Tuesday, August 29, 2017

100+ Post Offices Celebrated the Eclipse with a Souvenir You Can Mail for

... And the Word from Wyoming

From Lincoln City, Oregon to McClellansville, South Carolina, post offices from—literally—coast to coast commemorated the eclipse of a lifetime last week with limited-time pictorial cancellation stamps for application to letters and postcards. Most of these post offices were in communities that experienced eclipse totality.

Post offices in more than 125 communities have special postmarks that are still available, for the 30 days beginning August 21. Idaho is best represented, with 29 post offices offering the cancellations, every single one of which was in the eclipse's path of totality (100% total eclipse by the moon). Oregon ranks second with 23 post offices, all but one of which experienced totality. (Union, Oregon, according to my sources, experienced a "mere" 99.4% sun coverage.) In Missouri and Wyoming 17 post offices have special cancels available, and Nebraska ranks next with 12. Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kansas, and Illinois are also represented among 'totality' post offices.

2017 Eclipse Postmark Map, by Postlandia

A handful of other post offices, dispersed around the country, experienced the eclipse more modestly but joined in the fun. Of these, a postmark available in San Diego represents the "least eclipsed" post office to make an offering. (To be fair, it is on behalf of a science center.) Among other outliers is Union Pier, Michigan, at 86%, among the closest to the eclipse in the state's far southwestern corner (a mere 283 miles from totality). In Mississippi a postmark representing Stennis Space Center (77%) can be had by mailing to the Postmaster in Jackson (84%). And this time around, what happens in Vegas (71%) doesn't have to stay there; mail your envelopes or postcards to: Postmaster, 1001 East Sunset Road, Las Vegas, NV 89199-9998 for their commemorative cancellation.

The Postal Bulletin from Aug. 17, 2017 provides a list of [nearly all] operations offering the cancellations; link here. It includes instructions for submitting your items for cancellation as well.

About 70 post offices are offering a 'standard' pictorial cancellation of this design:

However, many different designs are available. Some of my favorites include maps, featuring the eclipse's geographic arc, that tie the event more to the place. For example, Dawson Springs, Kentucky; Herculaneum, Missouri; and Stapleton, Nebraska:

Others highlight local scenes or monuments, for example: Jefferson City, Missouri; Hyannis, Nebraska; St. Joseph, Missouri; and Gering, Nebraska:

[Note: Please excuse the image quality above. The images stem from the Postal Bulletin, which never offers a very good resolution for these.]

In Nebraska several offices opened temporary units in parallel with nature's festivities: In Beatrice the postmark was "available Aug. 21 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Temporary Post Office at Homestead National Monument of America." In Gering: "8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Temporary Post Office at Five Rocks Amphitheatre." Scottsbluff: "8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Temporary Post Office at Landers Soccer Complex." And Seward: "Aug. 21 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Temporary Post Office at Junto Event Center."

The Word from Wyoming

Perhaps my favorite set of cancellations comes from Wyoming, where many participating offices made a special effort to marry the celestial with the terrestrial by including their community's particular location on the planet by way of latitude and longitude coordinates, and time and duration of totality. Simple and to the point, many of these daters resemble a post office's "standard" four-bar cancellation device—literally, as illustrated below, a date stamp with four solid bars sticking out the right side for the purpose of cancelling a stamp. For these special postmarks, the bars are replaced with four lines of text featuring specific eclipse information for the community: the time of totality (in Mountain Daylight Time); the latitude; the longitude; and the duration of totality.

Here is an illustration of four-bar cancellations in regular use, and as interpreted by way of two of these eclipse postmarks, from Lander and Powder River, Wyoming:

Curious as to how this set of designs came to be, I checked in with Corporate Communications for USPS's Western Area and Colorado/Wyoming District, which did a nice job of promoting their impressive assortment of pictorials. Here are stories they posted re: Oregon, Idaho, Nebraska, Wyoming.

They referred me to Antoinett ("Toni") Benthusen, Postmaster of Powder River, Wyoming post office (a PTPO, for those who are into that kind of thing). Powder River, located 40 miles west of Casper, has a population of "approximately 17 (not counting the dogs and cats)." The community is located on U.S. 20/26, one major route for those traveling between the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Yellowstone / Jackson Hole area.

Here is the Powder River post office, photographed in 1997 by Postlandia friend John Gallagher. (We also have another photo, taken last year, by Jimmy Emerson.)

Powder River, WY post office, 1997

Toni provided some insights into the pictorial design process:

"I got the idea for my design from Julie Greer, Postmaster of Upton, WY. She suggested using the four-bar dater and replacing them with the Coordinates for Powder River..." Coordinates and other eclipse information came from eclipse2017.org.

One step in the pictorial creation process is copyright management, by way of artist's release: "When I went to fill out the paperwork there was an Artist Release form which either I needed to fill out as the Artist, or have the person who created the artwork fill it out. So, I called Julie and asked her if she would sign the form as the Artist. She said no, that I was the Artist; she only gave me the idea and then I ran with it, making me the Artist. WOW was I blown away, me an Artist?! I couldn't believe it!!!!!"

At this point "other offices (7 in all) started calling me and asking if they could use my design." And they needed help by a bona fide artist. "Would I help them with the paperwork since I had already done mine, and gotten approval to use the design for my stamp? I was so honored that they wanted to use my design and that" Corporate Communications specialist "David Rupert thought enough of it to use on a release." [See links, above.] "He then asked me to create a flyer with all the [participating] offices in Wyoming, and their addresses," for distribution to their customers. Here's a snippet from the flyer featuring several of the unique designs representing the state:

Toni recounts her experience at the Powder River post office last Monday:
[W]e sat just a few feet north of the center of the path of totality. This gave us a crystal clear view of the Eclipse, and what a spectacular event it was! The 20 or so people who chose to park off the edge of the highway were ecstatic about their choice! Immediately after the event a lady from Italy, who is currently living in California, came in to mail a backpack full of extra things she didn’t want to haul along on her trip. When she saw that I was selling the Eclipse Stamps and sleeves and doing the Special Cancellation she went outside and spread the word to everyone out there who all came in and bought me out of sheets of stamps and sleeves, and then bought envelopes to collect and send. I did 160 special cancellations that one day, which for my office is Huge!

I have since restocked my office with Eclipse stamps and sleeves so anyone interested can still purchase them from me or any other offices who still have them in stock. And it’s not too late to get the special cancellation postmark until September 21, 2017. Just send your cards and/or envelopes bearing First-Class postage stamps inside another larger self-addressed stamped envelope to any Post Office who are doing the special postmark.

I was very impressed by how calm and nice everyone was during the days before and after the event! ... The business people in Casper and Riverton interviewed on TV said ... they were very pleased with the amount of customers they had. So...


Finally, here are three photos from the day in Powder River, courtesy Postmaster Toni: getting ready for the big day, with glasses and special shirt for the occasion; viewers in from out of town, in front of the distinctively Wyoming cowboy-signed post office; and an image of the eclipse in progress, through a pinhole projected against the blue collection box.

See USPS eclipse photos at USPS Link. Data for the Postlandia map, top, from Vox.

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 effectively 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


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):


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.