Living the Full Life in the Caroline Valley

Transcribed for the Tompkins Co., NYGenWeb

Found in an old newspaper clipping, Author Unknown


Scudding clouds, alternately threatening and benign, rolled up as I headed into the Caroline Valley.
I looked toward Bald Hill to see it suddenly illumined in a radiant aura as the sun broke through a cloud rift.
And then ahead a patch of blue sky grew to proportions suitable for the proverbial "Pair of Dutchmanís britches."

There is a lot of talk these days about community service and out in the Caroline Hills this week I found two records of service that would be hard to beat for their sustained effort and rare human quality.

Mrs. Esther Head has manned the telephone switchboard in Slaterville Springs for over 40 years and Mrs. Alexandra Sinski for 33 years has dispensed kindly understanding as well as groceries from her little store in Caroline.

* * *

Mrs. Head has always lived in the Caroline Valley. Her great-grandfather, Nathaniel Martin Tobey, came from Massachusetts to Caroline in 1810 and built many New England-type houses. Today a descendant still bears his name, Master Nathaniel Martin Tobey, 4, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Rodney Tobey, 126 Hawthorne Place, Ithaca.

"I don't think you can find any story in me," Mrs. Head said, when we were seated in the living room Ďadjacent to the switchboard. And perhaps the high point of her story is that she doesn't dwell on a few particular dramatic episodes. She has had the happy faculty of finding a measure of satisfaction and stimulation in each day so that the 40-year panorama has interest for her as a whole.

Mrs. Head was not the first operator on the exchange. She took over in 1911 after the company had been active for some 10 years. The office is in part of her home and has been in present location for 28 years.

There were a couple of switches in ownership, but Charles Jones has headed the Caroline Farmersí Telephone Company since 1919. When Mrs. Head came on duty there were some 150 subscribers on several lines. The list now averages 350 on 45 lines.

"The system then seems awfully funny now," Mrs. Head said. "When I started there was no alphabetical listing of names. Subscribers were listed according to the line they were on. If someone making a call or the operator didn't know where a party lived there was no way to locate them without going through the subscriber list line by line.

On the switchboard, each line had a series of little bells like those on top of an old-time alarm clock. If a bell stopped ringing before the operator reached the board, a guessing game began.

"The code for ringing was worked out to follow the Morse code as nearly as possible," Mrs. Head explained. "I soon learned to distinguish the difference in the bells and could get up in the middle of the night and go directly to the right one.

Having weathered two wars, a depression, a severe flood and emergency fire and medical calls, Mrs. Head said, with a chuckle, " I guess my biggest thrill was when I put my first call through to California." It was when Kenneth Crispell was studying medicine in Ann Arbor. At vacation time he brought home a friend who called his mother in Fresno.

It's an old story now with local boys and girls scattered all over the world. A call from Kenneth when he was in Germany and one from Wessels Middaugh from Austria when he was on an agricultural mission with ECA, she particularly remembers.

* * *

There has never been a general alarm put on the line except for fire. "We have had some big ones," she said. The once famous Magnetic Springs House burned in 1911 and the Fountain House later, wiping out two fine, old landmarks.

Over a period of years calls have come through for "the cement plant in Besemer." There never has been such a plant at Besemer and Mrs. Head can find Besemer exchange in New York State so she is still trying to solve the mystery of where the call should be directed.

"In all my 41 years, I never had but one person refuse to give up a line when asked," she said.

Sometimes when I know a call is important I break into a casual conversation and then hook it up later."

"They don't mind, I just say "Girls Iíll have to have the line a minute, then Iíll connect you again!"

"The first day I sat down at the switchboard, I was fascinated," Mrs. Head said, leaning back in her rocker and sitting quietly as her thoughts traveled back. "It still excites me. I've never lost that feeling of fascination. When you've seen people born, grow up, and get married-when you have been with them through their sorrows and happiness, it means a lot."

A modest little woman, Mrs. Head. She would probably be surprised at some of the comments I have heard about her. They go like this: "She's the most wonderful person;" "I just love her;" "She's always so good natured and so helpful." And as I munched a sandwich at "Mom" (Mrs. Bessie) Barnsís little restaurant, she said, "Mrs. Head's just wonderful, so accommodating and never cross."

Transcribed by Janet M. Nash
© 2000 Copyright by Janet M. Nash All Rights Reserved

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