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A payphone at the Decatur Public Library is shown. The U.S. had well over 2 million of the devices in 1999. 

MOWEAQUA ‚ÄĒ On South Main Street, past the Moweaqua Bowl & Cafe and Moweaqua Coal Mine Museum, stands a relic. The boxy device is something once so¬†ubiquitous that ones were on almost every corner: a pay phone.¬†

Coin-operated, keypad, simple receiver. Nothing fancy. 

Moweaqua resident Patrick Wright said he's never seen anyone use it, except kids trying to figure out what the "foreign" object is.

"As far as it goes," he said, "the thing is like a drinking fountain in a bottled-water world."

Once found at malls, bowling alleys, hospitals, airports and in aluminum booths far and wide, the arcane and somewhat clunky pay phone is quickly becoming a rarity in a digital, portable world. 

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In 1999, the Federal Communications Commission counted 2.1 million across America. But then the explosion of mobile devices started chipping away. By 2014, there were 152,716, with New York with the most, at about 28,000. Just 205 were in North Dakota. Illinois had 5,570. 

Two years later, the national number had dropped to 99,832. 

Today, pay phones practically require a scavenger hunt to find, and there are blogs and websites devoted to cataloging the functioning ones. 

"There's sort of a niche fascination surrounding pay phones," said Mark Thomas, the founder of The Payphone Project website, which started in 1994 as an art project. "Nobody ever thinks about them, but they're actually all over the place. There's a lot of abandoned ones. Keep your eyes open. They're still out there."

When the Herald & Review asked readers on Facebook about payphone locations, responses included the Effingham Mall, on Main Street in Findlay and the Coles County Fair Grounds.

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In Decatur, they're at the Public Library on North Franklin Street and Decatur Manor Healthcare, 1016 W. Pershing Road, where account representative Emily Faught says it's used daily. 

Both are operated by Pacific Telemanagement Services. A customer service representative said the company services 194 payphones in Illinois. He originally listed eight locations of "confirmed in-use payphones," but only the two mentioned could be confirmed. Verizon sold nearly all of their remaining payphones to PTS in 2011.

Other non-working ones include a phone at 22nd Street Discount Liquor and Hickory Point Golf Club. Course Superintendent Andy Potts said the payphone has been there since 2001, but it's been out of service for over five years.

There's also one at the Decatur Public Transit hub near downtown. It had no dial tone during a visit last month. When asked if the phone works, dispatcher Joni Owens said, "yes and no." She said she was investigating, and wasn't sure who the service provider was.

Owens said people always ask to use the phone, typically in the afternoon. "The majority of the time when they come to the door and ask for a phone, I direct them back there." 

She said it's definitely essential, because a lot of people do not have phones, she said emphasizing "a lot."

Thomas also said there's still a need for the devices and they're far from obsolete. 

"There will always be a demand for this," he said. "The big events like 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy knocks out cell service, but disasters come in all shapes and sizes. You could get mugged. You could drop your phone in the river."

Also, about 10 percent of the U.S. adult population don't have mobile phones, according to a 2018 Pew Research report. 

Frontier Communications has 15,000-20,000 of the devices across the country. The company has 191 working payphones in Illinois. 

One is the Moweauqua phone, which has been there since 1965. It's on one side of Oasis Park, a patch of grass with a plaque recognizing  Army Pvt. Ephraim Adamson, a body guard for President Abraham Lincoln. 

Frontier Operations Specialist Sherry Landrus said the last time the phone was visited for repairs or coin collection was May 31, 2017, and Oct. 3, 2016, before that. During the nearly eight-month span, just $4.85 in change was put in. 

Still, Landrus said the phone is staying put, regardless of the dwindling number of calls. 

"Revenue has definitely decreased," she said. But until the company cuts the cord, "It will be business as usual."

The Daily Item, of Sunbury, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report. 

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Contact Kennedy Nolen at (217) 421-6985. Follow her on Twitter: @KNolenWrites


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