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This is a true story!
The storm is not imaginary. It's a
composite of all the winter storms which challenged Archie and his
fellow Telephone Men in the Alberta of fifty years ago..
Only one fact has been altered. Bill Craswell became agent at
Perryvale in 1935, slightly past the time of the story.
Copyright 1977 by the Alberta Government Telephones Commission.
Archie listened to the wind. Inside his workshop gentle air currents
carried warmth and cheer from the pot-bellied stove and Archie
didn't feel the wind, except when it rattled the chimney or tugged
at the window. With his finely-tuned ear Archie made a note of the
wind's pitch. Still rising, he thought.
The storm had come at noon, surging in from the west, churning thick
woolen clouds which made the sky so dark the lights had been on all
day. By midafternoon snow was riding the wind, blotting out half the
view in Archie's window.
The whine of a storm came to Archie as the alarm bell did to a
fireman. But there was a difference. The alarm sent the fireman into
instant action; in Archie's case it was delayed action. He couldn't
begin his work until the wind blew itself out. So he relaxed and
smoked and joked, planning what he would do when the wind was still
and he could step out into the wintered landscape to do his job.
Archie's job was with Alberta Government Telephones. He was known as
a District Plant Inspector, and fifty years ago, the time of this
story, a storm could make Archie's job the most important in the
In the telephone business, the plant is the physical part of the
system, all the telephones, switchboards and lines which connect
them. In his district the inspector had to maintain and repair the
entire system, all of it, all by himself. There were only
twenty-five District Plant Inspectors in Alberta. Archie lived in Westlock and his district was eight thousand square miles: 40 miles
west to the Pembina River, 30 miles southeast to Legal, 80 miles
north to Athabasca and Calling Lake, and east from there again to
Lac La Biche.
The wind that rattled Archie's workshop was shaking and worrying a
network of wires - copper and iron strung on wooden poles - which
the young province of Alberta had built to combat the isolation of
pioneer life. Alberta's first elected assembly had pledged the
credit of the new province to a program of making the telephone
available to every farm. That network of wire, unrolling mile after
mile down the raw, rutted trails, meant more than a telephone
system. It meant that the new technology of electricity had been put
to work on a scale wide as the province, and for the first time.
Those were all telephone poles along the country roads. There'd be
no power poles on the other side for years to come.
The telephone system stood tall and proud against the sky,
but exposed to the elements, at the mercy of every wind that blew,
and a splendid example was blowing now. Out in the turbulent dusk
those unprotected wires were being bounced like skipping ropes, they
were sawing at the glass insulators which held them to the poles,
and the poles were being shaken to their roots. Archie didn't know
yet where his repair work would take him but the snow was making his
job more complicated. It was packing in drifts across the roads and
trails he'd have to follow in the storm's wake. He cupped his eyes
to the window to watch the hard little flakes go knifing past, and
dance in eddies / under the eave. This storm could never blow itself
out in Alberta. It would need Saskatchewan and Manitoba as well.
Before the storm moved out of Archie's district it would tangle
wires and snap others. It would blow down trees and some would fall
across telephone lines. It would crack poles and bring them to the
ground and bury them in snow. Wherever these things happened,
isolation would return, and when the fury passed all would be
depending on Archie: the farmers, the merchants, his bosses in
Edmonton, the politicians who'd made the fiery speeches back in 1907
when Alberta legislature voted to build a provincial telephone
They knew Archie and knew he'd be coming. In any district there was
no man better known than the telephone man. No one was up and down
the roads more often, maintaining the lines, the switchboards and
telephones in town and farm house. It was hard work, and as everyone
knows, all work and no play is dull, so Archie brightened things by
finding fun in the little jobs that made up his work. One of these
jobs was cleaning switchboards, which became dusty and oily inside
from the continual raising and dropping of the cords. The vacuum
cleaner had been invented and would have been ideal for drawing out
the dust but A.G.T. could not afford to buy Archie anything so
grand. He had to employ the most primitive technology, a hand
bellows, which blew the dust right through and out the front - into
the faces of the operators. Archie laughed when the girls squealed
Once or twice a year Archie would visit each farmhouse in the
district and put fresh batteries in the big oak telephone on the
kitchen wall. The farms were on party lines, a single pair of wires
with anywhere from 10 to 25 farms attached. Each house on the party
line had its own coded ring. Using the crank on the side of the
phone callers would send out three short rings or five long rings or
two shorts and a long. When any party was called the phone would
ring in all 25 farmhouses on the line. Every call, for whomever
intended, gave assurance of neighbors, people within reach in case
of emergency or extreme loneliness, and in the pre-telephone days
extreme loneliness could bring an emergency devastating as any. Some
people found entertainment eavesdropping on conversations and Archie
knew who they were. Their batteries wore out quicker.
They didn't realize that listening drew as much current from the
batteries as talking. And they couldn't understand why the sound was
weak when the ring was still strong. That was because they were two
different systems. Talk was transmitted by direct current (DC) from
the batteries; the long and short rings travelled by alternating
current (AC) which the caller generated turning the crank.
Something else besides eavesdropping could cause premature weakening
of the batteries. In most farmhouses the only electric appliance was
the telephone, but if there was a second it would be the latest
invention for combating isolation. That was the radio. Radios ran on
batteries. Batteries out of the phone could help a farmer hear CFCN
or CJCA or the big American stations in Denver and Salt Lake City.
Copyright © 2004
Heritage Community Foundation and
Telephone Historical Centre All Rights Reserved