#429 – Dick Bernard: Let's have some kind words for the United States Post Office

UPDATE Sep 10, 2011: There have been some interesting comments particularly relating to my comments about the Sykeston ND postoffice. They are included at the end of this post. At the time I knew Sykeston, its population was perhaps 225-250 fine people.
UPDATE Sep 12, 2011: Subsequent to this post, I was made aware of an interesting explanation of this supposed problem which has not been publicized. It is here.
UPDATE Sep 20, 2011: Yahoo news plus related items
Yesterdays news about the travails of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) was no surprise.
I could see it coming earlier this summer when our normal mail delivery time changed from early afternoon to early evening. One day I was at the mailbox when the postman came by, and I asked about the change. He said that the length of their routes had been drastically increased and that they had no choice in the matter.
As to mail he was delivering, increasingly it has been what we would consider “junk” – and that’s not the mail carriers fault. You know what shows up in your mail box. “Real” letters, with handwritten addresses and stamps are very rare these days, replaced by e-letters, which themselves have been replaced by facebook entries, by twitter, by this or that or the other electronic means. Because there are so many mysterious alternative means to communicate, as an older citizen I lament that we have more ways to communicate less….
If it weren’t for junk mail and bills (we haven’t gone paperless yet), there would seem to be little need for a post office.
It is a sad development for me and, I think, for us.
I happen to be a big fan of postal workers and of ‘real’ letters.
I spend a lot of time in line at the local post office (Woodbury MN), and after a while you get to know the folks behind the counter. Theirs is not always a pleasant job. Those of us in line can be a real pain. I much prefer the human face and voice of the postal worker to the machine that dispenses postage (after you correctly follow its orders). I use the machines also; I prefer the people.
Ironically, coincident with the news of the USPS travails I have been mailing the first copies of a just completed 475 page book which consists almost entirely of handwritten letters from my grandparents relatives in rural Wisconsin in 1905-06 (letters) and 1907-13 (postal cards). All of these had been carefully kept by Grandma. They helped alleviate the loneliness of a new home on North Dakota’s rural prairie.
Those were the days when posting a letter was a serious and frequent business: it was a main means of personal communication. Telegraph could be used to deal with emergencies. During 1905-06 the Wisconsin folks got telephone, but it would be some time before that became part of rural North Dakota.
This ordinary farm family of my ancestors, mostly grandma’s sisters, but others as well, hand-wrote over 100 legible and literate letters in 1905-06. Those letters are the essence of the book.
They always wrote in pencil, often by candle-light. One letter revealed that the 600 mile trip of a letter from one farm to the other took only two days. In those years, the mail was carried to and from the farm by horse and buggy, then by railroad, and carried very efficiently.
A 1913-14 pocket calendar kept by my grandfather, incorporated into the book, said a letter mailed in New York City would reach St. Paul MN in 34 1/2 hours; from New York to Seattle, 94 3/4 hours. New York City was the apparent center of the universe. (The chart includes Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco, but not Los Angeles or San Diego.) PostalRegs1913001
Postage was 2 cents an ounce; 1 cent for a postal card.
There were formal procedures, but others were quite casual. It must’ve taken a creative postal worker to decipher exactly where some letters were to be delivered – persons often had rather casual notions of what was a proper mailing address – and usually there were no return addresses. No doubt many dead letters took awhile to reach their intended destination.
Until about 1907, postal regulations did not allow writing on the address side of postal cards. When those regulations were changed, enterprising letter writers wrote almost microscopically to fill the available tiny space. It probably helped that the receivers of these letters were mostly in their 20s, better eyes.
Now the Postal Service is in apparent crisis. It will survive, largely because of the hard-working and dedicated men and women who put up with us every day.
I wish them all well.
(A story about the postcards can be found here.)
A brief memory: my first memory of a real post office is right after WWII, when I was perhaps six years old. We had moved to the tiny town of Sykeston ND, one of those places with a grain elevator on a spur railroad line, seven miles or so from the neighboring towns.
A single train came through this town each day: westbound in the morning; eastbound in the afternoon. It delivered packages and implements and such for farmers, hauled grain cars, had room for a few passengers, and on-board was someone who sorted the mail.
Our neighbor, I believe his name was Mr. Spitzer, was the designated person to meet the train for the local postoffice. He had a very large (or so it appeared to me) push cart, with two high metal wheels and a flat carrying surface. It was designed such that it could be easily pushed or pulled by a human.
