, Derry, New Hampshire

June 20, 2013

Column: Robert Frost really was a telephone eavesdropper

Rick Holmes
Derry News

---- — 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.

Based solely on me being the local Frost expert, Bill Gleed, the jovial Frost farm manager changed the script of the tours to say that the idea that the story of Frost’s eavesdropping was likely apocryphal about Derry.

Then came that dark day in February 2013 when my qualifications as a know-it-all came crashing down. There on eBay was offered a 1907 telephone book with a listing for Robert Frost of Derry. I knew I had to have it, even though it proved me wrong, proved as usual, that Lesley was right and I was a foolish pup for having doubted her.

I first checked the collections of all the major universities that I knew to have Robert Frost material. I checked every book dealer with listings on the computer. No one had one. This phone book appeared to be unique and was apparently unknown to all the other Frost researchers. I’d be able to trump every other the biographer by mentioning that Rob Frost did indeed have a phone while living in Derry. I was salivating with the idea of getting it!

I immediately called my friend Hercules Pappachristos of East Derry, the co-chairman of the Frost Farm trustees. Without explanation, I asked him how deep his pockets were. He answered “Pretty Deep.” He had been very generous in the past in donating things to the Derry Museum. Soon he was sharing my excitement over the telephone book.

We discussed how much to bid. I told him the opening bid was $45 but no one knew how high it would go by the end of the 7-day auction. I told him I had researched other phone books from that period and told Herc the going price seems to be about $350 to $400. The tall, lean and usually laconic Herc simply said “Go for it!” He agreed to pay what it cost.

I quickly put in a $400 bid through my bidding service, which means my bid wouldn’t go in until the last four seconds of the auction. This prevents anyone from topping me by seeing what I bid and typing in a slightly higher bid. Of course, if another bidder has a similar bidding service and told his program to bid up to $425 then he would win and I would cry. Now I had to wait for seven days for the auction to close.

I left the next day for a vacation in Puerto Rico so I had to watch the auction on a very small and slow computer. On the last day of the sale there were six other people bidding. The auction was to end at 2 a.m. so I set my alarm clock to get me up right before the auction ended. I was hopeful but was prepared to lose.

There was a lot of last-minute action among all the other bidders. Finally at T minus 4 seconds, slam, bam, my bid went in. Joy of all joys, I won with a bid of $398. That was close, too close! A week later the phone book came by mail and I spent a couple days studying it.

I learned by studying the telephone book that there were 133 phones in Derry for a population of about 5,000 residents. Rob Frost’s number was 33-4. On his party line there were eight other subscribers and all had their own ring. Frost’s personal ring was four short rings.

A telephone cost about $20 a year, which was about $500 in today’s money. Any call beyond your party line was a toll call. A 3-minute call made to other phones that were less then 5 miles away was 10 cents; a call to Lawrence would be 30 cents for three minutes of gabbing. There were 3 public telephone booths in town — one in each of the 3 villages. In Londonderry, there were about 30 telephones and a public pay station at the railroad depot.

The telephone book is now on exhibit at the Robert Frost Farm, right next to the crank telephone on the wall. You must go see it. When you look at it, think of Rob Frost eavesdropping on the party line so he could learn to speak and write like a Derry farmer.

These short, crisp speech patterns can be heard in most of his poetry. Just don’t look at it and think about how once everybody believed Rick Holmes, even though he didn’t know what he was talking about, and Lesley Frost did.

Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.