A town won’t let go of a coin-drop line to the past

The New York TimesJuly 4, 2014 

— As the driver of an SUV drifted off to sleep one recent afternoon, her vehicle drifted across a momentarily quiet two-lane highway. It came to rest on grass, but not before hitting a utility pole, an ornamental gas lamp and an upright rectangular structure of aluminum and glass.

Yes: a telephone booth. Among the last of those once-ubiquitous confessionals of communication, and the last one operated by the family-owned Prairie Grove Telephone Co. in Arkansas.

The 67-year-old driver, exhausted from a night spent preparing for a yard sale, was uninjured. The same could not be said of the phone booth, which had stood sentry for a half-century outside the 1930s-era Colonial Motel, where soda-bottle caps popped and dropped on lost summer days are embedded in the asphalt.

The broken booth lay on the ground, spilled of its whispered secrets and mundane mutterings, but still bearing scratched assertions of affection (“I love Teresa”) and existence (“Jimmy Jones was here”). A half-dozen bystanders took pallbearer positions and carried it to a resting place behind the motel’s cottage-like office.

The motel’s owner, Guy Matthews, said that in his four decades at the Colonial, he had seen his share of teenagers and traveling salesmen set aglow by its interior lights, engaged in coin-drop conversation. But for many years now, he said, the booth has been little more than a photo-op curio.

“Cellphones,” he explained, with forensic specificity.

Prairie Grove Telephone Co., which serves the western half of Washington County, has known for a long while now that its last phone booth has little purpose. One employee, Wade Jones, said he emptied the phone booth of its coins only twice a year.

“Maybe $2,” he said. “Sometimes a little more. Sometimes not even $2.”

So what was Prairie Grove Telephone Co. to do with this battered relic of telephony, whose semiannual return doesn’t even cover the expense of sending Jones out to collect it?

This was the question facing David Parks, whose own fate was determined in 1888, when his great-grandfather, a physician named Dr. Ephraim Graham McCormick, strung a telephone wire across the main street to his brother’s pharmacy – perhaps Prairie Grove’s most momentous event since the quick but brutal Civil War battle that bears its name.

Because many of their neighbors also craved disembodied connection, the good doctor and his partner wound up incorporating their company in 1906. They had a switchboard and a one-page directory that listed everyone from the Prairie Grove elite to “Davis, Sam – Barber Shop.”

The company grew through the years, surviving wars and the Depression in part by never disconnecting a phone for nonpayment. According to a company history, it routinely accepted payment in the form of eggs, produce and “the occasional cow.”

McCormick’s son-in-law, James C. Parks, took over for many years, with the phone company operating from a small office above a hardware store. An old photograph shows many wires shooting, Medusa-like, from the side of the building to link up Prairie Grove.

Jim Parks’ twin sons, Barry and Donald, succeeded their father, and then Donald’s son and only child, David, came on board in 1980. Although his just-earned degree from the University of Arkansas was in education, he was the logical choice to take over one day.

“To keep it in the family,” Parks explained.

Tall, angular, with an easygoing way that serves him well as a community leader in a town of 4,600, Parks runs his phone company now from a renovated building across from the old Masonic Lodge. With 33 employees, 6,900 landlines and 5,800 bills sent out every month, it is no Verizon.

Rural telephone companies like his, of which there are still hundreds around the country, are often the service providers of last resort for the most remote areas. But they are part of an endangered breed in this ever-changing digital age, grappling with challenges that include the move away from landlines to cellphones, and the decline in the fees collected for long-distance calls.

After a long pause to consider a question about his company’s future, Parks said he expected his family’s business to still be around in a decade – though in what shape or form, he did not know. He went on to echo a favored analyst’s assessment: “We’re in an in-between time.”

With all this going on, Parks had not given much thought to the company’s only phone booth, which he drove past at least twice a day. The morning after the accident, in fact, he passed the motel going to and from Sunday service, and never noticed anything amiss.

But the phone booth’s absence became an instant Facebook cause célèbre, as locals pleaded for the return of their totemic reminder of things past.

Acting quickly, Susan Parks-Spencer, a telephone company board member and Parks’ cousin, used a friend’s trailer to move the booth to the phone company’s warehouse, where several people unloaded it.

“We dragged it some,” Parks acknowledged.

He previously had been inclined to disconnect the phone booth. After all, a couple of dollars every six months? But the Facebook reaction persuaded him to salvage the curio, if only to imagine a younger generation trying to decode its instructions:

1. Listen for Dial Tone

2. Deposit 25c in Coins

3. Dial Number Desired

The telephone booth will return to its proper place, outside the Colonial Motel, in the next few weeks. At the moment, though, it is disassembled, its four aluminum-and-glass sides propped against the warehouse walls, its black box on the concrete floor. Carved everywhere are once-urgent phone numbers, now-moot sales calculations and Alan’s romantic declaration for Anna.

The employee most responsible for the booth’s resuscitation is Patrick Smith, 50 years old and nearly as large as his inanimate patient, whose injuries include broken glass panes, bent supports and a battered foundation.

Smith grew up in nearby Morrow, and remembers passing the booth whenever his family trucked their cattle to the sales barn in Fayetteville. The sight of Superman’s see-through closet – an arrangement that made sense only if you didn’t try to make sense of it – filled the boy with wonder.

Later, as a teenager, he often stepped into the phone booth after a movie night at the 112 Drive In theater in Fayetteville, to call as the family curfew was descending.

With the close of the phone booth’s door, the teenager would glow like a firefly. A mother’s reassuring voice would emanate from the receiver. And the caller from Prairie Grove would promise, promise, to be home soon.

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