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The Party's Over for Rural Phone Customers in Green Mountain State

Communication: State's largest telephone company had 8,600 party-line telephones four years ago. Today it has fewer than 10, and by spring it will have none. But one small firm still offers party lines to those who want them.

January 31, 1999|WILSON RING | ASSOCIATED PRESS

FAIRFIELD, Vt. — Off the pavement, past the farms, over the one-lane bridge and across the abandoned railroad crossing is another example of Vermont's vanishing rural heritage:

A party-line telephone.

Two families in the middle of Franklin County's rolling farmland are among the dwindling few to share a telephone line.

In this age of fiber optics, answering machines, caller ID, call forwarding and computer modems, these families have to listen when the phone rings to see if it's for them.

Two short rings means it's for the Callan family. One ring and it's for the neighbors.

By spring, both families will have separate lines, joining the 400,000 lines that crisscross Vermont.

"It won't hurt my feelings to see it go," said Ray Callan, 25, who has lived in the 150-year-old brick farmhouse with his family for 15 years.

Only two on the line? It used to be four. "You can't have an answering machine. A wireless phone won't work right," he said. "It is an inconvenience."

Four years ago, the state's largest telephone company, now called Bell Atlantic, had 8,600 party-line telephones. In 1979 there were 35,000. Today, the company has fewer than 10 party-line phones scattered across northern Vermont. By spring, all those phones will be converted to single lines.

Party lines are dying out all over. Of the 13 states and District of Columbia served by Bell Atlantic, only four others, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania, still have party-line phones.

But as sure as large dairy farms replacing family hill farms mark the passing of a Vermont tradition, the end of party lines marks another.

Besides spreading the news, party lines helped neighbors help neighbors and connect, literally, with the community.

But party lines make it impossible for the phone company to offer its latest whiz-bang services such as teleconferencing and call waiting. The real push came four years ago when the state decided to install its enhanced 911 emergency system. This provides emergency operators with the address of the telephone used to report an emergency.

The system won't work properly with multi-party lines.

Once Bell Atlantic's last party lines are converted, the only party lines left in Vermont will belong to the Franklin Telephone Co., which has fewer than 30 party lines among its 750 customers. They are mostly in summer camps where people don't want private lines, said President Hugh Gates.

"Our company is probably the truest holdout of the tradition," Gates said. "There are times when party lines offer some convenience. They were old-fashioned answering machines."

Gates tells how a quarter century ago four Franklin women on the same party line played bridge together without missing a phone call. "These four ladies loved to have this four-party line with four different rings," he said. "The phone would ring and one would get up and answer it."

Like the party lines they used, all four have since passed away. Today's technology can forward those calls.

Still, Gates said, Franklin Telephone will provide any customers with a private line. "If they want to have private lines, they can truly have it."

When telephone service was introduced to Vermont more than a century ago, entire towns were on a single line. The classic crank telephone was used to call the operator, who would direct the call to a neighbor.

So when dial service was introduced more than half a century ago, multi-party lines were in themselves technological breakthroughs.

"There's a lot of nostalgia about the phone and how it was the way to get the local news," said Jane Beck of the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury.

One way was "rubbering," or listening in on a neighbor's conversations, but the talkers often knew who the intruder was. One Waitsfield eavesdropper, Beck said, was identified by the clock ticking in her house.

"For elderly people who have nothing to do, it's an interesting form of entertainment," said Doug Dapice, the Bell Atlantic official overseeing the move away from party lines. "I think it represents an older, idealized Vermont."

Conversions to a single line aggravated some customers, said Yvette Tomlinson, the office manager of the Topsham Telephone Co., which stopped using party lines in the mid-1980s. "They said this is their entertainment."

So rubbering didn't disappear, and folks like Callan got used to having people listen in. But over the years, most customers grew to appreciate the privacy and convenience of a single-party line.

"Folks use the telephone so much more than they used to," Gates said. "It's pretty much normal that they would want to have a private line."

Deena Frankel, a consumer affairs specialist for the Vermont Public Service Department, said the state had received a few complaints about the loss of party lines. They were mostly from customers who didn't want their monthly phone bills to rise from about $17.50 to between $25 and $30.

Changing a line can be time-consuming and expensive. Switching a single house can sometimes require stretching a new wire, Dapice said. The switch, begun in 1994, is costing Bell Atlantic from $3 million to $5 million.

Paul Lavallee of Westfield has had a party line for 20 years, though he didn't get a telephone neighbor until five years ago.

"It's not really an inconvenience," he said. "I must say I have been having a long call now and then and she'll pick up the phone."

But his party-line days are nearly over.

Lavallee got a call from Bell Atlantic informing him he would have a private-line phone in the next few days. That's all right too.

"I even had weird ideas about going on the Internet," he said. "But you can't do that with a party line."

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