TIME Magazine: Monday, 30 August 1982

In Maine: Don't Yank the Crank

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 crank-phone history.

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 childhood.

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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