Crank phones bring back memories

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“Number, please.”

How long has it been since that was a daily greeting when you picked up the phone?

Memories of the old crank phones and the party line came back to me this week, and by luck I had a chance to learn a lot about that long-gone system of communication.

I was very young when my grandparents’ part of this farmhouse had the family phone on the wall. It had that familiar hand-held earpiece on a hook, the mouthpiece on the front and the crank on the side. I vaguely remember standing on a chair to reach it on the few occasions I was allowed to be part of a phone call.

While I may not be totally accurate in my memories of that time, one of those fortunate finds that turn up in old houses brought it back into focus.

Everyone has a business card these days, but I was surprised to come across one of my grandfather’s cards – probably dating to the 1930s. It’s slightly larger than today’s cards. The inscription is “Frederic Sargent – Market Gardener – North River Road, Auburn, Maine,” and at the top is the all-important phone number: “299-3” (which meant two-ninety-nine, ring three).

And that brings me to Saturday’s fascinating and entertaining visit to the Maine State Museum in Augusta where three members of the Hathaway family shared stories about the living-room switchboard of the Bryant Pond Telephone Co.

Michael, Susan and Linda were at the museum for the opening of a display featuring that historic equipment, the last hand-crank phone system in the country. This trio of siblings told a small audience about working the switchboard, about running lines and about the days of the “Don’t Yank the Crank” campaign to save the phones. The system’s last call was made on Oct. 11, 1983.

A story from one instantly triggered a story from another as they swapped memories of their parents, the other switchboard operators and the trials and tribulations of running a phone company from their living room.

Many of the tales have been told in magazine articles, in a book and in TV and newspaper interviews. Even on the Johnny Carson Show. Nevertheless, the occasion brought out new stories as the brother and two sisters bantered about the unique experiences they shared.

Of course, party lines and the inevitable eavesdroppers are always remembered, and people wonder if the telephone operators ever listened in.

“Never,” they all declared at once. “Unthinkable” … except maybe under some accidental circumstance. But the barely suppressed grins and sparkle in the eye hinted that it might have been a bit different.

Susan remembered that the longer it took for a customer to answer, the more receivers on the party line would be lifted by curious neighbors.

Some lines had a dozen or more subscribers, Michael explained. He said there was a light bulb connected to the phone lines near the switchboard. As those curious neighbors quietly lifted receivers to listen in, the more the phone line’s resistance changed – and the brighter the bulb would glow.

There are many old homes in the L-A area where crank phones were once installed. Most people – then and now – don’t know why you had to turn a crank.

What did it do? Why were you supposed to turn the crank when you “rang off” at the end of a call?

The answers are at the Maine State Museum in the new Bryant Pond Telephone Co. exhibit.

It’s well worth a visit.

And if we should find that old crank phone in some back corner of the barn, I’m sure we can find some place to mount it here again.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and an Auburn native. You can e-mail him at: dasargent@maine.com.

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