By Joann M. Ringelstetter
Today, with the rapid advancement of phone technology and a cell phone in almost everyone’s pocket or purse, the need for public telephones has diminished to the point of no return. Soon, public telephone booths will be only a distant memory for those of us who grew up with them.
When Ruth and I travel to the small towns of rural America, we are occasionally delighted to stumble upon an old phone booth. I think our fascination with these iconic symbols of a simpler time started when we discovered an old phone booth in a small town in western Wisconsin. As we came through this small town and were heading out the other side, we noticed the old phone booth, which was sitting up against the side of a very small local phone company building. It was old and rusty, but it still had a working phone and a phone book inside.
I set up my tripod to take some shots and, as I did so, a couple in a vintage convertible motored past slowly and then stopped. The man backed the car up next to our car and said, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve been through here a number of times and I’ve never noticed that old phone booth before.” We chatted for a while and, after they left, Ruth and I discussed how great it was that a vintage car from several decades ago pulled up next to this vintage phone booth, which was also from several decades ago. We passed through this area a couple years later and the phone booth was still there, but there was no longer a phone in it. And, to our great disappointment, the last time we came through, the only sign of this wonderful old phone booth was a mossy outline in the shape of a phone booth on the side of the building where it used to stand.
In the fall of 2009 while visiting a restored filling station in Minnesota, the owner, Ernie, showed me a 1930s wooden phone booth that he had lovingly restored. This phone booth used to be located inside the local post office, but was now proudly displayed inside the restored gas station. And inside the wooden phone booth was an old-fashioned hand-crank telephone.
“Do you want to see our phone book?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, wondering what he was up to as he pulled a piece of paper off the wall.
“Here it is,” he said, handing it to me.
I looked at it and was puzzled by what I saw. It was a list of names, all right, but there were no phone numbers. Instead, each name was followed by a set of dashes.
“I don’t get it,” I responded. Ernie pointed to the dashes, some of which were longer than others.
“These are long cranks and short cranks,” he said. “That’s what people used before phone numbers came into existence.”
Amazingly, he told me that the phone was hooked up to the local phone system and he could actually use it to call anyone in town.
A few years ago, in the midst of a day of birding for one of the Christmas Bird Counts in central Wisconsin, Ruth and I discovered an old phone booth in a tiny town that was in the center of our assigned block. Since it was cold and snowing and we needed to concentrate on the bird count, we decided we would come back in better weather to capture this old phone booth. About ten months passed before we managed to return to complete this mission, but when we did finally get there, the phone booth was still there with a crumpled, dog-eared phone book and a very old phone that still worked.
In 2009 on an autumn visit to northeastern Wisconsin, we visited a restored filling station that had an old phone booth sitting against the station on the outside. There were many things to look at and photograph, so I was deep in thought as I approached the old phone booth. The first thought I had was to check if there was still a phone inside. So I walked up to the booth, cupped my hands around my eyes to block the light, and began to peer through the glass of the doors.
Well, to my surprise, or rather startlement, someone was sitting on the little bench seat in the old phone booth. I must have jumped a foot because I was hoping to find an old phone, not a person looking back at me. As I regained my composure, I realized that it was a mannequin and all I could do was catch my breath and laugh right out loud.
Next time you’re passing through a small rural town, keep your eyes open and you might just catch a nostalgic glimpse of an old phone booth.