It’s all downstream from here

6 May

The month of May reminds me of a set of rapids. Not the insane Raisin River Race variety. More like the unexpected rocky rushes my friend and I encountered on last week’s canoe trip down a small section of the Beaudette. We paddle lazily along through the false spring of April, ignoring the slight shift in the sound of the river of time ahead. Then, all of a sudden, our pace shifts suddenly from decidedly lazy to frantically busy as we struggle to stay on course.

As I peer ahead, I can see a shimmer of eddies forming around the Victoria Day weekend. In that short four-day period alone, Dunvegan will see a Euchre Luncheon on Friday, May 15th, the annual Ham Supper at the Kenyon Presbyterian Church Hall on Saturday, May 16th and the grand opening of the Glengarry Pioneer Museum’s 53rd season. And this doesn’t include the flurry of home- and farm-centered activities from pool openings to planting.

I’ll save specific details of the public events planned for the Dunvegan area until next week’s column, but rest assured the summer rush is about to begin.

Long… short… long

I can still remember the ring that heralded calls when I had party line phone while living by a lake in the Laurentians northeast of Lachute, Quebec. Close to fifty years later, it’s a concept that is totally foreign to the majority of Canadians.

Multi-party lines were the norm when telephone service started becoming widespread in the late 1800s. And while the practice was gradually phased out for urban subscribers, party lines were a cost-saving option (often the only option) for those living in small towns and rural areas for much of the 1900s. The main impetus for replacing party lines with single subscriber lines was the growing demand for answering machines and computer modems in the latter half of the 20th century. These technologies were totally incompatible with party line phones.

As the Wikipedia article on Party Line (Telephony) points out: “Party lines provided no privacy in communication. They were frequently used as a source of entertainment and gossip, as well as a means of quickly alerting entire neighbourhoods of emergencies such as fires, becoming a cultural fixture of rural areas for many decades.”

As evidence of this, while researching this piece, I came across a link to an article in the May 1, 1956 issue of the Washington Afro-American that reported a public utilities commissioner in the state of Mississippi had asked Southern Bell to segregate party telephone lines by race. To their credit, Southern Bell’s response was, “We’ve got no way of knowing what a customers’ race is. A customer to us is just a customer, colored or white. We are a public utility.”

The idea of sharing a phone line with it’s own distinctive ring tone and the guilt-ridden pleasure of being able to eavesdrop on other people’s calls, has all but gone the way of the buggy whip. Except in Dunvegan, of course.

I had heard that there was at least one party-line phone still in operation in the Dunvegan area… at the Glengarry Pioneer Museum. So I checked with the Museum’s curator, Jennifer Black.

“It’s hard to believe, but yes, it’s true, the museum is still on a party line,” she replied with a sigh.

She tells everyone that it’s a party of one. They don’t share it with anyone, at least that they are aware of. “When I started working at the museum,” said Jennifer, “one of the Committee members researched alternatives and in the end it was decided to leave the line as it was since it was cheaper than a business line.”

Nevertheless, the savings do come with some disadvantages.

First of all, party line phones are not digital. With today’s push-button phones, they still use the old “pulse” technology that converts each button push to the signal or “ring” a rotary dial phone would generate.

This quaint, archaic technology isn’t really a problem most of the time… except when they’re making a call that requires one to make keypad inputs, like push 1 to continue in English or press 3 for Accounting or 4 for Sales. For these calls, they have to use a cell phone.

“We also have the pleasure of talking to a real live operator every time we make a long distance call,” reports Jennifer. “We have to tell them what our phone number is, so they know which account to charge for the long distance call.” Finding a live operator can’t be easy for Bell as it often takes up to eight rings before the she or he comes on.

A couple summers ago, Jennifer called Bell for information on other telephone options that were available to the Museum. Not surprisingly, none of the Bell customer service representatives knew what a party line was. “They must have thought I was crazy and didn’t know what I was talking about,” Jennifer said. Although, Jennifer suspects (as I do) that their “Your Call is Important to Us” centre was located on the other side of the globe, which probably didn’t help.

I did ask, but since it’s a party of one, Jennifer didn’t have any funny stories of people listening in.

Dunveganite offers energy savings

I was pleased to hear that Dunvegan is home to a new business venture: MacLeod Spray Foam Insulation. When he was frost seeding our east field a little while ago, Kenny MacLeod mentioned that his son, Ryan, was starting a foam insulation business. And this was confirmed last week when we found Ryan’s flyer in our mailbox.

I’m a great fan of spray foam insulation, ever since Terry and I saw how it completely transformed the rubble foundation of a heritage stone building the late Kenneth MacDonald of Dalkeith was renovating. It turned the formerly dank space into a warm and dry set of rooms.

In fact, when we built our addition a number of years ago, we had both the new and old basement walls enrobed in spray foam insulation, a technique that offers an R-value of up to 6.0 per inch.

I’d like to wish Ryan success in his new venture aimed at residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural customers. If you’d like a free, no-obligation estimate, just give him a call at 613-577-2261.