TIME Magazine: Monday, 30 August 1982
In Maine: Don't Yank the Crank
By MELVIN MADDOCKS
Bryant Pond is one of those tiny Maine towns that come upon the
traveler as suddenly as a streak of summer lightning. There you are,
tooling north on Route 26, dazzled by an occasional stand of white
birch, sniffing the pinelike incense, just about convinced that this is
God's country the way the glaciers carved it out 12,000 years ago. Then
the road descends and a white Baptist church materializes on the left,
as if designed for Our Town. At the bottom of the hill, as the wayfarer
battles a curve and then a second, sharper right turn, two other
obligatory props of a New England town blur past: the village store and
the post office. Bryant Pond would be a dot on the map, located by
reference to nearby towns with such names as Norway, Paris and Mexico,
if it were not for one curious fact: this little way station happens to
be the home of the last crank-telephone system in the U.S. Here is how
it works. Somewhere in the modest stillness of Bryant Pond, someone
rotates a crank, jangling the bell on the call box and generating
enough current to cause a tab with the caller's number to click down on
the switchboard in the pine-paneled back room of Elden Hathaway's
house, also known as the Bryant Pond Telephone Co. One of the two
operators, comfortably seated a few feet from an abandoned exercise
cycle and at right angles to a gun rack, responds to the caller, voice
to voice, and makes the requested connection by hand. If nobody picks
up the phone, she will report "d.a." (doesn't answer). None of the
nervously informing burps and buzzes of a dial system are available to
the user of the crank phone. It is an eminently human arrangement.
Although nearly half of the 434 customers now have private phones, the
party line is still a distinctive part of the crank system. As many as
23 customers have been known to share a single line. Courtesy requires
that a party-liner give a little ring when signing off to notify the
others that the line is clear. One sociable lady has made a habit of
giving a little ding when she comes on, extending an invitation to her
neighbors to tune in for lively listening. Eighty years ago, when the
first switchboard occupied the back of Dudley's Store, impromptu
musicales were broadcast along party lines, featuring a harmonica
player named Davis.
Communal use of the phone tends to be less exuberant today. But the
switchboard still serves as a referral center and hotline. If a caller
wants the town carpenter, Elwood Wing, and Wing is away from home, the
chances are fair that an operator will know where. When a fire is
reported, operators ring up the members of the volunteer fire
department. If a small child comes home from school to an empty house,
the switchboard routinely plays babysitter, relaying Mother's messages.
Could anything be more of a family operation? And like every family,
the Bryant Pond Telephone Co. had given everybody the illusion that it
would live more or less happily ever after. Then Elden Hathaway turned
65, thought some, and quietly sold for $50,000 the stock in the
business he had bought for $2,500 in 1951. Elden: who had strung Army
field wire at $14 a mile to add to the 100 or so subscribers he began
with. Elden: who had tinkered with one secondhand switchboard after
another—Western Electric, Stromberg-Carlson, Northern Electric.
Elden: who had pulled himself out of bed to man the phones more
midnights than he cares to remember, wakened by a night-alarm gong from
the switchboard and a kick or two from his wife Barbara, who with her
daughter Susan may have logged more hours than any two operators in
In one day this homey and tenuous network tore apart, and the town with
it, when the new owner, the Oxford County Telephone & Telegraph
Co., announced it was replacing crank with dial. Before you could say
d.a., a "Don't Yank the Crank" committee was formed. T shirts
displaying that motto went on sale in Brad Hooper's village store.
There were town meetings and more town meetings. Lawyers were hired,
and briefs got filed with the public utilities commission to prevent
the conversion to dial, and even void the sale.
The townspeople were startled at their own deep feelings. A telephone,
they painfully discovered, is more than a telephone. It sets the whole
style according to which a community speaks to itself and the world.
The fuss took Elden Hathaway by surprise. Shock is more like it. A
cheerful bear of a man with a beard, a bristling brush cut and a voice
that booms as if he were fighting a bad connection, Hathaway exudes the
durability associated with oak trees, granite boulders and other sturdy
natural acts of Maine. But he is also a stoic after the New England
manner, accustomed to the coming and, mostly, the going of all things
human. Piece by piece, the Bryant Pond he was born into, two houses
down from where he lives today, has vanished.
When Elden was a boy, Bryant Pond boasted a dozen stores: a butcher's
shop, a grain store, a milliner, a harness shop with cobbler's trade on
the side. There was Chase's Variety. There was Cole's Hardware ("Quick
sales and small profits," the proprietors used to say). An opera house,
burned in 1928, was the pride of the town. An ice cream parlor and pool
hall did business in the basement. Silent films with piano
accompaniment were regularly featured. Young Elden popped the corn and
hawked his products to customers at a nickel a box.
Hathaway has watched this Bryant Pond disappear along with Long's
Lumber Yard, where they planed on all four sides, true and square, and
a cannery where a boy could pick up a damaged tin of creamed corn for a
free lunch on his way to a day of fishing. After so much loss, why
should a crank-telephone switchboard in the back room of his home lay
claim to immortality?
The town is making every effort to preserve its civility. To the old
list of God and politics, the crank phone has been added as a topic
requiring the utmost diplomatic discretion. "Some people have got the
idea I'm carpetbagging on them," says Hathaway. But nobody speaks more
affectionately of Elden than Alice Johnson, the chair of the Don't Yank
the Crank committee, who came to Bryant Pond twelve years ago as an art
teacher in the elementary school. She married another outsider and
settled down in a handsome mid-19th century home by the lake. A
Cuisinart and a microwave oven share the house with her crank phone.
She is not a purist.
A past president of Maine's League of Women Voters, Johnson argues for
a political compromise. Why not both dial and crank? Her defense of the
crank is deliberately unsentimental. She quotes praise from a computer
programmer: "It's so old it's in the advance guard." But behind the
crisp march of her logic, Johnson dreams of a Bryant Pond for her
daughters, now 6 and 8, almost as idyllic as the Bryant Pond of Elden's
What a charming spot for a renaissance of old values. There are little
green islands on the lake. An elegant white house sits at the base of a
rock cliff on the western shore. In the evening, frogs croak, crickets
chirp, and the freight trains of the Canadian National Railway clatter
by on the way to Montreal, the loonlike hoot of the locomotive echoing
in the woods as if rushing back in time.
The public utilities commission is reviewing the sale a second time,
and is still trying to decide whether a dual system of crank and dial
would be practical. But meanwhile, what a strain it all is, living out
a parable of progress—or not-progress—with its neat
jinglejangle and the whole world watching.
When Elden Hathaway was eight or nine, his father installed electricity
in the house. It was in the middle of winter, but when the job was
done, the father turned on all the lights in the house, and Elden ran
out in the road and jumped up and down to see the miracle of all that
light blazing into the night. Over half a century later, Hathaway can
still remember the excitement. Progress was a simple matter then.
—By Melvin Maddocks
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