WOODSTOCK — It was October of 1983 when the last hand-crank telephone service in the nation was finally put to rest in the Woodstock village of Bryant Pond.

“The lure of high-tech, touch-tone and total privacy won out in a two year battle with nostalgia and the human element,” announced the Sunday Sun Journal. “The crank phone is dead. Long live call forwarding.”

Hand-crank telephones were the dominant household telephone during the late 1800s and the early decades of the 20th century. By 1983, Bryant Pond had retained the system far longer than any other community in the country.

Hand-crank phone File photo

To give a sense of just how old Bryant Pond’s hand crank telephone system was, Sabattus and Wales telephone users switched to dial phones in 1939; Norway, Oxford, Mechanic Falls, Gorham and Goodwin Mills in 1940; Pownal in 1948.

Not all locals welcomed the change in Bryant Pond. A vocal group of locals rallied under the Don’t Yank the Crank Committee, spending nearly two years fighting the switch in the press and before Maine’s Public Utility Commission, even hiring a lawyer.

Supporters of the hand-crank system lauded the personal element of the operators, who knew just about everyone and everything in town. Residents could request wake-up calls from operators, do-not-disturb orders and call transfers. At times, parents would call to locate their children.

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But the nearly century-old system had become more difficult and expensive to fix. And with a steady inflow of newcomers to the small town of 1,000 in western Maine came a growing desire for private phone lines.

Just under half of the 434 customers had their own private lines, according to a 1982 article in Time Magazine. As many as 23 customers were known to share a single line; any one of them could tune into the conversation at any time.

When two operators were no longer enough to staff the service, the local owners decided it was time to sell the business.

Ultimately, a buyer came in and installed a new dial telephone system, putting to rest the last vestige of the once-dominant system.

On its final day, approximately 175 phone company workers, local residents and friends of Elden Hathaway, the longtime owner of the telephone service, packed into his living room and spilled out onto the driveway to mark its end, according to an article in the New York Times.

“Though the atmosphere was festive, it was also a day of emotional goodbyes,” the newspaper wrote.

The switchboard that was shut down that day now resides at the Maine State Museum.


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