A sculpture commemorating the last hand-crank telephone service in the country is in Woodstock, Maine. Credit: Courtesy of Erik Martinez

The Oxford County town of Woodstock has a population of about 1,200 people. It lies about 10 miles from the Maine-New Hampshire border, nestled among hills, forests and small ponds. And it is the site of what the town says is the world’s largest telephone.

The 14-foot-tall “candlestick” telephone sculpture was erected in 2008, to commemorate the fact that Woodstock was once home to the country’s very last hand-crank telephone company: Bryant Pond Telephone Company.

The company, named for the village within the town of Woodstock and for the neighboring pond, cranked its last telephone call in 1983, decades after the vast majority of homes across the nation had forgone that early technology in favor of dial service.

Hand-cranked telephones, or “magneto” telephones, were among the earliest commercially available phones, developed by Alexander Graham Bell in 1892. Users could power their own phone by cranking a magnetically powered electrical generator, allowing them to contact the operator, who would connect them with the line of their choosing. Of those phones, the distinctive candlestick variety was by far the most popular between the 1890s and 1920s.

By the early 20th century, tiny rural phone companies like Bryant Pond were scattered all over the country, standing in defiance of AT&T, which at the time held a monopoly over the entire U.S. telephone system. One by one, however, they started to fall, as they either went bankrupt or were bought out by AT&T and other large telecoms. Today, just a few hundred independent phone companies remain.

Meanwhile, by the 1940s, almost every company had entirely switched to the direct dial system, and customers were utilizing all-in-one rotary phones instead of crank phones. Holdouts remained, however, one of which was Woodstock’s Bryant Pond Phone Company.

There, in the tiny western Maine town, residents had grown used to the old ways of making a call. Every one of the 400 or so customers of the company had their own special ring. When they placed a call, they first talked to the operators at the switchboard, who patched them through to the line they were calling, and who could also also take messages, provide wake-up calls and offer news, weather and other information. Kind of like Google, if Google was an actual person.

The Bryant Pond Phone Company was operated out of the home of Elden and Barbara Hathaway, who for nearly 30 years between 1952 and 1981 kept the lines connected, and who charged their customers just $5 a month for service. By the late 1970s, though, it was becoming clear that the long-obsolete technology that their phones ran off of was not worth the novelty — according to a 1983 New York Times article, it sometimes took customers up to a half hour to be connected to their party.

In 1981, the Hathways sold the company to Oxford Telephone and Telegraph, today known as Oxford Networks. Customers launched a campaign called “Don’t Yank the Crank,” advocating for their old-fashioned crank system and asking the Maine Public Utilities Commission to let them keep it. In the end, however, modern technology won out, and on Oct. 11, 1983, the wires were disconnected, the phones were switched to direct dial, and the last remaining connection to the olden days of telephones was gone.

It didn’t take long for customers to get used to the dial system. The company sold off the old candlestick phones, and the switchboards now belong to the Maine State Museum in Augusta. To ensure that the town’s decades-long love affair with obsolete technology wasn’t forgotten, however, Gil Whitman, a cousin to the Hathaways, constructed a one-and-a-half ton statue of a candlestick phone out of metal, with a crank that actually turns. It opened in Woodstock’s Remembrance Park in 2008, almost exactly 25 years to the day after the last crank system call was made.

Though Woodstock says its telephone is the largest, others dispute that claim. In fact, the Guinness Book of World Records says that the world’s largest telephone is in the Netherlands, a touch tone phone that is actually operational. It weighs in at a whopping 3.5 tons, and is 8 feet tall and 19 feet long, dwarfing’s Woodstock’s phone.

Nevertheless, Woodstock does indeed have the world’s largest hand-crank phone — commemorating a different technological era, and a long tradition of mom and pop businesses and small communities in Maine existing in the old-fashioned way, long after others had moved on.

The “World’s Largest Telephone” sculpture is located at 1 North Main St. in Woodstock.

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.