Thursday, August 10, 2017

Explore Montana with the Man Who's Been to Every Town

In recent entries we explored the development of some of Montana's large post offices. Today we delve a little further. As of last month the Post Mark Collectors Club (PMCC)'s online post office photo collection for Montana is complete! We have a photo from every active post office in the state—and then some.

As of January there are 314 active post offices, one carrier annex, and 27 Contract Postal Units (14 of which are Community Post offices—CPOs) in Montana. At press time we have 481 photos from the state, including images of discontinued operations, former sites, and (as seen with Pendroy below) multiple stages in the visual evolution of a single post office building.



The majority (276) of these photos were taken by Postlandia friend Gary Splittberger, a consulting geologist (think: oil/fracking country) who has worked in and explored much of western oil country. He's also provided more than 80 photos from North Dakota, and more than 20 from Wyoming, Utah, and Arizona. Most importantly for this article's purposes, he has visited each of the post offices in the 147,000 square miles of our fourth largest state. He puts his visit count at 419, when you include discontinued operations and new post office locations: "for instance, I have visited 3 different St. Marie PO buildings over the past 20 years."


St. Marie, Montana Contract Postal Unit sign, 2014


Gary and his SLR at a marker commemorating 100 years of the post office in Gold Creek, Montana.

But that's not all, as Gary keeps on top of developments in Big Sky: "I will soon visit #420, as Bighorn, Montana has a brand new PO building that is about to open (probably August 16)." That photo will surely be posted to the PMCC collection soon.

The Great Falls Tribune covered the end of Gary's 24-plus-year trek around Montana: the post office at Malmstrom Air Force Base outside of Great Falls, a site not accessible to the general public—which makes sense considering it's a nuclear ICBM launch site. For this leg of Gary's travels he was accompanied on post by a veteran, Wayne Olson.

(The PMCC's post office photo collection now includes a photo Gary took of the Malmstrom post office this year, and one our friend John Gallagher took in 1999, when those attending the PMCC's annual convention, that year in Great Falls, were allowed to tour the base and visit the P.O.)



Left to right: Wayne Olson, Sharon McCrea, Gary at the Malmstrom A.F.B. CPU/post office

In addition to Great Falls Tribune coverage Gary received an unexpected note of congratulations from Montana governor Steve Bullock:



How awesome is that??



An Evolving Mission


Gary didn't start out photographing post offices. At first he collected regional postmarks in "a very casual sort of way." When collecting at the post office in Broadview, Montana (a town comparatively near—only 30 miles from—Billings) in 1993, the Postmaster (presumably, as per Postmaster Finder, Mary L. Baasch) suggested that Gary that it would be really "neat" if he documented the places he visited with photographs in addition to postmarks. And so that branch of the quest began.


Gary in Springdale, Montana, in 1993. How times and styles change!

Many post offices in Montana are small and remote, such that Montana has 51 Part-Time Post Offices (PTPOs), more than every other state except Alaska. PTPOs are independent post offices which USPS now deems too small to justify a full-time Postmaster's salary; they would ordinarily be assigned to a neighboring postmaster's oversight. PTPOs are far enough (more than 25 miles) from another full-time post office that they instead report directly to their USPS administrative District—in this case the Dakotas District, headquartered hundreds of miles away in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. [USPS's former Big Sky District, which had overseen operations in Montana, was absorbed into the (self-explanatory) Dakotas District several years back, making the Dakotas District among the most geographically broad in the country.] As Gary was quoted in the Tribune, "It’s not that there’s so many [post offices in Montana], it’s just that they’re spread out."

Take a look at Gary's Flickr stream and you'll discover another arm of his collection: postmarks from post offices from an era of Montana long gone. He has postmarks from more than 1,100 Montana post offices in Montana, at least half the total that has ever operated in the state. The Tribune featured a sizable and detailed gallery of some of Gary's collection, much of which has been scanned and posted to his Flickr feed. But there's more, and this is what's really awesome: Gary then goes out and finds the sites of these ghost communities, and shows you what they look like now. What remains could be anything: a cluster of buildings, perhaps decrepit; a dusty crossroads; a railroad track; a ranch; a single sign; or even an empty field, hillside, or stream bank. It's Forrest Gump's box of chocolates spread across tens of thousands of square miles... and condensed into an image feed, conveniently for us.



