Looking Back



Onoway Central At Your Service!

SwitchboardA recent donation of a telephone switchboard to the Onoway Museum caused members of the Historical Guild to think back to the days when having a telephone in your home was quite a privilege, and hearing the phone ring was drop-everything-and-answer-the-phone event. Depending on whether you were on a party line or in town, receiving that call could mean that there was an operator sitting at a switchboard and plugging the right cable into the right slot.


A far cry from today’s ubiquitous, inescapable smart phone or iPhone.


Longbox wall phoneThe first phones in the area were wooden longbox phones that were attached to the wall. The wooden box hid the transmitter and batteries. Later wall phones were more compact when batteries were no longer needed, a dial replaced the operator, and the handset combined both the receiver and transmitter.

Desk phones made of Bakelite plastic made their appearance in the 1930s but didn’t reach rural Alberta until the late 1950s. These phones had a rotary dial, and soon were available in many colours. Touchtone phones were the next step forward.


Onoway was “Central” so to make a call, you picked up the receiver with one hand, turned the crank with the other hand to ring “Central”. When the operator answered, you asked for the number you wanted, then waited while she put the right plug in the right hole, then rang that number and waited until there was a response. Rural phone companies were usually party lines but they still had to call “Central” to make a long distance call.


Onoway Museum is looking for more information about the early phone systems and switchboard operators. Who were they? What did the office look like? It was a 24-hour service, so what were the shifts? Any photos of the operators at work? If you have any stories or information about Onoway’s phone system, leave a message at 780.967.1015. We’ll get back to you (by phone) asap. We look forward to learning more about this part of Onoway’s history.

Wall rotary phone
Rotary phone
Rotary phone

Touchtone phone with sound
Touchtone phone with sound control
Wall rotary phone


 Return to Home Page
 Last updated: October 26, 2014