Island Romance In The Days Of Party Lines And Record Hops

text by Kaitlin Webber for The Working Waterfront

Courtesy of the Gwen May Collection, Swan’s Island Historical Society.

As the days warm, the crocuses sprout, peepers peep and my lawn begins to fill with deer poop, it seems the season has finally changed. Earlier this week, the first tick of the year burrowed into my shin with cheerful tidings—don’t worry, Mom, it wasn’t on for 36 hours.

Ah, spring—when “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love” (a sentence which I’m sure many lobstermen find running through their heads constantly).

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of romance on the island—mostly because of the generally known fact that you can’t get away with anything out here. A coworker visited the island last year. As I picked him up from the ferry terminal and drove past one islander after another I thought, “Uh oh.” The next day at a potluck dinner people were asking about my “new fellah. They thought he had nice eyes.

So, I wondered, what must it be like for a teenager? Already the most troubled and misunderstood of creatures, how could they survive budding romance in a place without movie theaters, coffee shops, or even the smallest of bowling alleys? What did couples do? As much as I personally love the idea of having all my dates at the library, I can see how it’d be nice to have a few more options available.

I took the problem to my friends at the historical society, who had themselves survived this ordeal in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. I promised I wouldn’t give names.

“Parking” was their first answer. An intelligent island teenager had a precise mental map of all the places that were not visible from the road or nearby houses.

Cemeteries, the Quarry Pond, the area behind the Baptist church—I didn’t press for too many examples, lest they suspect my motives. Apparently, the car was the center of both romantic and social activity. Kids just drove around enjoying themselves, whether with parental permission or partially terrified that they’d get caught.

Today’s couples have a great advantage in communication technology. A cell phone’s privacy is remarkable compared to the old party lines on Swan’s Island.

A note to younger readers—a “party line” is not as exciting as it sounds. Several households would share one phone line, and a central operator (also on the island) handled calls between lines. Each home was distinguished by the number and cadence of rings: three long, two short, etc.

Not only did you have to wait for other people to finish their calls before you made your own, but you had the added excitement of knowing that anyone on your line—including the telephone operator—could be hanging on your every word. People reminisce about close-knit communities, but you have to wonder where to draw the line.

My informants explained that there usually weren’t “dates.” Young people traveled in groups: walking, swimming, skating and picnicking. You’d show up to an event and hope that so-and-so would be there. If they were, you’d steal some alone time, then head back to the group.

There was more dancing then—contra dances and record hops that Juanita Staples held each Wednesday and Saturday in a garage. Recreation opportunities have come and gone throughout the years as residents set up their own social events. They ran movie projectors, created a teen center, held ice cream socials, and for a while there even was a bowling alley.

As is typical of the Swan’s Island spirit, people made do, and made fun.

Many come here and fall for the beauty and romance of a Maine island, but I feel for those who fall for beauty and romance on a Maine island. I wish you luck and creative solutions!

Kaitlin Webber is an Island Fellow on Swan’s Island through Americorps and the Island Institute.