From the Files of the Rochester Historical Society

Today, many of the younger generations know phones as an essential item to carry with them to use as cameras, text, and store all the essential aspects of life. A landline phone, particularly one with a dial, is an antique to be puzzled over. However, older residents of Rochester remember not just landlines with easily accessible human operators but also party lines. My mother told stories of calling home from college in Boston to let her father know when to pick her up from the train in Bridgewater. The operator would say that her father was at the Mill, but she’d make sure that he got the message.

            A party line was a phone line shared by many households, each of which had its own ring. If you picked up at the first ring (something we did as kids visiting our grandmother), you would be told to hang up. You had to see if it would be two short rings or a short and a long, or some other variation to avoid eavesdropping on a neighbor’s conversation.

            Rochester’s first phone system was set up by the proprietor of McGilvaray’s Grocery Store at 240 Mattapoisett Road in the mid-19th century. He strung wires from his store to his most frequent customers’ homes so they could call in their orders. (Sounds like the original online shopping). The building pictured alongside this article is at the intersection of Snipatuit Road and North Avenue. Here was the office of the Rochester Telephone Exchange from the early 1900s to 1950. In the front room, operators sat at their stations connecting callers. Some of the lines had up to 24 customers.

            The phone company is only part of the building’s exciting history. The original owner was John King, and in 1830 it was a Methodist Meetinghouse. By 1832, it began its life as a store. For many years it contained a general store with a series of owners. It also was home to the North Rochester Post Office for some years during the 1800s. In 1889, the large building was used for a Rotation Town Meeting in an attempt to appease outlying residents who complained about the long trip to Rochester Center.

            In addition to King, some of the others who operated the store at 289 North Avenue were Hiram Waldron, Albert Reed, and George Allen. When Allen owned the building, he converted it into a home with the store in the basement having a direct entry from the street. After 1957, the telephone exchange moved to another building on North Avenue closer to the New Bedford Waterworks.

            Barbara Besse and her family have lived there for many years. After 1957, she operated an antique store there into the 1970s.

By Connie Eshbach

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