Working the telephone switchboard in Brooks was dangerous business more than a century ago.
By Joshua F. Moore
Image courtesy Maine Historic Preservation Commission
No one could blame Edna Godding for appearing a bit stiff when she sat for this postcard portrait back in 1909. Never mind that the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company switchboard was located in the comfort of Godding’s home on North Main Street, Brooks. The telephone exchange had been installed just a year earlier, after its previous location in Thaddeus I. Huxford’s store had burned to the ground. This community of just under a thousand souls would experience five great fires in less than half a century — and the telephone company would find itself connected to several of them.
In the late nineteenth century, residents of Brooks had proven willing to make a big commitment to keeping the Waldo County hamlet connected to the world. In 1897, the first year of telephone service, town residents ponied up a total of three hundred dollars, plus an additional payment of $180, to guarantee service for the next five years. Though more well-to-do residents would eventually have telephones in their homes, the very first call put through the phone lines from Brooks was made by Marcellus J. Dow, a correspondent for the Bangor Daily News, and sent from Huxford’s store.
For seventeen-year-old Godding and her mother, hosting the telephone exchange provided a nice income and took up relatively little space in the home the two women shared. Though the telegraph, just left of center, and the mouthpiece, plugs, and wired earpiece leading from Godding’s right ear to the switchboard were cutting-edge technology for rural Maine at the time, the two operators still maintained a kerosene lamp, at upper left, for illumination.
This switchboard and Godding’s home both survived the next great fire to hit Brooks, in 1917. In 1919, the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company operations were moved from Godding’s house to the rebuilt Payson Block. On January 9, 1925, the telephone company’s new offices caught fire, and during the blaze, a switchboard operator, Carrie V. Johnson, was trapped and died. During the same period Godding’s home also burned to the ground, but the former telephone worker escaped from that fire.