By Greg Walter
April 26, 1982 12:00 PM

In Bryant Pond, Maine, a hamlet (pop. 1,061) near the New Hampshire border, the phones have no dials, buttons or beeps. There’s just a wooden box with a crank, a bell and an operator on the other end who will give you Mrs. Newcombe’s lemon meringue pie recipe, tell you who’s in the general store, or put you on the party line with anyone in town—all for only $3.45 a month. Elden Hathaway, who ran the Bryant Pond phone system out of his living room for 30 years, recalls proudly, “A fella was in here from Bell Telephone one day and he says, ‘Elden, you’ve got everything we’ve got and more—you’ve got the human brain, and nobody’s ever gonna replace that, not even Ma Bell.’ ”

Alas, the last hand-cranked phone system in America is in danger of going the way of the Pony Express. For the Oxford County Telephone and Telegraph Co., which bought Bryant Pond’s 60-year-old system from Hathaway last July, wants to remove the ancient ring-’em-ups and install dial phones.

Such a prospect makes these Yankees crankier than ever. Seventy-two percent of Bryant Pond’s 431 customers are opposed, according to Alice Johnson, chairman of the Don’t Yank the Crank Committee formed last August. General-store owner and crank supporter George Hooper explains, “Folks in towns like this don’t like to be told how they’re going to live. That may be the way they do it in the big cities, but out here people speak up.” And speak up they do. The committee has been arguing its case before the state’s Public Utilities Commission. Bryant Ponders propose to turn the town and its antiquated phone system into a kind of “living museum,” and publicity surrounding the phones’ possible demise has brought inquiries from several well-heeled investors. “It would be a huge tourist attraction,” says Johnson. “It could help the town economy—and God knows we need help.” In the meantime Oxford Tel & Tel continues reluctantly to operate the system out of Hathaway’s living room.

Millworker Robert Billings, 59, says the “outdated” system saved his life when he had a heart attack several years ago. One call to the switchboard operator and “quick as you can say it, they had an ambulance there, a neighbor was called and came over to help, and a doctor was waiting for me at the hospital. Now, how would you get help like that from some automatic telephone?” His son, Larry, adds: “Life is so simple and honest here, and the phone company is a symbol of that way of life.”

Caught in the middle of the crank controversy is Oxford Tel & Tel’s general manager, Bob Jamison, who is not unsympathetic to the Bryant Ponders’ plight. “A lot of these people are old,” he says. “Some of them are actually afraid of a modern telephone; they think they won’t be able to remember numbers. All they have to do now is crank the phone, pick it up and ask for whomever they want. I can understand that.” On the other hand, Jamison points out that Bryant Pond’s 1920 models simply aren’t compatible with Oxford’s dial equipment. Though the monthly charge is sure to go up, Jamison argues that the new system will actually save the townspeople money. There are constant breakdowns in the current system, he claims, and all calls outside Bryant Pond are considered toll calls. “We want to give better service,” he insists, “but it still ends up that we’re the bad guys.”

Even though he sold out, Hathaway, 64, isn’t criticized. After all, he and his wife, Barbara, had been manning the phones since 1951, when he bought the business for $2,500. (He sold it for more than $50,000.) The system was never much of a money-maker—”Things broke down, wires fell or a farmer would plow up the line to his house”—but Hathaway has no regrets. Thanks to the switchboard, the Hathaway house has long been a hub of Bryant Pond’s social life. “The place tends to be fairly well congregated [sic] at most times,” says Hathaway, “especially after we got the television.”

But now progress may change all that, and Bryant Ponders like Jim Keen, Hathaway’s former installer, lineman and repairman, might have to shed a nostalgic tear in remembrance of things past. “It was like a big family,” he says. “Now people are just going to be numbers.”