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Number Please

John Rico

Automation has decreed oblivion for the telephone operator whose kindly voice of “Number, Please,” delighted many a phone user in our Yesteryear. Molded from a die that has long been discarded, these operators were indoctrinated with a sense of not only responsibility to their chores, but provided a human touch wherever it may have been needed. As a tribute to all of these women of that era we pick one who still resides in Vacaville to carry the banner for the lot. Humorous, kind, accommodating, and with dignity here is the way she approached me the other day:

“Rico, I liked this town when it was smaller. You knew everyone and there was a more friendly atmosphere.” She cares little about the tone of her voice, and some of the words used do not fit into print.

We refer to Ruth Molseed, who today sees the days go by as she meanders about her ranch in the Browns Valley area.

Ruth was feminine in appearance, but masculine in her endeavors. “When I was 15 years of age I hired out to follow a team and walking plow and did work for many of the Vacaville area fruit growers.” she confided.

“Then came my big break, they wanted a telephone operator to work nights, so I accepted the job at $2 a night. That was back in 1921.

“Boy, what followed in the next 32 years that I was employed on night shift could fill several books. Naturally, not having any fancy apparatus, we would have to listen in once in a while to determine if the party was through talking, and often we heard things we did not want to hear, and at times we were delighted to hear.”

When Ruth Molseed started in with Pacific Telephone, the exchange was located in what was known as the Schroeder & Fraham building at the corner of Main and Dobbins Streets, where Cal Sample is now located. A disastrous fire later destroyed the building, along with Collier’s hardware store, the telephone exchange building, the Masonic Lodge hail upstairs, Dr. Warren Jenney’s office, and Cecelia Clark’s Beauty shop, both upstairs. The company hurriedly moved the exchange across the street to a new location where Frank’s Cycle Shop is.

But buildings and equipment are not a part of this story. It has to do with people, especially telephone operators of that day.

“One night, I was always alone as the night operator on the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, I heard a shot at the back door. I stepped out and there was a dead Chinaman with a hole in his head. He had committed suicide,” she continued her experiences.

“As for coffee breaks and a midnight meal break, phooey, that was unheard of. If I had something at home to make a sandwich, I would, if not I went without, and in order to eat the sandwich it had to be done while operating the switchboard and continuing ‘Number Please.’

The telephone company had different policies in those days than they have today. We took all of the fire calls for the fire department, and had the siren switch alongside the switchboard. When firemen arrived at the firehouse, they would call the phone office to find out where the fire was. I can remember one night when the siren wouldn’t go off so I started to call all of the firemen on the phone and told then to get down to the fire.

“On many occasions I would act as a ‘bird dog’ for the doctors, and whenever someone needed a doctor in a hurry I would make calls around town and find one. One night I got in contact with a doctor who was in the wrong mood, and he tried like hell to get me fired.

“The nights were long, and there was only about an average of 20 calls for the night shift. We would welcome visitors to come in and sit with us so that the nights would pass more readily, and we would chew the fat in between ‘Number Please.

Those were the days of trial and tribulations, days of wanting to work and to be of service. Ruth Molseed came to town from her mother’s Brown Valley ranch on horseback, in all kinds of weather. She would park the animal at Duncan’s Livery Stable, or some other p1ace, and then make the ride back home after her eight hour shift at the phone office.

Ruth paid tribute to many women who filled the same capacity, on both the day and night shifts. We want to echo her praises for all of these women. They were humanitarians first, and phone operators second