, I needed to dial only the 9 and the last four numbers.

This was not true for Sturgeon Bay, which was just the 743 prefix in those days. (The 746 prefix in Sturgeon Bay was not introduced until July of 1997, and for many years, having a 743 prefix was considered a badge of honor by local businesses.)

And, as you have no doubt surmised by now, if I was in the 854 prefix and wanted to dial an 868 prefix, I had to dial all seven digits.

One other note on the county’s phone service back then: All calls to Sturgeon Bay from any of the prefixes starting with 8 was long distance, which – for those too young to know about long-distance calling – meant there was an additional charge. Dialing Washington Island from anywhere was also long distance, and, of course, that also meant that every call an islander placed to anyone off the island was long distance.

When I continue this reflection on Door County’s bygone technology, I will remember the television options – or lack of options – on the Door peninsula during the late 1970s.