Metro-East Living

British-style phone booth is becoming a landmark in rural Belleville

Yes, you saw it right.

A bright red British-style phone booth catches your eye as you drive along Rentchler Road south of Illinois 177. The gray and tans of winter make it stand out alongside a house set back from the road.

“We had an old pay phone in the basement,” said Deb Trentman, who lives in that house, “and George (Mokriakow), our son-in-law, and my husband (Eugene) started talking about what they should do with it. We have a lot of things in the shed, the basement, the garage.”

They decided the working black rotary wall phone, rescued from a garage sale, would look great in a phone booth — or phone box, as they call it across the pond.

“George went on the computer and pulled up a picture, so my husband built it,” she said. “My son-in-law thinks it’s really cool.”

It is.

The phone booth stands about 8 feet tall with paned windows on three sides. British phone booths are cast iron. Gene used 2-by-4s and 2-by-6s for his.

“I made it a little smaller than original one. I got the glass out of the trash at Wilke (Window and Door). I put about $200 into it.”

To cover the rounded roof, he went to Rural King, and bought a rubber mat, the kind used in animal stalls.

“You never know what an odd thing will turn into.”

Roofing tar seals the cracks.

Black “telephone” lettering on a white background above the door makes it look authentic. The lettering came from Trans Supply in East St. Louis where Gene was shop foreman.

“I told the gentleman who does decals what I wanted,” said Gene, now retired. “He came up with the exact size. I put it on plastic, plastic I got from an old sign.”

An added touch? A small black crown above the lettering.

For the red paint, Gene headed to Lowes.

“They said, ‘I know just the color you need.’ It’s all hit and miss. ... It took about 18 months. A lot of hours, a lot of time went into it. I couldn’t really afford to do what they did.”

He poured a slab of concrete near the garage where it stands.

“We also got an old Belleville streetlight at a yard sale,” said Deb. “We put the streetlight on one side and the phone booth on the other.”

Now, when they turn on garage lights, the streetlight and phone booth light up, too.

Gene finished the phone booth last summer. Drivers have taken note. When he was down at the mailbox recently, a couple who had been to London asked him about it.

“I hear people talk about directions,” said Deb. “Go out this way, past this phone booth. It’s getting to be a landmark.”

The phone booth is not the first thing Gene has built. It won’t be the last.

“He built our family room,” said Deb. “He built our garage. He finished the upstairs. Now that he’s retired, he deos the things he likes to do, the things that are more intersting to him. We never had a repairman around. He would take vacations and do the projects here.”

Gene likes a challenge.

“I put a Ford motor in a Datsun,” he said. “I always try to do things people don’t do. My dad was good at fixing things. I think I got that from him.”

“When we first moved out here in the country, we didn’t have a lawn mower,” said Deb. “He built a mower from a VW engine. I was very impressed with that. He cut the (acre and a half of) grass in half the time.”

“It goes as fast as a VW,” said Eugene. “I only used first gear, which is like a real fast walk. It would have gone 40 miles per hour. It was riding mower with a brush hog that would make a 5-foot wide cut. It had a big plate on bottom that farmers use to cut fields. We bought a regular Sears lawn mower 25 years later. She was kind of sad I took it apart.”

The Trentman daughters, Jessica Mokriakow and Erin Herr, benefited from their dad’s handiwork. So do the grandkids, two boys and three girls, ranging in age from 5 to 15.

Not far from the phone booth is a playhouse with a spiral staircase inside.

“We had one for our daughters when we lived in Fairview Heights,” said Gene. “All the kids in the neighborhood would come over and play in the playhouse. It made me think I should have one for my granddaughters.”

He built all sorts of riding toys for the grandkids, go-karts and electric cars.

“I would get them from garage sales, and put in lawn mower batteries. Now, they’re all wanting motorized ones.”

“We had more riding things around here,” said Deb.

Gene’s next project?

“We have a pond in back. The trees back there were small when we bought the place.”

He plans to cut down a few.

“I would like to put a dock back there.”