For the first time in 110 years, the job of postmaster at the tiny Catharpin Post Office is up for grabs.
Before Jack Alvey, who is retiring after 35 years of presiding over Zip Code 22018 in Prince William County, his mother held the job for 24 years. She inherited it from her father, who had been named postmaster after his father died in 1880, only a month after assuming the first postmastership.
This week the U.S. Postal Service will advertise for a new postmaster, but none of Alvey's four children will be applying. They're settled in other careers. And besides, said Alvey, 69, "The job doesn't pay very much." Instead, there have been other rewards.
For more than three decades now, just about all the news of Catharpin has been passed, at one time or another, at the Post Office counter. "Although you stood in one spot on the side of a country road, you kept up with what was going on," Alvey said.
Catharpin, just northwest of the Manassas Battlefield, has escaped much of the wholesale subdivision construction happening elsewhere in Prince William. Horses still graze in pastures, and a tangle of honeysuckle borders the banks of Sudley Road, the community's main thoroughfare.
The Post Office, with 348 rental boxes and 220 addresses spread along a 25 mile rural delivery route, is one of the smallest in Northern Virginia, and it still closes for an hour at noon. But it's a lot busier than it used to be.
About 20 years ago, growth forced it out of the country store next door and into its own building. Receipts that stood at $500 for Alvey's first year on the job now total $90,000 per annum. This year the facility got its first computerized scale. And its next postmaster will be paid from $26,700 to $33,900 a year.
Few people these days are so rooted to one small country crossroads as Alvey is. He was born in a white Victorian house on Sudley Road, not 50 feet from the Post Office, and he now lives only a half mile away. His nephew, Robert Alvey Jr., runs the adjoining country store, where customers can buy almost anything from overalls to a pork chop or a soda.
"I went to school over there," Alvey said, pointing across Sanders Lane (named for his mother's family) to a little clapboard structure crowned by a bell. It's now home to a local plant nursery.
His family gained a name in Catharpin as merchants and farmers, and even in politics. His brother was a county supervisor. "But I always tried to remain neutral," Alvey said.
Alvey remembers when the present Post Office, where Sanders Lane meets Sudley Road, was a cheese factory, established by the state to help farmers through lean times in the 1930s. It didn't do much good. "They made the cheese, but nobody bought it," he said.
Over the years, said Alvey, the tiny Post Office has always excelled in window service -- mostly out of necessity. "Our parking lot isn't big enough to have a lot of people waiting in line inside," he said.
But while the lines have been short, the conversation has often been leisurely, and the atmosphere always informal.
For the occasion of his recent retirement -- complete with a visit and plaque from officials at the Northern Virginia postal headquarters in Merrifield -- Alvey donned an unaccustomed suit and tie. "We're supposed to wear coat and tie, but I always worked in my shirtsleeves," he said. "I used to have a clip-on tie under the counter I'd put on if the inspector came."
"You can't help but talk with him," said Betty Ivy, who has lived in the neighborhood three years and goes to the 14-foot-wide Post Office almost daily. "He can almost tell you your box number when you walk in."
"It's going to be so different now," lamented Alice Buell, a native of Denmark who moved to Catharpin 20 years ago. Before she arrived in the neighborhood, no one had ever mailed a package to Europe. The first time she did, she and Alvey had to get out the postal guide and figure out the procedure.
Annie Snyder, a neighbor and civic activist, said she's always stopped by to hear Alvey's stock of the latest jokes, jokes that he says he usually writes down to make sure he remembers.
"I used to could remember three or four jokes," said Alvey. "Now I can remember only one or two."
Alvey's ticket into the relationships he enjoys with his patrons has often been the past. An amateur historian, he has specialized in genealogy, particularly that of Catharpin area families, many of whose farms he can trace back to King Carter's original land grant.
"I call it my golf game," he said of his hobby. "You can play it at night, in the rain, anytime."
In a locality where many folks are recent arrivals, Alvey's entre' into friendship with a new customer has often been, "Where're you from," followed by "Where're you living?" Invariably he knows the place from his genealogical diggings or his own family.
"Then I might say, 'My cousin used to own a farm around there. You've got good soil. If you're interested, you'll have a good garden," he said. "They feel like somebody cares about them."