For rural Va. town, post office delivers more than mail

IN STAR TANNERY, VA. Past the six cows on the right and the creaking barn on the left, Terry Goad opens the one-room post office here as she does every weekday morning, lifting the wooden service window and stepping outside to hoist a weathered American flag toward a gray winter sky.

Nearly 45 minutes later, Goad peers over reading glasses at her first patron, white-haired Helen Keller, 74, who enters the spit of a lobby to pick up a package for her daughter.

The mail is only part of what draws Keller and other residents of this rural nook to the post office, which is among 2,000 nationwide that the U.S. Postal Service says it might close to help stem losses of $23 million a day.

Keller is also here for the possibility of conversation, which she finds when she notices Yvonne Renner, 78, the post office's landlord and next-door neighbor. Renner's grandfather once served as postmaster. He was succeeded by her mother, Edna, whose photograph still hangs on the wall, 27 years after her reign's end.

"Hi, Helen," Renner says.

"Hi, Yvonne."

"My son just had knee surgery."

"Seems to be popular these days."

"It's always something."

" 'Tis that."

Ninety miles west of Washington, at the foot of the Shenandoah Mountains, Star Tannery's main attractions are its church, which hosts an annual picnic on the second Saturday in August; a bar with $2 drafts and karaoke every Wednesday; a fire hall, home to the annual farmers carnival in July; a lone market that serves sandwiches on white - and white only - and does not have a toaster; and the post office, all of 308 square feet, which has been in the same white clapboard building since 1923, when Postmaster Hesler Himelright opened it in his general store.

Take away their post office, Star Tannery's residents say, and they will have to make a 20-mile round trip to Strasburg for that basic service. As much as inconvenience, they fear losing that inky black "Star Tannery, Va." on their postmark, a celebration of their place on the map.

"We'd lose our identity," says Eleanor Himelright, 76, a distant cousin of Hesler's who lives on Himelright Lane, just down the road from the cemetery dotted with Himelright tombstones.

Small-town life

About noon, Himelright dropped by the post office to mail her phone bill, just before Anne Repaske, 85, a retired microbiologist and cashmere goat farmer, who sent a $100 birthday present to her grandson, $50 to her granddaughter to help pay rent, a $1,260 quarterly tax payment to the IRS and three pairs of underwear back to the company that sent her the wrong size.

"Closing the post office would be one step toward eradicating small-town life in America," Repaske said before heading back to her goats.

More than a century ago, as Americans migrated west, the Postal Service opened offices seemingly everywhere, fulfilling its mission, as stated in federal law, to provide "services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary and business correspondence of the people."

At its peak in 1901, the Postal Service maintained 76,945 branches across the United States - sometimes in stores, barbershops and the occasional church. That number dropped as letter carriers began to deliver to homes in rural areas, making offices less essential as pick-up points for mail. Today, as Americans increasingly communicate electronically, the volume of mail has plummeted by more than 20 percent in five years, leaving the country with fewer than 32,000 post offices.

"We are doing what we can to cut costs, and part of that is looking at the very large infrastructure of retail offices that have been left untouched for decades," said Sue Brennan, a postal spokeswoman. With many postal services available at supermarkets, ATMs and retail outlets, such as Costco, "there is more access today than there ever has been," she said.

The bottom line

Star Tannery's first post office opened July 1, 1872, on the grounds of the tannery for which the hamlet is named. After the tannery closed in the 1890s, the post office moved several times, finally settling in Hesler Himelright's general store, where it remains open six days a week for Star Tannery's nearly 400 households and anyone who happens to drive by.

In most ways, the area remains what it's always been: winding roads and rolling hills, deep forests and half-mile-long driveways. When a soccer camp tried to open in the area a couple of years ago, residents banded together in opposition.

"We're not big on change," said Wes Rudolph, 30, who lives two miles from the post office with his cat, Satan, and dog, Dixie, in a house once owned by his great-great-grandfather, Hollis. Outside is a 28-foot-tall pole, at the top of which flaps a Confederate flag.

When he's not selling mechanical parts, Rudolph researches Star Tannery's past, which goes largely unchronicled in history books. The post office, he said, is a living memorial to the community, not to mention a nice place to buy stamps. "This area is forgotten," he said. "We get a phrase or a sentence, nothing more. We like the privacy, and we like everyone leaving us alone. But we don't want to be cast aside and under."

Thirty miles away, in Winchester, Dennis Voorhees, the Postal Service's manager of operations for Virginia, chuckled. He has heard complaints from small communities before: Without a post office, our town will disappear.

"We don't feel the post office makes or breaks the community," he said. Already, he said, people in rural areas drive 10 or 15 miles to buy groceries. "Why not for postal service?"

It's all about the bottom line, Voorhees said. The Postal Service pays only $300 a month for its office in Star Tannery and a minimum of $33,000 a year for a postmaster, but revenue has fallen - from $37,316 in 2008 to $31,341 last year.

Hearing to be held

No decision on the office's future will be made until after a public hearing. But, Voorhees said, "we think we can provide alternative service without that post office being there." On average, he said, Star Tannery's office has "less than two hours of work a day."

On Monday, Goad opened for her usual eight hours. She sorted mail into the 43 post boxes and handed out packages.

No live chickens were delivered, as has happened. But a steady stream of patrons came in, each greeted with an unfailingly polite "How may I help you?" A mechanic wanted a roll of stamps. Another man mailed his wife's car keys to her in Manassas. The King sisters - Pat and Mickey - came to pick up their mail, as they have for years.

"We need our post office," Pat said.

"We want our post office," Mickey said.

At 4:45 p.m., Goad printed a record of the day's 40 transactions, then slipped on her coat to lower the flag. A bird chirped as she drove away.

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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