Prairie Grove Airlight Outdoor Telephone Booth

Telephone service came to Prairie Grove (Washington County) in 1888 when local physician Ephraim Graham McCormick strung a telephone wire across the city’s main street to his brother’s pharmacy. Since many of their neighbors also wanted to have telephone service, the brothers incorporated the company in October 1906. As the twentieth century dawned, the use of the telephone—and the telephone booth—grew tremendously. Outdoor telephone booths began to appear in the 1940s during World War II at military bases. They became prevalent throughout America in the 1950s.

When the Airlight Outdoor Telephone Booth was introduced in the mid-1950s, Bell Telephone System touted the booth’s new modern design and features, meant specifically for outdoor use. The aluminum frame, glass booth, and interior light allowed it to be used outdoors day or night. The use of the Airlight Outdoor Telephone Booth soon spread across the country, including Arkansas. The Prairie Grove Telephone Company installed one on the eastern side of Prairie Grove on U.S. Highway 62 near the Colonial Motel. The booth’s location on the main highway near a motel and across the street from the Prairie Grove Battlefield Park allowed people passing through Prairie Grove, staying at the motel, or visiting the park to enjoy the booth’s convenience.

The Prairie Grove Telephone Company estimates that the booth was installed around 1960. An article in the Prairie Grove Enterprise on April 17, 1958, detailed the growth and upgrading of Prairie Grove’s phone system, and it is possible that the phone booth was installed as part of the improvements.

The usage for the Prairie Grove Airlight Outdoor Telephone Booth also illustrates the fact that telephone booths are quickly becoming a thing of the past due to the proliferation of cell phones, which caused a dramatic decline in the use of pay phones. In 1991, the Prairie Grove telephone booth brought in $340, but by 2005, the amount had dropped to $109.55. By 2014, this had shrunk to $19.

On June 7, 2014, the booth was damaged after being struck by an SUV. It was nearly removed permanently, but, because of the local response on Facebook, the company repaired and restored the booth. After several weeks of work, the Prairie Grove Airlight Outdoor Telephone Booth was reinstalled outside of the Colonial Motel, allowing locals and passersby once again to make a phone call. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 9, 2015, the first such telephone booth to achieve such a status.

For additional information:
Barry, Dan. “A Town Won’t Let Go of a Coin-Drop Line to the Past.” New York Times, July 4, 2014. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/05/us/05land.html?_r=0 (accessed August 11, 2016).

Bowden, Bill. “Booth Makes Connection.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 20, 2015, pp. 1A, 7A.

———. “Phone Booth Historic Site, Hello?” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 5, 2015, pp. 1B, 9B.

Wilcox, Ralph S. “Prairie Grove Airlight Outdoor Telephone Booth.” National Register of Historic Places nomination form, 2015. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas. Online at http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/National-Register-Listings/PDF/WA1233_nr.pdf (accessed August 11, 2016).

Ralph S. Wilcox
Arkansas Historic Preservation Program

Last Updated: 08/16/2016