By Judy Keen
The trouble with the post office started a few months ago. The mail, which had always been delivered to this town's 81 residents by 10:30 a.m., began showing up three hours later.
It didn't take long for people to find out that their carrier had been assigned a new route that starts 12 miles away in Marble Rock. When people asked why, they learned that, starting this month, mail destined for delivery by carrier here wouldn't go through the post office on Main Street. It would be sorted 14 miles away in Rockford.
Most people here are assuming the worst: that the U.S. Postal Service won't keep the Dougherty post office open just to serve the 22 P.O. boxes in the lobby and to sell stamps.
It's a fear shared by small towns across the country. They worry that losing the post office will hasten their hometowns' demise, because people who need to buy stamps or mail a package while running errands could decide to shop elsewhere.
In the past two years, 222 post offices have closed.
"Usually when you lose your rural carrier, the post office is next," says Tim King, 47, who owns a radiator repair shop here. "If you don't act right away, the Postal Service thinks you don't care. And the next thing you know, you're done."
Becky Litterer, 53, owner of a greenhouse, organized a petition drive to save the post office and gathered 184 signatures. Copies were sent to postal officials and politicians. Without the post office, Litterer says, "people have one less reason to come to town."
Fred Hintenach, the Postal Service's national customer service manager, says there are no plans to close the post office here, though its hours might be reduced. In the past few days, people who signed the petition got letters from Gov. Tom Vilsack saying postal officials have told him the facility won't close. But people are skeptical. "I just don't know how long that's good for," Litterer says. "The only way it's a cost savings is when we're closed."
In a letter to the Postal Service, Mayor Lynn Nagel wrote, "Actions like this are like pounding a nail in the coffin in preparation for the death of our small town."
Other communities fighting to keep their post offices agree.
"It's devastating," says Henry Music, who was postmaster in East Point, Ky., until its post office closed in December. Residents of East Point, population 1,278, also collected signatures on petitions. "We deserve our post office like every other community," Music says.
Monkton, Vt., population 2,000, is trying to prevent its post office from closing in April when the postmaster retires. The post office is located in the postmaster's garage. About 500 signatures have been collected on a petition. Henry Boisse, a town selectman, says saving the post office is "a question of our town's identity."
Occasionally there are happy endings. McCausland, Iowa, was notified in January that its post office would close temporarily on Feb. 24. Most of the town's 300 residents were sure it would stay closed. After a public outcry, the Postal Service agreed to keep it open.
Retired postmasters have offered their expertise to small towns in the fight.
Keva Richardson, a former postmaster in Glenwood, Iowa, who retired in 2001, told people here to document how closure would affect them, write letters and prove that the town is united behind keeping the post office open. "Rural America is as important as New York City or anywhere else," Richardson says. "The post office is the pride of many of these communities, and working together is the only way to save it."
Federal law says the Postal Service must provide "a maximum degree of effective and regular postal service to rural areas, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining." It can close a post office because of inadequate facilities or to streamline service after giving 60 days' notice and getting recommendations from district postal officials.
"We don't discount anyone's input," Hintenach says. "The important thing is what the customers need." The Postal Service considers revenue, population growth or loss, proximity of other post offices and the effect on businesses and schools, he says. "We care dearly about the communities," he says. "We pride ourselves on the fact that we take a good, hard look at this."
When a post office closes, its operations sometimes move to another town or are contracted to a local merchant. Sometimes unstaffed mailboxes are set up. As a last resort, communities can appeal to the Postal Rate Commission. In the past five years, there have been no appeals, Postal Service spokesman Jim Quirk says.
A town's lifeline
The Postal Service, which gets no subsidy from taxpayers, is competing with e-mail and commercial shippers. It ended 2005 with net income of $1.4 billion but expects to end this year $1.8 billion in the hole because of a mandatory $3.1 billion payment to an escrow fund for retirees' health care, Quirk says.
There's been a post office in Dougherty since 1900, when the town was incorporated. People are so attached to their mail carrier, Dennis Campbell, that they leave him gifts on his birthday and tuck glasses of iced lemonade inside their mailboxes on hot days.
Ethel Conners, 88, recalls mail arriving on horse-drawn surreys. She put up a sign at the bank where she works that reads, "If you don't understand the importance of a post office in a small town, then you've never lived there."
Eileen Weber, 78, worries about getting her blood-pressure medication in the mail. Litterer frets that potential customers won't find her greenhouse if the 1,500 fliers she mails every spring don't originate here. King wants to be sure he receives customers' checks in the mail before the bank closes at 2 p.m.
Mostly people worry about their town, where the population peaked at 300 soon after it was founded. In 1922, there were 250 residents, a pool hall, a hotel and two general stores. Today, vacant buildings line Main Street, and only a handful of businesses remain.
"Everyone keeps saying we're a dying town, but we're still plugging away," King says. "We see something that needs getting done, we do it. We want to keep our post office."
post a question or comment here or contact John Crabtree, firstname.lastname@example.org
I grew up on a farm 3 miles from Dougherty. Dougherty, Iowa is my hometown. Any thoughts that our readers might have on helping save the post office in the hundreds of rural communities faced with losing theirs, like Dougherty, would be greatly appreciated as well as shared with others and acted on as soon as possible. thank you, John Crabtree
Center for Rural Affairs
Values. Worth. Action.