Further still, Gary's feed features descriptions of what had been. Below I've combined two pairs of adjacent images [current photo, old postmark] typical of what you see in the feed. These two are of Brookside and Bald Butte. Here is Gary's caption of the former:
Phillips County. View of the Little Rocky Mountains from the Stage Road, near the last site of Brookside. Brookside was a ranch post office that moved between three different ranches in it's 34-year lifetime. The Brookside post office first opened in 1903 (June 15) on the Coburn Ranch along Beaver Creek, on the northeast side of the Little Rocky Mountains. Robert Coburn served as the first postmaster. In 1916, the post office moved ten miles north to the Graves Ranch with Belle Graves filling the postmaster position. The post office moved again in 1920, one mile further north, to the Daellenbach Ranch. Paul Daellenbach was postmaster until the Brookside post office was closed in 1937 (July 31). On a postcard from 1937, Postmaster Daellenbach wrote a note describing how the area had been "ruined by the drouth and is now deserted". Today, 80 years later, the area is still very lightly populated.




A postmark is, in its own way, a physical embodiment of a place, and Gary's work ties them together to tell their stories. You can see why I enjoy his work.



On Cookie-Cutters and Gems


When I've explored Montana I must confess I've been a bit disappointed. So many of the small-town and remote community post offices that you see in Montana nowadays are cookie-cutter structures with standard blue-and-white USPS signage. I've illustrated this before in this post about Hammond, Montana. Or maybe, if you're in a larger town, you get this standard design—again, no real character distinct to the open West. Examples of these designs below:


Joplin, MT post office; Gary, 2013.


Fortine, MT post office; Gary, 2017.

I'd hoped to see more of this:


Volborg, MT post office; Gary, 2013.

When prompted, Gary provided his thoughts about how things have changes in his 2+ decades of exploration, as well as some of his favorite P.O.s to visit in the state. Verbatim:
You asked about the cookie-cutter Montana post offices. Most of them were built in the 1990's and they they built all across the state so you can find similar PO's from Alzada to Heron and from Turner to Roberts. Not the best for those of us who enjoy photographing post offices, but likely a good thing for the P.O. staff and customers.

I was fortunate in that I was able to visit and photograph many of the earlier PO locations prior to the construction boom of the 90's. There are still a few post offices around the state that retain some "character" and are fun to visit and photograph; Volborg [photo above], Canyon Creek, Ismay [photo below], Silver Star, Polaris, Wyola, and Zortman came to mind right away. The old bank buildings in Flaxville and Fallon are fun to photograph. Yellowtail is kind of unique in that it's the only PO I've ever seen in a laundromat. And, of course, we still have some of the grand old PO's from the early part of the 20th century; Anaconda, Deer Lodge, Dillon, Miles City, Glendive, Livingston, Missoula, and Billings.

Ismay, MT post office. Jimmy Emerson, 2008.

He continues:
Unfortunately, some of my favorite PO's to visit have closed in the past few years. Vandalia, Powderville, Polebridge, Haugan, Swan Lake, Lake McDonald, Kinsey, Forestgrove, Creston, and Mosby were all unique places to visit. In fact Vandalia was probably my favorite of all; it was located in an old school building (dated 1912) that was much fun to photograph. For many years Penny Strommen served as postmaster there; now she has an art gallery in the old school house/post office building. And right next door to the old school house, the previous Vandalia P.O. building still stands, with "post office" readable to this day across the front of the building. I've stopped in Vandalia for photos at least 6 times over the years.

Former Vandalia, MT post office, 2011. Discontinued 2010.

Powderville was also a great place to visit, although not an easy place to visit; it's about 35 miles over dirt and gravel roads to get to the PO building which was a little shack out on the prairie. That little shack served as the post office for at least 50 years before it closed in 2013.

Former Powderville, MT post office, 2015. Discontinued 2013.

While monotonous standardization might have impacted the visual appeal of many post offices in Montana, Gary concludes, "there are some treasures to be found around the state if you've got the time to search."

Some of this searching takes Gary, and his wife and "fellow backroads traveler," Mary, way off the beaten track—even by Montana standards, to wit: Gateway, "a former port-of-entry along the Kootenai River in NW Montana." Gary: "The Gateway townsite was flooded in the 1970's when the Libby Dam was built, creating Lake Koocanusa." Normally accessible by foot or by boat, "very low lake levels" meant the site was only accessible via a five-mile hike.


Gary and Mary at Gateway

Other remote sites include Duderanch:
The post office at the OTO Ranch, one of the earliest dude ranches in Montana. It was a summer-seasonal P.O. that closed in 1937. The ranch is owned by the Forest Service now and has been restored to some of its former glory. It is accessible by foot, about a 2-mile hike in the Absaroka Mountains. The main lodge, which I'm standing in front of, was probably the site of the Duderanch P.O.


Gary's trips ain't over yet. When asked how much further his adventures might take him, he waxes poetic and practical:

"I'll likely keep driving the back roads looking for these long-gone communities as long as I have gas money and as long as Montana will give me a driver's license!" I sincerely hope you enjoyed this article, the first in what I hope will be a series of articles featuring postal enthusiasts from around the country!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Flying the 46-Star Flag

There's a lovely residence in the old seaside town of Waldoboro, Maine with a long back-story. And a slick Sotheby's real estate promo video for when it was recently sold. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting 908 Main Street:



The building was constructed pre-Civil War as a federal building: Custom House and Post Office. Wiki: "This building was erected in 1855 by the U.S. government on the site of Hon. Isaac Reed’s apple orchard. The Post Office occupied the first floor and the Custom House the second. From 1855 to 1904 it existed as a customs house, handling all shipping business in the Waldoboro Customs District, an area [extending] from Bristol to Northport. By 1853, this district took care of more shipping business than any district in New England, save Bath and Boston. By 1900, however, shipping had declined precipitously. In 1909 the building was renovated to install a new plumbing and heating system and to add a twelve-foot addition at the rear of the building. Soon after, The Customs District of Waldoboro was abolished and the Custom House closed."

Anyway, about here (1909) is where we come in. At the National Archives there are photos of hundreds of federal buildings at the time of their completion; in fact, contractors offered such photos as proof that their work was completed (and thus, get paid in full). You'll most often find pairs of such photos, taken from opposite corners to show all faces of the building. I've scanned and posted many of these, of course, at the PMCC Online Post Office Photo Collection. You may have seen a couple of these in my Big Sky, Big Post Offices entries (to wit: Missoula). Photos were taken upon completion of an all-new post office / federal building, or upon completion of a major renovation / building extension. Such would include that "twelve-foot addition" mentioned above.

There are three photos—undated—in the Waldoboro file, which effective show us a 360° view of the post office:






The "twelve-foot addition" would be an enlargement to the rear and correspond roughly thusly:



So can we date this image to the time of the addition? Fortunately, the generally high quality of these images and the American flag help us out. Because at this time we did not have 50 states, and if these were taken in 1909 we wouldn't expect to see even 48 stars on the flag. Rather, we'd expect to see only 46. The 46-star flag would have been in use between 1907/8 with the statehood of Oklahoma, and 1912 for the statehoods of Arizona and New Mexico.



So is that what we see? Zooming in on the second of three images of the post office above, we can see that the answer is a definitive yes; we see six rows of stars: 8-7-8-8-7-8. In this case it's best to compare the alignment of the first star in each row to see that this is how they pan out. This places it firmly between 1908 and 1912, so these were most likely taken at the end of construction work on that 12-foot addition. (See ushistory.org for more about U.S. flag designs and the dates they were used.)

Hope you enjoyed some photos of a stunning old P.O., and a little explanation of one way to date historic images.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Lost Post Offices of Magoffin County, Kentucky

Once in a while a collection of post office photos truly astounds me. This was the case when Postlandia friend John Gallagher—45-year postal tourist of 35,000+ post offices—sent me photos from one day in rural, Appalachian Kentucky in the 1970s. The vast majority of the photos were taken in population-13,000 Magoffin County.

When John and Alan Patera visited the area in May 1978, Magoffin County was home to a whopping 36 post offices. Today it has two. Mash Fork, Wonnie, Fritz, Gypsy, and Lickburg are just a handful of the many unincorporated rural communities that housed post offices, since discontinued. Several were in rundown shacks that could compete for title of Smallest U.S. Post Office. Many stood proud with rustic, unique, and utterly stunning hand-painted signs; others were barely identified at all. All contribute to this snapshot of a piece of Appalachia since lost.

Here are a handful of images to whet your appetite:

Printer, KY post office:
Printer, KY post office

Wheelersburg, KY post office:
Wheelersburg, KY post office

Waldo, KY post office:
Waldo, KY post office

View the full album of images here. There are 36 photos in all, and they are all fantastic.

