National Historic Phone Booth Gets New Sign
PRAIRIE GROVE — It must be a sign of the times.
A bronze plaque was installed Thursday in front of the Colonial Motel.
It honors the historical significance of … a telephone booth.
The sign reads: 1959 Prairie Grove Telephone Co. phone booth has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior.
It was the first — and so far the only — telephone booth to make the venerable list, said Ralph Wilcox, the National Register/ survey coordinator for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.
“I think the sign is a great way to let people know the historic significance of the telephone booth as
well as allowing people to understand that the National Register isn’t just about grand houses, churches or cemeteries,” he said.
Wilcox nominated the phone booth and resubmitted the paperwork to convince the National Register program to list the property, which it did in November 2015. Before the Airlight outdoor telephone booth was developed in 1954, phone booths were made of wood and were inside buildings, Wilcox wrote in the nomination.
But the metal-and-glass Airlight booth changed all that, with its red panels, bi-fold door and interior light. Telephone booths were once common along highways across America. According to the nomination form, there were 2.6 million pay phones in the United States by 1996. But, while pay phones still exist, phone booths have become harder to find since cellular phones took over the market.
Wilcox said the Prairie Grove phone booth is rare in Arkansas because it has a working telephone. The only other one in the state that he knows of is in Bluffton in Yell County, where there is no cellphone service. Susan Parks-Spencer, a member of the Prairie Grove Telephone Co. board, said the sign cost them $558.
“It was worth it,” she said. The telephone company wasn’t in a big hurry. The sign, which was made by Franklin Bronze Plaques of Franklin, Pa., arrived several weeks ago. David Parks, president of the Prairie Grove Telephone Co., said they put the sign on hold more than once.
“We thought we would do it but it got put on the back burner and delayed,” he said.
Larry Oelrich, Prairie Grove’s director of public works and administrative services, said he drives by the phone booth about 20 times a day.
“A day doesn’t go by when I don’t see people taking pictures at the phone booth.”
The photos sometimes include children dressed as Superman. In 2014, the phone booth was mowed down by a dozing motorist. But it was repaired and restored, retaining the classic mid-century telephone booth look with the red “TELEPHONE” sign along the top.
Because it yielded only about $4 a year in quarters, Parks decided last year to convert the phone in the booth to be free for local calls around Prairie Grove and Fayetteville, which is 13 miles to the northeast.
Erma and Guy Matthews have owned the Colonial Motel since 1976.
Erma Matthews said the phone booth doesn’t seem to be a travel destination, but people stop when they see it.
“We get lots of people stopping there to take pictures.”
The phone company planned to put the sign on one side of the booth, but Matthews asked them to move it to the other, where a post obstructs her lawnmower. “I have to weed eat there,” she said. She didn’t want to have to weed eat on both sides of the booth.
The phone booth is along Douglas Street, also known as U.S. 62 Business, and across from Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park
“It’s just remarkable to be on the Historic Register for the Prairie Grove battlefield and the phone booth,” said Sharon Glover of Prairie Grove.
Prairie Grove’s telephone booth now has a sign telling visitors the 1959 booth is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is owned by PG Telco.