Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thank you, Mr. Postmaster, for finally hearing the voice of rural America May 14, 2012

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FINALLY, AN IDEA that makes sense for continuing postal service in parts of rural America.

The United States Postal Service revealed a plan last week that could keep thousands of small-town post offices open by reducing hours. That’s certainly better than the alternative for places like Hope, Minnesota, an unincorporated community just off Interstate 35 south of Owatonna in Steele County. Last summer Hope’s 120 residents learned that their post office, like thousands of others across the country, likely would close in a cost-cutting measure.

Under a proposal, the Hope Post Office will remain open with daily window hours cut from eight to two.

Residents of Hope didn’t simply give up and accept their fate.  Instead, they circulated petitions and attended meetings and voiced their opinions and filed an appeal. To no avail. The postal service announced in April that the Hope Post Office would close. But now it appears the Postal Service has had a change of heart about closing thousands of small-town post offices nation-wide.

Postmaster General and CEO Patrick R. Donahoe said in part last week: “…we’ve listened to our customers in rural America and we’ve heard them loud and clear—they want to keep their post office open. We believe today’s announcement will serve our customers’ needs and allow us to achieve real savings to help the Postal Service return to long-term financial stability.”

So what does all that official talk mean? Some 13,000 post offices are now on “a preliminary list (for modified hours) that requires additional review, analysis, and verification and is subject to change.” Of those, 407 are located in Minnesota.

Well, the Postal Service is certainly covering all of its bases with that language, leaving room to tweak proposals and change plans/minds. I suppose one can never be too careful and cautious when one is a government entity. Meetings will be held in the affected communities to review options, which could take more than two years to implement.

Additional alternatives, according to the Postal Service, include mail delivery to affected customers via rural carrier or highway contract route; contracting with a local business for a village post office; and offering service from a nearby post office.

In a news release issued May 9, Postal Service Chief Operating Officer Megan Brennan says: “The post offices in rural America will remain open unless a community has a strong preference for one of the other options. We will not close any of these rural post offices without having provided a viable solution.”

Good.

The post office in Randolph is facing reduced hours, dropping from eight daily to four.

This certainly comes as welcome news to the folks in Hope and in many other Minnesota communities. In my region, post offices in Morristown, Warsaw, Kilkenny, Webster, Nerstrand, Dennison, Hampton, Castle Rock and Randolph are facing possible reduced hours.

My hometown of Vesta 120 miles to the west, along with nearby Wabasso, Wanda and Wood Lake, also made the modified hours list.

In every corner of Minnesota and hundreds of places in between, you’ll find those 407 small-town post offices where window service is likely to be trimmed. The Minnesota list fills slightly more than eight pages on a 260-page document that includes some 13,000 post offices across the U.S. To read that list, click here.

The Mantorville post office, where this photo was taken, is on the preliminary list of southeastern Minnesota post offices slated to have daily hours cut from eight to six.

It’s never a good thing, to reduce service in a small town. But closing the post offices would be worse.

I sometimes wonder if the decision-makers have ever set foot in these small towns, if they grasp the importance of a post office as an integral fiber in the fabric of community. Post offices are more than a place to pick up mail, to purchase stamps, to send a package. In these small towns, they are also community gathering places, a locale to exchange news, a spot to reach out to neighbors and a symbol of community identity.

I’ve witnessed, first-hand, how losing a school, a church, a business, can impact a rural community. In Vesta, for example, the town’s 330 residents can’t even buy a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk; they must travel some 20 miles for those staples. I remember when my hometown’s Main Street was lined with businesses, including a grocery store, two hardware stores and more.

Yes, times have changed. We are a more mobile society. We communicate via cell phones and e-mail and Facebook and other social media. But not everyone. In these small towns—the ones where the Postal Service initially considered shuttering post offices—many elderly residents don’t own computers, relying instead on old-fashioned mail delivery to pay bills and send letters and hear from loved ones. The post office is vital to their system of communication.

That the U.S. Postal Service finally heard the loud and clear voice of rural America, and perhaps understood that voice, pleases me as it should thousands of other Americans.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Zip code 56046 July 26, 2011

THE NEXT TIME YOU’RE traveling Interstate 35 south of Owatonna, instead of whipping by the Hope exit at 70 mph, pull off the freeway and check out this unincorporated community of 120 residents, probably best-known outside of Steele County for Hope Creamery butter.

Unless my husband and I missed the signage, we never saw a sign marking the creamery and simply guessed that the butter-making operation is housed in an old brick creamery on the edge of town next to a farm.

But we discovered several other places of interest after parking our car along the one main road that cuts through Hope. Yes, you need to park your vehicle, get out and walk, rather than simply driving through town thinking, “There’s nothing here.”

You would be wrong, oh, so wrong.

First point of interest: 56046. That would be the Hope Post Office. With a street front facade resembling the general stores of yesteryear or perhaps a building from a western movie set, this old-style structure charms.

The Hope Post Office sits along Main Street. The elevator complex in the background is just across the train tracks.

Take in the details: the red and blue bench, the double front doors, the rock out front, the welcoming porch...

Even the lettering on the front window has old-style charm.

Maybe it doesn’t take much to impress me, but I appreciate buildings with character. I quickly determined that the post office serves as Hope’s community hub. I pulled open the screen door and stepped inside a closet of an entry, the door to the post office to my left, the door to a gift shop to my right. Smack in front of me, I found business cards and signs, church festival notices and other information tacked onto a bulletin board. A clutch of rubber-banded newspapers lay on the floor in front of the post office door.

The community bulletin board inside the post office entry.

A clutch of bundled newspapers outside the locked interior post office door.

From inside the post office entry, a view across the street of the bank and an antique store.

Since I was there on a Sunday afternoon, I had to settle for standing outside, peering through the large, cracked and taped front windows to view the customer service area that is smaller than most bathrooms. But it serves the purpose and I’m sure Hope folks are happy to still have their post office.

I always figure once a community loses its school, its post office and its bank, well then, you may as well close up the town. So far, Hope has only lost its school.

Today the U.S. Postal Service releases a list of 3,600-plus post offices under consideration for possible closure in a cost-cutting effort. I hope Hope is not among them.

Post office hours are listed on a cracked and taped front window.

CHECK BACK FOR MORE posts out of Hope and other area communities I recently visited while on a Sunday afternoon drive. It’s my philosophy that most of us are missing out on the treasures of small-town U.S.A. because we fail to get off the freeways, park our vehicles on Main Street and explore. Either that or we’re “too busy” to slow down and notice the details worth noticing in our small towns.

If anyone knows about the history of the Hope Post Office, submit a comment. I would like to learn more about this building.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling