Walt Grayson headshot
By Walt Grayson
October 2022

Remember crank telephones?

Hanging on the side of the pantry in our kitchen is an old Kellogg crank telephone. The photo that accompanies this article was taken with a modern telephone that usually “hangs” in my shirt pocket. Times change!

I bought the old crank phone years ago to try to atone for one of my childhood acts of stupidity.

My grandfather, for whom I am named, Walter Cummings, had the telephone exchange at Ratliff in Itawamba County in the early years of the 20th century. The switchboard was upstairs at his house. The house is still there. It’s just up the hill from the Ratliff Community Center. It’s where my mama was born. She always wanted to ride by it when we visited Oak Grove Cemetery. I’ve never been inside. But I’ve heard stories about granddaddy’s telephone company when it was there.

Granddaddy used his children as operators. Mama’s oldest sister, Aunt Cap (who would have been nine years old at the time. Mama wasn’t born yet) used to tell us that back in 1910 when Halley’s Comet came around, people were in a panic. They thought it was the end of the world. She said you should have heard them on the telephone; women saying they were going to sell everything they had and move away — stuff like that. It dawned on me after years of hearing this story that granddaddy’s kids were listening in on phone calls! So, I confronted Aunt Cap about it one day. She never denied it. Her excuse, “Well, they hadn’t invented radio yet.”

When I was just a kid, I found one of those old Kellogg crank telephones tucked away in a dark closet at the top of the stairs at grandmother’s house in Fulton.

I foolishly asked if I could have it. I was way too young for such a treasure. Back before realizing there is more to a thing than just “the thing” itself. Grandmother said yes.

We took it back home to Greenville. I don’t think it lasted a year. We’d turn the crank and make it ring. Then one day an older cousin convinced me we should take it apart so we could play with the magnets. I have no idea what ever happened to those magnets. The last time I saw its case, the wood had weathered, and it was on top of daddy’s old scrap lumber pile.

So, decades later when I found this almost-identical telephone I bought it out of respect for my granddaddy’s telephone venture and to replace the phone I lost to childhood before I developed a sense of tradition.

The telephone-comet story came to mind again a few weeks ago when we were back at Ratliff and Oak Grove Cemetery for my brother-in-law’s funeral. I was asked to say a few words. And seeing as how family members were there who are scattered literally from the west coast to the east coast and most of whom would never be back in Mississippi, I wanted to tell them a little about the area, and the family they were a part of. The telephone story was one of the tales I told them along with more serious stuff. I didn’t tell them the part about me taking granddaddy’s old telephone apart.

Seeing those young faces hit home that, times do change. We are the “old folks” now. But the old ways stay with us, too. For instance, we still “hang up” our phones after a call, even though there is nothing on a modern telephone to “hang up,” anymore. Except for tradition.

Category: Mississippi Seen

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