In Episode 318 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger head to Woodstock, Maine, to see the world’s largest telephone on display in Remembrance Park. Back in 1981, Woodstock had the distinction of being home to the last crank phone call made in the United States. This roadside oddity story may just leaving you wonder if your refrigerator is running…
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[WALKING DOWN SIDEWALK]
RAY: Hey! Yeah we’re in a little town called Woodstock, Maine, this week… Right. (PAUSE) No, I’ll do that for sure when I get home. Okay, great… I’ll see you tomorrow. Love you too. Bye.
JEFF: Wrong number?
RAY: Right. Just checking in with the wife.
JEFF: Cell phones are so convenient, aren’t they.
RAY: I don’t think I can remember life before them. It’s my camera, my email, my social media, the weather forecast, my podcast player… AND it even makes phone calls.
JEFF: I get it. Our phones are everything. So we’re in this small town of Woodstock, Maine, searching for a telephone today.
RAY: Annnnd I’d say we just found one. It’s pretty much impossible to miss.
JEFF: Yup… that would be the world’s largest telephone located right here off of Route 26 in Woodstock.
RAY: So this roadside oddity is about 14 feet tall. It’s black, it’s one of those old-fashioned phones with the trumpet-like mouthpiece and the listening speaker hangs off to the left. There’s a handle for turning in the front of the base.
JEFF: This monument is why we’re here. Not just to see this colossal phone, but to come to ground-zero for America’s very last… crank call.
JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to Episode 318 of the New England Legends podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thank you for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We’re always on the hunt for ghosts, monsters, UFOs, roadside oddities, true crime and odd history. Most of our story leads come from you! So please subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts, because it’s free and we don’t want you to miss a thing. And reach out to us anytime through our Web site.
JEFF: We’ll get back to America’s biggest phone right after this word from our sponsor.
RAY: Okay, the town of Woodstock, Maine, is the site of America’s last crank phone call?
JEFF: That it is.
RAY: I made some crank calls in my time. “Is your refrigerator running?”
JEFF/RAY: You better go catch it.
JEFF: Yeah, a classic.
RAY: And that 1981 hit song by Tommy Tutone “867-5309.” The funny thing is where I grew up in East Brookfield, Massachusetts, 867 was our exchange.
JEFF: So some poor soul may have really had that number and wondered why so many wrong numbers were asking for Jenny.
RAY: Crank calls were part of growing up in the 80s, I guess.
JEFF: Yup, I was making those calls too.
RAY: But I get it. Today every phone has caller I.D., most people don’t even make calls anymore, they just text. Plus, scams seem to have replaced the harmless crank call, so I get that it had to die out sometime. I’m curious how they know the last one was here.
JEFF: Right. That. Soooo we’re not in Woodstock because of PRANK phone calls. We’re here because this is where the last CRANK call was made. See that handle on the front of the giant phone?
JEFF: That’s actually a crank. You’d turn it to ring the operator to patch you through to your call.
RAY: Ohhhhhhh. I get it now. The old crank phones died out here in Woodstock?
JEFF: They did. And much later than you would ever guess.
RAY: Okay… looking up some facts about the phone… ON my phone… Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call on March 10, 1876.
JEFF: Right. So the technology has been around a long time.
RAY: The magic of the telephone is that it turns your voice into an electronic signal that travels over a wire and then gets converted back into sound.
JEFF: The technology built off of the telegraph. That sent an electric signal across a wire where it was converted into dots and dashes. So the wires were already there, Bell just took it to the next level.
RAY: The first people to adopt the telephone were businesses who could afford the new technology, but soon, private residences in urban areas started getting telephones, and then it spread from there.
JEFF: The earliest phones were crank-type boxes. You turn the crank which spins a magneto and sends an electric current to ring the bells on other phones in the same line. In coming years, that current alerted an operator at a switchboard who would then patch your call through. Every phone in the line had its own pattern of rings so you know if the incoming call is for you or not.
RAY: So basically the old party phone lines.
