Last US hand-crank phone system may be disconnected

Eldon Hathaway is running a business out of his back parlor that's got the peaceful town of Bryant Pond all wired up. A lot of folks here want him and his helpers to keep plugging away. Some others would like him to hang it all up.

Why all the static? Because once you've swung open the screen door and stepped into Eldon's wood-paneled parlor, you've found the last hand-crank telephone company in the United States. And unless the efforts of a plucky group of local citizens (known as the Don't Yank the Crank Committee) succeed, The Bryant Pond Telephone Company is about to go out of business.

In Bryant Pond people don't ''dial'' a neighbor. Just like at the turn of the century, they take crank in hand and ''ring on.'' Then one of two operators sitting at switchboards in Eldon's back room come on and connect the parties. No Touch-Tone tunes, no computerized switching, no digital readouts: just a swift human hand plugging two voices together.

Eldon says he didn't know he would kick up such a commotion when he decided last summer to retire from 30 years in the telephone business. It was only after he quietly sold his company to the neighboring Oxford Telephone & Telegraph Company that townspeople learned the antique system was to be converted to dial phones.

A petition was posted at the Village Store and a meeting was held. A poll found that 72 percent of subscribers contacted wanted to stay with the crank system. Only 10 percent wanted dial. Crank phone advocates say they don't want to stop people from switching to dial. They're asking for a dual system so people can choose.

Alice Johnson, president of Don't Yank the Crank, wasn't surprised. ''We have the most advanced telephone system in the United States,'' she says. ''What computer can match the human being? The most modern equipment can't touch what we have here in town.''

That argument failed to sway the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC). It ruled 2 to 1 that Oxford could go ahead with the conversion, although it agreed that the move would mean a drop in the quality of service to Bryant Pond customers.

That might have been the end of the matter, until the PUC learned that Eldon planned to keep all the old phones and the switchboards and to sell them as mementos of the last crank phone system.

The PUC now has put the sale on hold while it conducts an investigation. A hearing is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 28. Also awaiting consideration is a request from Don't Yank the Crank to the PUC to reconsider its decision. The citizen group argues that all the facts, especially about whether the crank system could make money, have not been presented.

But the main reason folks are fighting to keep the crank, says Mrs. Johnson, is the unique service. ''Say you're on the phone and there's an important long distance call for you coming in. The operator breaks in and says, 'Alice, do you want this call now?' . . . Or you can say to the operator, 'I'm over at Jake's. Would you please forward all my calls here?' ''

For his part, the bearded, crew-cut Eldon Hathaway has been the man in the middle between Oxford and Don't Yank the Crank. He's learned to speak carefully, saying, ''I don't think I understand it all myself.'' He doesn't blame the Don't Yank the Crank people for wanting to save the old system, he says. He agrees it's helped a lot of people since he bought the company in 1951 and moved the switchboards to his house.

Even though the operators can track down members of the volunteer fire department faster than any electronic gizmo, even though a child can call for help just by ringing on and saying his name, Hathaway doubts the system can be economical. ''My wife and I haven't made that much money,'' he says. ''Most of it's invested back into the system, collecting old parts for it here and there. It's our life savings.''

Down at the Village Store, George Hooper sells T-shirts and caps inscribed with ''Don't Yank the Crank.'' The $5,800 raised so far has been used by the committee to pay legal fees.

Mr. Hooper wants to keep his crank phone. ''It's a strong system,'' he says. ''It's safe and dependable.'' A number of winters back, he recalls, a customer complained after a snowstorm that the voices of people calling him were fainter than usual. When the maintenance man traced the line, he found it was buried in snow. He dug it out, only to discover it had broken. The wet snow was enough to keep the line open.

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