The images are randomly sorted. Dates of discontinuation are included with the images, as known. The two post office still operating—Salyersville and Falcon—have since relocated. The PMCC's online post office photo collection has the images of the present sites as well.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Topaz

I had difficulty finding the Topaz, California post office last month despite knowing its address. As it turns out the facility for this population-50 community has been suspended. Initiated about a year ago, the "temporarily" suspension (as per USPS News Release) appears permanent as the building has been formally vacated. Postal operations have been relocated to Coleville, three miles south on U.S. 395.

Both communities are located just inside the California border from Nevada, one hour south of Nevada capital Carson City. I enjoyed exploring the entire area a few weeks back while in Reno for the Post Mark Collectors Club (PMCC) Convention.

Topaz provides yet another illustration of the richness of the PMCC's Post Office Photo collection. You can see the facility in 1988 and 2014, with the roof in the latter suggesting structural decay. USPS cited structural issues as the reason for closure. You can also see that an antique wall-mounted collection box was replaced during those years, and the sign was moved (and, if you look closely, repainted). Both images were taken by Postlandia friend John Gallagher. Finally, we show here the building as appears today.

Topaz, CA post office (1988, 2014):



2017:


The saddest part about this effective closure is the pride the community seemingly took in its post office. The sign, repainted multiple times, proudly declared "Est. 1885". Unless the post office reopens, it will have lived to the ripe old age of 131.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Big Sky, Big Post Offices, II: Missoula and More

A couple of weeks back we looked at the history through the expansion of the downtown post office in Billings, Montana. Two of Montana's other largest cities (and locations that continue to process outgoing mail) are Missoula and Great Falls. Each of them has a grand downtown federal facility as well. Let's take a look.

Missoula, Montana—now Hellgate Station post office

Originally built prior to World War I (1911-1913), this federal building has undergone sizable expansions over the years, enabling it to serve as the Missoula's main post office, a federal courthouse, and house other federal functions.

Here's a 3-D Google Maps overview of the building, from roughly the same angle as our first image below, that might enable you to envision this complex more clearly. Te original structure is at the bottom-left; it was expanded rearward toward Pine Street:



You're about to see photos from several different angles: from the National Archives you have the front-right, along Broadway facing NW (ca. 1913); the rear-left, along Pattee Street facing SE (1928); and an image from roughly the same location facing NE, toward Pine Street, of a massive new extension (1938). Rounding out the tour my 2012 photo was taken from the Broadway, also facing NE.

ca. 1913:
Missoula post office, ca. 1913

1928 (first annex; note the extension of this face of the original building by three window bays—look closely at the color of the stonework):
Missoula post office, 1928

1938 (second annex, along Pine Street):
Missoula post office, 1938

2012:
Missoula: Hellgate post office, 2012

The building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979, five years after most postal operations relocated from the building. The postal retail operation that remains is known as the Hellgate Station post office.

Great Falls, Montana main post office

Unlike in Billings and Missoula, primary postal operations in Great Falls never relocated away from downtown. Here too we've compiled multiple images of the building over time. The original grand three-story structure was built in 1912. In 1937 a large new wing was built to its left (the difference being rather apparent in the 1938 image shown below); and during the '60s the rear was expanded as well.

Our first image, from the 1910s, once again comes courtesy a postcard being sold on Card Cow:



1938:
Great Falls, MT post office, 1938

1993, by Postlandia friend John Gallagher:
Great Falls, MT post office, 1993

This building, too, has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, if you'd like to read more about it.

Neither the Missoula nor Great Falls federal facilities received New Deal artwork. However, several post office buildings in Montana built during the F.D.R. era did, and you can read about several of these buildings on this National Register nomination form. Best of all, I've scanned and uploaded National Archives photos from the completion of these buildings to the Post Mark Collectors Club (PMCC) online photo collection for Montana!

BONUS:
Compare our early-'30s image of the former Havre post office to a photo of what the building looks like now, courtesy a 2015 photo in a story by the Billings Gazette. New residents Marc Whitacre and Erica Farmer purchased and have been renovating the building for their own home. "The family's efforts earned them the 2015 Preservation Award for Outstanding Preservation Rehabilitation Project, an honor distributed every other year by the Montana State Historic Preservation Office." The details of the story are pretty fascinating.

BEST OF ALL:
The PMCC's online photo collection is virtually complete when it comes to currently operating post offices in the state, largely thanks to the work of Postlandia friend Gary Splittberger. More in our next Montana post.