Speak Your Piece: The Vanishing Postmaster

Like a Christmas bicycle, communities come with some assembly required. The elimination of the post office’s central role in binding communities together is perhaps the greatest cost of closures and reductions in hours, says the last official postmaster of Webster, North Carolina.

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When I retired from the Postal Service in July 2012, a 150 year tradition ended. I was the last official postmaster of Webster, a small town in the mountains of western North Carolina. I was the third longest postmaster in Webster’s history but I don’t count that as much of an achievement. My fourteen years can’t begin to compare with Miss Eugenia Allison, who served the town from 1914 until 1948, or Mildred Cowan, who served from 1950-1976.

Reading the names of Webster’s postmasters over the years is like reading a county census. In a rural mountain town that was fairly isolated well into the 20th Century, the same family names filled many a civic obligation. Jackson County has nine post offices now, but over the years there have been as many as 84 post offices serving the county. In the Speedwell community where I farm, the post office was in W.A. Hooper’s house. People would knock on the door for their mail and spend the day visiting. Arthur Allman used to bring the mail over the mountain from the train at Sylva, first by mule in the early part of the century and then by truck. Nothing was better than sitting on his porch drinking homemade mulberry wine and following Arthur’s stories as he and the mule made their way around the county delivering the mail to little community post offices.

There won’t be another postmaster in Webster because the Postal Service has instituted a program called POStPlan. In response to changing times and changing needs, the Postal Service has reduced hours in 13,000 mostly small rural post offices. Webster was reduced to six hours per day and will likely be reduced to four or even two hours in coming years. The fellow who took my place is nice enough, but at not much more than minimum wage, and with the shorter hours, it’s unlikely that he will have the same role and bond with the community that those who preceded him did.

Anyone who follows the news even a little has heard all the stories about how much money the post office is supposedly losing. They’ve heard that with email and the Internet the old fashioned post office isn’t really necessary anymore. A good many people complain that the only thing the post office delivers is junk mail, so maybe it is a dinosaur that’s past its time. Some folks say what’s happening to the post office is a reflection of government generally; that government can’t do anything right; that the private sector can do everything better; and that we’d all be better off if they would just sell the post office to the highest bidder.

Photo by Evan Kalish
The author, Mark Jamison, outside the Webster post office. Photographer Evan Kalish visited Webster in 2012 on one of his many trips to document post offices. See more in Evan’s blog, “Going Postal.”

Of course, the real story is a whole lot more complicated than any of that. Yes, it’s true that mail volumes have dropped because of the Internet, but a great deal of the drop in volumes is due to the Great Recession. It’s also true that the Postal Service has sustained some pretty heavy losses, but the fact is that most of those losses were built into the Postal Service’s accounting by the postal reform bill of 2006 known as PAEA. That bill used some accounting tricks and budget-scoring methods to place impossible and unnecessary obligations on the Postal Service. Absent those requirements, the operations of the Postal Service have been in the black.

Millions of Americans still rely on the post office for basic transactions. Some may call it junk mail, but it’s estimated that the postal network affects $1 trillion worth of our economy and helps support 8 million jobs. Maybe most important is that the local post office is still a community center and a source of community identity. Postal employees, including rural and city carriers, clerks and postmasters, play important and useful roles in their communities.

The founding fathers saw the value of the post office. They understood that a postal network was more than a means of delivery. The postal network served as basic infrastructure that connected our nation commercially and civically. The ability to have an open and accessible network that brought news, opinion, culture and education to the doorstep of every American home had both economic and social value. The promise of universal service, that every American would receive free delivery, is an embodiment of the charge to the Postal Service to help “bind the nation together.” More than that, it helps fulfill the explicit promise of the preamble to the Constitution that “We the people” would join together to “insure domestic tranquility” and “promote the general welfare.”

The rural post office has been a contact point between Americans and their government. In many small towns and communities, the post office is the meeting place, the place where folks see their neighbors and participate in a most basic American trait of connection and community. As postmaster I was more than just a fellow who sold stamps, shipped packages and delivered mail. I was a part of the community, source of information, help and often comfort.

During my years as postmaster I opened jars, put together bicycles for Christmas morning, filled out money orders for elderly customers with shaky hands and helped countless folks with all sorts of tasks that weren’t officially part of my job. When folks in the community had a problem with a medical bill or a dispute with a company, they often came to me to help them sort things out. My ex-wife is a rural mail carrier, and besides delivering mail she delivers soup, baked goods and provides the sort of personal care and attention that goes far beyond a customer-vendor relationship.

The Postal Service is a national treasure and an essential part of our national infrastructure. It has been and continues to be an important source of connection for both rural and urban communities. There is no question that the Postal Service is challenged by new technologies, but it is far from obsolete.

Mark Jamison lives in western North Carolina. He writes for www.savethepostoffice.com, a website that reports on postal issues such as office closings and reductions of hours and service.

 

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