, Derry, New Hampshire


June 20, 2013

Column: Robert Frost really was a telephone eavesdropper

Every so often it’s good — I suppose — to be proven wrong in matters’ historic.

This tale starts back a little over 50 years ago. Robert Frost’s daughter Lesley was a major force in getting the state to buy the Frost farm in Derry. This had been her home from 1900, when she was a baby, until the family moved to Derry Village in 1909. The journal she kept from 1905 to 1908 is invaluable in understanding her father and Derry’s influences upon his poetry.

In the late 1960s, Lesley told the state much about her life on the farm: how the furniture was arranged, aspects of the daily going-ons, etc. One story she told was that her California-born Dad use to eavesdrop on the telephone’s party line so he could learn the cadence of New Hampshire’s speech. This story was always included in the tours given at the farm.

Now I come into the picture. I am writing a biography of Robert Frost in Derry and I pride myself that I know much — if not everything — about those years in the poet’s life. I heard about his habit of eavesdropping and thought it was a fable.

The Derry News usually mentioned when someone had a phone line put into their home. I scoured the local newspapers in the early 1900s and found no mention of Frost getting a phone. I had photographs of the house from the Frost years and I could see no telephone wires going to his house.

I had read every biography of Frost and no one ever mentioned him owning a telephone. I figured that Lesley Frost Ballantine was actually referring to one of her later homes. After all, her dad, during his remarkable life, had lived in 40 different homes. We had just not understood that Lesley’s reference was to another home and not the Derry farm.

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