Ponoka’s ‘Hello Girls’ were the talk of the town

When good old Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876 he had absolutely no idea of what overwhelming effect it would have for our entire world. After a little more than an exciting century we have gone from crank phones, party lines and petite and polite operators, to a communication system of multi-purpose cell and satellite phones, IPods, Internet, and total electronic mayhem.

The first phone likely rang sharply in this area in the early 1900s, controlled by two toll-stations at the Water Glen and Asker Stores, and operating through a head office in Wetaskiwin. Shortly after the first skinny telephone pole was installed across the street from the Royal Hotel in 1903, the Bell Telephone Company crews began constructing lines north and south from Ponoka. Our first telephone exchange was set up in Campbell’s Drug Store on Chipman Avenue, where an ambitious Lily Sayers Goodman doubled as the operator and store clerk.

As surrounding towns and districts grew rapidly, the requests for the new telephone services were overwhelming, and in April of 1908 after an all-out war between Bell and Alberta Government Telephones, a fledgling provincial government would take over the lucrative business.

Some of the early operators at the old Ponoka Telephone office were: Amy Turner, Esther Woyen, Miss Conrad, and a long list of young ladies. Expansion was slow at first, with only three boards in operation in 1950 with a staff of five that was led by Chief Operator Gertie Krefting and included Marion Williams Rosengren, Lois Young Clark, Inez Torgerson, and Grace Cleveland Walton. Besides answering all the calls from an ever-growing list of town and rural customers, these congenial Ponoka telephone operators were responsible for ringing the noon, 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. curfew siren, turning on the red light to summon the local police, and activating the fire alarm siren or calling an ambulance or doctor when an emergency call came in. One long ring would mean that everyone responded, and when a call went in for the fire department all the boards would suddenly light up to find out where the fire was.

Significant changes were made to the local system starting in 1954, with District Plant Inspector Carl Fuhr joining the staff to supervise and maintain the installation of new and improved call boards that would eventually reach a total of nine in operation by 1959. In the early days of this telephone system, married ladies were not hired as operators, but that changed quickly in the mid-Fifties. There was also a strict dress code for the staff, which meant no slacks worn without approval of head office — which only came during the Ponoka Stampede.

Many weird and wonderful calls came over those busy phone lines each and every day and night, and the operator pool was sworn to an oath of secrecy as to what they had heard, which likely including lots of hot and juicy gossip and cussing.

From the early Fifties and through to the Seventies, more operators were hired to fill the great demand, reaching a total of 26 full-time and four or five part-time, all sharing eight-hour shifts on a 24-7 basis. The ongoing duties of these fine young ladies included much more than just putting through regular calls, having to act very quickly on community emergencies, requests, and information, and looking up numbers for those who couldn’t remember or were to lazy to find themselves. They were also responsible for the many pay phones throughout the area, station-to-station long distance calls, learning the new dial system at the Alberta Hospital, collecting the monthly phone bills, and for disconnecting those who were in arrears, stayed to long on the party line, or were quite often rude. Those operators were even occasionally entertained or courted by callers who read poetry or played an assortment of music to them along the party line — so their work was never boring.

At the peak of the Ponoka Alberta Government Telephone operation in the 1960s there were more than 3,000 customers in the community, as well as a growing list of clients along the ever-expanding rural lines. Their wages for an eight-hour shift averaged $10 a day plus 50 cents an hour for overtime. Through it all they always worked together as a closely-knit team, and enjoyed countless social activities such as family picnics at the Gull Lake cabin, parties and a winning softball team, coached by Carl Fuhr. The ladies would be confined to that tiny office for many long hours, but were allowed time for a snack and coffee, and were always watched over carefully by regular visits from members of the police department.

On June 5, 1960 dial phones arrived in Ponoka, but in so many cases progress will suffer its drawbacks. This new modern communication system would soon mean the end of an exciting era, and the loss of local telephone operators, which finally came with the switch to Direct Distance Dialing on Oct. 7, 1962.

To cherish and maintain the many fond memories of their busy and glorious years together as operators, supervisors, technicians, and friends at the Ponoka AGT office a gala reunion has been hosted for those surviving staff members every few years. It has been 35 long years since our ‘Hello Girls’ (and Carl) closed shop, but they will never forget the great times and experiences that they had together, as well as the congenial and vital services that they provided our town and county for so many years.

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