HOLLENBECK: Old telephone numbers tell priceless stories of another time, another place

Numbers have never been my friend. I embrace words with passion, but numbers are another thing altogether.
Words, their meaning and their usage come to me with little effort, but the same can’t be said for figures, and that would be just about in any form, including old telephone numbers.
Those I use regularly at work are fixed in my brain, but numbers of the past? Not even a dim memory where most are concerned.
The shining exception is the phone number I had when I lived in an apartment in Fayetteville as a young married woman. That number was Hillcrest 2-2287.
I think I can recall it because of the Hillcrest prefix. It was a lot easier to remember phone numbers when we had words and not just digits.
The prefix for Benton numbers was Spring, which represents the 778 that still precedes a lot of numbers. When I first came to work at the Courier, it wasn’t necessary to dial the whole number. All you had to dial was the last number. For example, the Courier number was 778-8228 and people dialed 8-8228 and got right through.
I don’t remember what the prefix was when Cotton Plant first got dial service, but you didn’t have to dial it anyway. If it was a local call, you dialed only the last four digits.
Actually, I go back farther than that. I grew up at a time when we had the old Central system, which was an operator who, via a switchboard, connected you with the person you were calling.
This, obviously, was before we had dial service.
It was a lot like having Sarah on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Whoever was at the helm of that service knew everything about everyone in town and where they were at any given moment.
You could pick up the phone, ask to be connected with a certain person at a certain number, only to be told, “She’s not home. She’s at Elizabeth’s Beauty Shop. I think she’s getting a permanent.”
All of this reminiscing came to the surface recently through a Facebook exchange that was sent to me.
First, I should note that I’m still a Facebook holdout — I know my time is short to resist — but the conversations in this particular exchange had been sent to me because of its subject matter, which was Cotton Plant.
Anyway, the ones taking part were responding to this topic, created by Gail Crafford: “If you grew up in Cotton Plant, you remember ... ,” and of course the responses were varied and many.
One person brought up our old telephone numbers. Now I couldn’t have told you my family’s number if you had stood me before a firing squad. It’s just not in my head.
Polly Churchill Rothenbush, one of my best friends my whole life and who now lives in Florida with her artist husband, dashed off all sorts of numbers, including mine when we were children.
She claims the number at our house was 85. I’ll take her at her word.
Isn’t that cool? Only two digits. Some people had three, but our family, for whatever reason, had only the two.
In that exchange, Polly wrote: “Lynda Lou’s (that would be me) was 85 and ours was 129. That was when the telephone company was in the old Angelo house across from the Methodist Church. I would go down there and Mrs. Quillian would let me connect the plugs.”
She also remembered the follow-up numbers that came with “progress.”
“Our four-digit number was 2981 and the streetcar cafe was 3681,” Polly recalled.
The streetcar cafe she mentioned was her daddy’s restaurant, which, obviously, was set up in an old streetcar on Main Street, a couple of doors down from James Theatre. Leonard Churchill, the charming proprietor, made the best hamburgers there I ever ate in my whole life.
Mary Dale McGregor Christensen, who was part of the Facebook chatter, recalled that her family’s number was 111.
She noted that this was on the “old system” with real operators or Centrals as her grandmother called them. “At one time my Aunt Kate McGregor was an operator. The office was above a building downtown,” she said.
Mary Dale also remembered that her grandfather in Missouri called for the family once and Aunt Kate told him that no one was at home because everyone in town was at the ballgame. “Talk about service,” she said.
Cousin Sissy recalled that her family’s number was 106 and her daddy’s filling station was 160. The number for my father’s veneer mill was 115, Sissy said.
Elizabeth Ann White remembered that the telephone office moved upstairs over Will May’s 5 &10 following its time in the old Angelo house. Her number, at the four-digit-level, was 3094. She didn’t give its predecessor.
George Proctor, who now lives in San Francisco and who sent me the Facebook postings, couldn’t remember his number either, but Elizabeth Ann did. She claims it was 2111.
Wish I could still call every one of them.
Memories ... they’re priceless.
Lynda Hollenbeck is associate editor of The Saline Courier.