Last Booth Standing

17 years ago

So, what do (or is it does?) a telephone booth and an inflatable catcher’s chest protector have in common? Seems a little implausible for a relation to exist between those two very dissimilar and ordinary items, doesn’t it? And what, pray tell, would those two items have to do with our town anyway? Not much, for sure, but keep your eyes glued to the story below and I’ll attempt to weave a relationship.
    I reckon the story begins with Tom Watson who frequently placed a blanket over his head in order to operate and to better hear the new contraption called a “telephone” which he and his partner, what’s his name … oh, yeah, Alexander Graham Bell … invented in the late 1870s. That blanket-over-the-head trick became the first telephone booth, if you will, in the history of mankind (womankind, too). The new invention worked well and immediately reached out, grabbed the imagination of all and swept the country like wildfire. Not long after, hotels and other public places were installing telephone booths so that callers could have a private spot to talk. Coin-operated telephones hadn’t been invented yet, so an attendant was placed near the booth, timed the call and collected the amount due. Well, that was a hundred years or so ago.
Now it’s necessary that I digress for a moment in order to introduce the other item in the story – a catcher’s chest protector. Back in the early 1880s when baseball was just a baby, catchers were getting hurt frequently because of no protection to the torso and other parts from balls, bats and people. This protector was, from the start, ahead of its time because it was inflatable, designed on the principle of a bicycle tire. Now, wouldn’t you think he would have stuffed it with straw or cotton or something similar? Nope, he stuffed it with air knowing that the catcher could deflate it, roll it up and conveniently tote it from stadium to stadium. Very clever (for those days), don’t ya think?
Here comes the clincher. That coin-operated telephone and that inflatable catcher’s chest protector (the two highly dissimilar items introduced in the first paragraph) were invented by the same guy, William Gray, back before the turn of the century. Both were revolutionary, but, like most inventors, the names are almost never associated with their products with the exception of a few. But what’s all this got to do with our fair city, you ask? Good question, I answer. All of the above simply gives me a smooth runway on which to launch a background on the subject of today’s blather … Last Booth Standing.
Presque Isleites (only a few at first) have had telephone service for a little over 100 years. The first switchboard was placed in a newspaperman’s office in the so-called MFX Building (formerly known as the Star-Herald Building) just north of the Braden Theater. The newspaperman (forgot his name) operated the switchboard and in 1896, when the switchboard was first installed, 22 subscribers (mostly merchants up and down Main Street) were linked together by way of the switchboard. All was well until one day the newspaperman decided to go fishing for more than a day. He simply closed the office and, in doing so, closed access to the telephones the merchants had come to rely upon. Fully irritated, the merchants moved the switchboard across the street to Thayer’s Drugstore. Apparently telephone service was good, dependable, but growing in demand. In 1905 the entire Aroostook Telephone and Telegraph Co. (then called) moved its operation to the second floor of Thomas Phair’s office building now Wilder’s Jewelry Store. And there the telephone company served the public for 34 years. The company, now getting into a more automatic telephone system, erected in 1939 a fine telephone building on the corner of Second and Hall Streets. This now brings us to the “Last Booth Standing” (finally).
Telephone booths have been part of our scenery practically since the contraption was invented in 1879. The first ones (excluding the blanket-over-the-head one which Thomas Watson “invented”) were elaborate wooden booths found only on the inside of public buildings like banks and hotels. To anyone’s recollection, the only inside booth ever in Presque Isle had been placed in the Northeastland Hotel, perhaps in the first few days of the new Hotel when built in 1932. And there it served the Hotel’s guests for years. They tell me it was located to the left of the elevator … I personally don’t recall. But outdoor booths began to appear in the late 1940s or the early 1950s. However, rather than wood which would have taken a beating in our weather, they were manufactured from aluminum and glass in order to make them weatherproof. These outdoor versions were scattered around town, but only a few. I made a few phone calls to a couple of guys who had worked for the Telephone Co. in years past to confirm the locations of the few outdoor booths I recalled. We confirmed one in front of the Rec. Center, another one or two at Smythe’s Plaza and perhaps one at the grandstand on the fairgrounds and lastly, but hardly least, as they say, is the one still standing on the corner of Second and Hall Streets.
And now we have finally arrived at the point of this article after going ‘round Robin Hood’s barn. Over the years these outdoor booths have, one by one, given way to telephone “stations” (don’t confuse the two; the booth is a hut-like structure designed to protect the caller from the weather and to provide some privacy). There are many of these (stations) scattered around the town but eventually will disappear like the booths because of the popularity of cell phones … everyone has them. But (and that’s a big “but”) one booth remains, resting all by itself, symbolizing the past, reluctant to go away and standing proudly as if it doesn’t know that it’s a dinosaur. It still operates, although it lacks a telephone book and costs the outrageous sum of 50 cents for a local call. We oldsters remember throwing in a dime for a local connection. But that was eons ago.
I grew up right across from the telephone office and clearly recall the booth (some say there were two booths on that corner) with its accordion door. The folding door is now missing, apparently removed years ago to accommodate the handicapped. The last wooden booth was removed from the Hotel years ago. Eventually, the Last Booth Standing will disappear also, but, before it does, motor on down (walking is an option) to the corner of Second and Hall Streets, and get a glimpse of the past before it leaves the planet for good.
One last word: It’s hoped that when the Telephone Co. people decide to remove forever the Last Booth Standing, they will seriously consider donating that aluminum and glass piece of the past to the Presque Isle Historical Society to be exhibited one day in its new facility when completed.
Again, I truly appreciate you, the reader, taking the time to read my stuff. Don’t go away, because there’s more, much more, to come in future issues of the Star-Herald. From time to time, I’ll direct you to the for more photos of the subject matter at hand. Often little room is left to publish more than one photo in my articles.