In 1983 the last hand-cranked phone system in the United States stopped cranking, and all 431 customers of the Bryant Pond Telephone Company woke up to boring direct-dial. In the center of town there is a giant telephone in honor of that fateful day.
You wouldn’t think that Bryant Pond, a village in western Maine with fewer than a thousand people, would be big enough to have its own phone company. But it did, and for more than thirty years it was operated by one family, headed up by Elden and Barbara Hathaway, who ran the operation out of their house.
In 1981, a bigger outfit came calling, hoping to buy the Hathaways out and convert the customers to regular dial service. It was a tough sell. Most people in town liked the old way — everyone had their own special ring, and there was always a voice you knew at the other end, manning the switchboard, juggling party lines, and probably keeping a few secrets.
The crank system goes back to the beginning of telephones, when a third person — a switchboard operator — always came between you and your call. It was easy: pick up the heavy Bakelite receiver, crank the handle, and tell the operator who you want to talk to. Or find out the latest news, see what the weather might be, what time the store closes… Sound familiar? It was like Siri with a soul.
The Bryant Pond Telephone Company held onto their crank system a lot longer than any other phone company, but the Hathaways did finally sell, and in 1983 the switch to direct-dial was made.
Even though they had joined up with the rest of the modern phone world, the people of Bryant Pond wanted to find a way to remember the old days, the old ways, and their old cranky friend. There were pieces of the old phone company, including part of the switchboard, and other memorabilia at the local Historical Society, but they wanted something more, something bigger. It took some time, but luckily the right man for the job was there in town.
Gil Whitman was many things — a veteran of World War II, a county sheriff, a Maine State Representative, and a barbershop quartet singer. He also happened to be a talented iron sculptor. Whitman built a 14-foot “candlestick” phone, complete with crank, to be installed as a permanent sculpture at Remembrance Park, just across the street from the Post Office.
The sculpture was unveiled in 2008, and doesn’t just commemorate Barbara & Elden and their bygone phone company, it’s also reported to be the largest telephone in the world. Seems about perfect: the largest physical telephone celebrating the smallest telephone company.