When the train came through, a number of sacks of mail were off-loaded onto his hand-truck. In my memory, these were fairly large gray canvas bags with an open end secured with a draw string. They were much like duffel bags we later had in the Army. There might be several of these filled bags, depending on the day.
Mr. Spitzer would roll the cart the block or so to the Post Office, and the postmaster, Mr. Sondag, would begin the process of distributing the mail into the individual post boxes. These were boxes with small glass windows, and as I recall, combination locks. One could see when a letter popped into the box!
Townspeople would gather to see if they had any mail. It was a rather exciting time of day.
At some point, Mr. Sondag would finish his work, people would see if they had any mail, and everyone would go their separate ways, the days anticipation (or disappointment) over….
Anne Curtin, whose Dad was a rural letter carrier in the Sykeston area for many years during the time period described, sent this response:
I did enjoy your blog and agree with your assessment. Our legislators have not helped keep the post office solvent.
Since my dad was a rural mail carrier from about the time I was born, my memories of the role of the post office meant occasionally waiting for him to finish sorting the mail and then we could ride with him on the route. In the spring, he often had live baby chicks making lots of noise in the back of the vehicle. That meant going up to the houses to deliver them. There were also times when the post office was alive with the sounds of live animals. Often at Christmas time, there would be a ham or other gifts at the mailbox for the carrier.
The post office was definitely a social gathering place when many people waited for the mail to be sorted to the various boxes. There was no delivery in small towns – perhaps there never has been. You often read that people fight to keep their post office as it is a distinction to have ones own address and a time/place to find out how your neighbors were doing.
From Bruce Fisher:
The handwritten envelope is indeed a rarity. But once in awhile I get a letter in a hand written envelope. Its usually some sort of hate mail directed at me for a letter or comment I sent to the Strib [Minneapolis Star Tribune] that was published. It usually pertains to something I wrote about the Iraq or Afghan wars or man made global warming.
The letters usually do not have a return address, although I do have one admirer who does supply a return address. He’s from Sandstone [MN] and has several times sent me scripture and verse on going to hell for my political beliefs. Because he supplies a return address, I’m not too concerned about him. Its the one’s who are anonymous that trouble me.
Even though they are troubling, its still nice to receive a handwritten envelope.
From Duane Zwinger, a classmate in Sykeston days:
The story was very accurate. Uncle Eddie was the postmaster. My view of the postal service was somewhat different as I was a “farmer”. We got our mail delivered to us by the “mailman” in our post box that was run over many times. “We lived on the highway three miles east of Sykeston). I would say that Dad had to repair the mailbox two times a year. The mail usually came to the farm about 2:00 PM. It was a mad dash to the mailbox to get the MAIL. (Most items in the mailbox were important). A comment on mail nowadays. I cannot remember the last time I got a just plain letter from someone Bo things have really changed. I hope we do find a need for the Post Offices of today.
From Charlie Rike
I have to say you had some great memories of the postal service in your thoughts today. I am blessed to live in a small [east central Minnesota] town, the postal workers are really great out in the small towns. I am only home here about 1/2 the time so I have my mail stopped a lot for a few days at a time or a few months if I go south for a while.
My lady mail carrier is so very thoughtful, she gave me her cell phone number to call her in case I forget to drop a stop mail form by the office. If I am gone for any length of time the PO here will allow me to designate someone to pickup my mail once a week, which is usually my sister & brother in-law, they pick it up, go through it & send me any first class mail I need to see. So I really do appreciate our small town postal service.
In a past life when I worked as a depot agent / telegrapher for the old Northern Pacific Ry both here in Minnesota & western Montana, I handled lots of mail bags, loading them & unloading from the mail car of the passenger trains of the day that hauled almost all of the mail. I remember how much more mail there would be to load & unload over Christmas time each year.
From Gloria Bougie, who grew up in Sykeston:
I can so remember mail and the post office in Sykeston, my dad”s dental office was right next door. The post masters at that time were Martin Kremer and his sister, Lena. It was always an occasion to “go get the mail”. You are right, the boxes had glass fronts and combination locks. In Sykeston, I think mail time is still a time of gathering and visiting which isn’t all bad. Nice to read your blog and nice to hear from others. I think the junk mail of today is obscene, who needs all of that, I don’t write letters anymore because my sister, Sister Jean, and I call on the phone.
Thanks again for the article, I enjoyed it.
(later) I also remember that when the mail came, every one gathered in the post office waiting for [postmaster] Martin to get it sorted. While he was doing that all the windows for buying stamps et cetera were closed.

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