Ma Bell's Place
by Vic Sumner
Reprinted from "Crown Jewels of the Wire", November 1987, page 17
CHARGE AND DISCHARGE
The Farmers' Mutual Telephone Company needed a troubleman. Someone who could
do it all, for the farmers were sick and tired of the poor service on their
owner maintained lines. After all, it was 1909 and who could expect farmers to
understand the hi-tech world of the telephone. Along came Billy McGill who was
just the ticket. With his experience and credentials, it was evident he knew the
telephone business from the switchboard to the last wooden wall-set on the end
of their twenty-eight party line. During Billy's first day on the job, he had
the opportunity to prove his full measure of resourcefulness as well.
Returning from a long, hot, buggy ride into the county, the company mule,
"Discharge", decided to give her new master a lesson in what mules do
best...balking. She picked a shady spot, halted, and spread her legs. As any
muleskinner knows, this was her way of saying, "I QUIT!"
Billy tried all the traditional ploys to get her going again. Slapping the
reins and a green sapling across the rump failed to budge that four-legged
critter. She remained as immobile as a dead battery, an item she had often been
compared to, which resulted in her peculiar name, "Discharge."
Billy was not one to surrender, especially to a hayburner, so he decided a
little electronic psychology was in order. Acquiring a pail of water at a nearby
farm, and a very curious farmer, he applied the liquid to Discharge's collar. He
then laid out two bare copper wires from the buggy which he placed under the
dripping collar next to the mule's dripping skin. Next, he took a magneto ringer
set out of the rear and attached the other ends of the wire to the line
Making sure he was firmly seated, he took the reins in one hand and the
magneto crank in the other. Warning the now totally perplexed farmer to stand
clear, he gave the crank a mighty spin. Two things were immediately evident.
First the telephone bell began ringing and a split second later, Discharge was
"charging" headlong for town.
Never again did Billy face the aggravation of a balking mule. When old
Discharge showed signs of slowing down all Billy had to do was crank up any
handy magneto, and when the mule heard the bell she increased her gait.
Another and wholly unexpected benefit came from the above. It seems the
mystified farmer, who had witnessed Discharge's shocking experience, couldn't
wait to get to town to sign up for a spare telephone so he too could enjoy an
uninterrupted wagon trip to town behind his two formerly intractable mules.
As word spread, so did sales of extra sets. Soon every farmer had two. A
stationary one in the kitchen and one in the wagon. Was this the birth of the
Another tale along similar lines is told by my friend, Forrest Green, who
served as a traveling switchboard repairman.
"In 1917 while making a long mountain drive, one horse of my team fell
down in the road on a steep, narrow grade. The horse seemed tired and failed to
do his part from the first, and more time was spent on the road than should have
been used, on account of favoring the slow horse. Coming back to my story: When
the horse fell he seemed to die in a very short time -- at least I pronounced
him dead, as on lifting his eyelid I could see that a blue film had covered the
eye, and on feeling near the heart I could not detect any movement and last, his
joints were stiff and I think any veterinary would have said that rigor mortis
had set in. So satisfied was I that the horse was dead that I took my test-set
and called the livery stable (forty miles away) from a toll pole, and asked for
On coming back to the rig, I found that I could not get it off the road and
as I did not have a lantern with me and it was ten miles from a house, it was
too dangerous to leave the rig in the road. So I made one more test on the horse
with a 17A test-set by putting one clip of the set on the horse's bit and the
other clip I attached to a piece of bare copper wire I had suspended from the
base of the horse's tail. Everything ready, I turned the test-set switch to
position marked 'ring', and rapidly turned the generator handle, and in less
than five minutes I noticed the horse's nose move slightly. In fifteen minutes
the horse was on his feet, hitched up, and I was on my way, but the test-set was
still attached to the horse, and every time he faltered he got a few turns of
I made Rockville, my stopping place that night. At 2 a.m. the livery man came
with my extra horse, but there was no need for him, as the horse that died (?)
was in better condition for the road than the one that was brought to take his
I was in touch with the livery man for sometime after, and they reported the
horse was the spunkiest in their herd."
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