JEFF: Right. And I’m sure there was tons of eavesdropping. If you pick up, you can hear what’s being said, Switchboards allowed party lines to connect to different party lines, and from there networks grew. Plus, chances are you personally knew your local switchboard operator. You could ask what the correct time is, what’s the weather forecast, or when local stores close for the day.
RAY: Almost like my iphone! By 1920 there were over 170,000 telephone operators working in the United States. In 1919, rotary dialing had just been introduced, but it really took off in the 1940s and 50s. In 1962 the first touch-tone phone was introduced, and that took off in the 1970s.
JEFF: And now today landlines are becoming a thing of the past. Many homes have dropped them because the cell phone is all that most people need.
RAY: Technology is always progressing. That’s for certain.
JEFF: Okay, so back to the last crank call here in Woodstock, Maine.
RAY: Right. That’s why we’re here.
JEFF: Like I said, it happened here later than you might guess.
RAY: Okay so if rotary dial started to replaced crank phones in the 1940s, I’ll say the last ones hung in there until… how about 1960?
JEFF: Nope. It was later than that. And people around here didn’t part easily with their old-fashioned phones. So let’s head back to 1981 and witness the last crank call.
RAY: It’s August of 1981. Jimmy Carter is President of the United States, and recording artist Tommy Tutone is in the studio right now recording his future hit song “867-5309 / Jenny.” But folks here in Woodstock, Maine, are mad.
JEFF: They ARE mad. Sure, they know the rest of the country has moved on to rotary and touch-tone phones. They know they’re the last, but now it feels like a badge of honor. It’s historic. Unique. They don’t want to change.
[OLD FASHIONED RINGING BELL]
RAY: But business is business. The first phone system in town was installed in 1938 when Woodstock had only 15 telephones. The Bryant Pond Telephone Company, owned by Barbara and Elden Hathaway, bought the system in 1951 and operated the business out of their home. Today there are 431 customers on the old magneto system, but big changes are coming. The Oxford Telephone company is looking to buy the Bryant Pond Company and update the whole system to new lines.
JEFF: Some Woodstock locals named Dave Perham and Brad Hooper have teamed up to form the “Don’t Yank the Crank” committee.
RAY: Don’t yank the crank! I love that! They’re that attached to these old phones?
JEFF: People don’t like change. So they put out a petition asking people to quote “prayerfully consider maintaining the present telephone system. It’s hoped that this system will be preserved as an historic landmark for the Bryant Pond area and the State of Maine.” The petition is placed in the village store.
RAY: It takes only seven hours for the petition to reach 90 signatures in town. For the Don’t Yank the Crank committee, they view this phone system the way San Francisco viewed its cable cars. It’s something to be preserved. It’s part of the town’s identity.
JEFF: The petition is sent to the Oxford Telephone Company, and it’s sent to a federal agency with the hopes of an intervention from Washington D.C. However, time and tide wait for no one.
RAY: The Oxford Telephone Company announces the old system is going to be phased out. And pretty soon, someone here in Woodstock turns the crank on their phone for the last time.
[OLD FASHIONED RINGING BELL]
RAY: And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: 1981. And the folks here in Woodstock, Maine, went down swinging.
RAY: It had to happen eventually. I wonder what dial-up Internet would have been like over crank phones?
JEFF: Can you imagine? You’ve got mail! Who has mail? Me? My neighbor?
RAY: This 14-foot giant crank telephone monument was placed here in 2008. It was sculpted by Gil Whitman, a World War II veteran, a Maine State Rep, and a barbershop quartet singer. It was placed here in Remembrance Park which sits just across the street from the Woodstock Post Office. There’s a plaque on the front that reads: This sculpture by Gil Whitman is dedicated to the memory of Barbara and Elden Hathaway, owners of the Bryant Pond Telephone Company.
JEFF: So the town once home to America’s smallest telephone company now lays claim to the world’s largest telephone. Progress continues no matter what. Though the crank was ultimately yanked here in Woodstock, through this roadside oddity… the legend lives on.
JEFF: And that brings us to After the Legend where we dial deeper into this week’s story and sometimes get disconnected.
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