Closings of small-town post offices threaten community spirit

Sep 14 2011 - 9:13am

WEDRON, Ill. -- In September 1926, a young airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh crashed his plane in a field on the outskirts of this Fox River town about 80 miles southwest of Chicago. Eight months later, he made the world's first solo transatlantic airplane flight.

About 16 miles to the northeast, Millington was once called Milford until the post office opened in 1861, prompting officials to change the name to avoid confusion with a Milford in a different county.

Now both tiny towns are bracing for a different brush with history. The U.S. Postal Service is considering making their cottage-size post offices extinct.

Faced with a deficit estimated at $10 billion, the Postal Service is looking at an array of options to cut costs, including closing about 3,700 offices across the U.S. and laying off 120,000 employees. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe asked the Senate last week to approve what he called "radical" changes to avoid default.

The so-called Expanded Access Study List of post offices includes 208 Illinois outlets, from Chicago to Bone Gap.

Much to the anxiety of residents, both Wedron and Millington made the list.

Closing a post office can be an inconvenience at best, even in large cities. But in small towns like Wedron, an unincorporated community of about 300, and Millington, population 665, the post office is one of the last stanchions of community spirit. Wedron and Millington have no library, schools or stores. Apart from a few taverns, businesses are scarce.

"This is the last little place that's kept us on the map, so to speak," said Casey Stafford, a part-time postmaster in the Wedron office. "As cheesy as it sounds, for some folks, especially older people, it's kind of their way of getting up and getting going. It's nice to see them out."

It serves that purpose for younger people too. Amy Preuser and her sister, Holly Chandler, who were biking with their kids one recent afternoon, said visiting the post office is part of their daily ritual.

"It's one mile if I take the long way," Preuser said. "If they close it, that means I'd lose my daily stroll and I'll get fat, or fatter."

Her nephew Mitchel Chandler used to get a dollar to fetch the mail for his grandmother. Mitchel's mother, Holly, said sending the children to the post office still is a way for her to get them out of the house and gain a few precious minutes alone.

John Hougas, who has lived by the post office for 34 years, said he and many in town view full-time Postmaster Elwood Hurd as a friend.

"Personally, I'd really hate to lose it," Hougas said. "We used to have a few businesses in town. Now, you lose the post office, there will be almost nothing left."

The customers at Opie's Sportsbar & Grill in Wedron were agitated about the possible closing and wondered why Wedron was singled out over other post offices nearby.

"The electronic age is wonderful," said Lyle Etheridge, of nearby Newark. "But a lot of older citizens don't have computers (to stay in touch), and they don't want to learn how to use them."

He said he'd like the smaller post offices to stay open and be "revamped" and made more efficient.

Anxiety over the post office is much more public in Millington, where dozens of lawn signs call for saving the building.

Village President Scott Smith, who is leading the fight, also has posted large banners exhorting: "Millington Residents Stand Up And Fight. Save Our Post Office."

Smith has organized a committee to make recommendations aimed at avoiding closing. The group has mounted a petition drive and composed a form letter for residents to send to elected officials.

Stopping for a lunch break at Millington's Last Chance Saloon, Smith said he didn't think closing all 3,700 post offices across the U.S. would make much of a dent in improving the agency's operating budget.

"They're starting from the bottom" to save money, he said, "not from the top."

The village, he added, already has donated the land where the post office stands. Millington would maintain the building and the property, Smith said. Besides, "it's there to serve people, not to make money," he said.

"We would do whatever it took to keep it," Smith said.

Last Chance owner Norm Hopkins said the post office "is more or less the center of our town. Older people go there to socialize, and you can check the bulletin board if you lost a dog or found a cat. I would hate to see it go."

Apart from being a social center, Hopkins said, the post office serves a "business-related" purpose for his bar and restaurant. He'll frequently see customers there who ask what the lunch or dinner special is that day.

Smith said adults tell children to run to the post office if they ever feel threatened because people are always there. Patrons said elderly people, often using walkers or perched on motorized scooters, visit the building on a daily basis. Joggers make it part of their route.

"These small towns really rely on this," said Chris Filpi, of Millington, who had stopped by to pick up his mail. Filpi, a landlord and sales manager, said he sometimes visits the post office three times a day, and he enjoys socializing during each trip.

Like several others, Filpi noted that small-town post offices are particularly important to senior citizens, an increasing population in those communities.

"For some people, this is all they have," Filpi said. "This is the best part of their day. It would be a real hardship to everyone in town if we lost the post office."

TIMETABLE FOR POST OFFICE CLOSINGS

For patrons and fans of the 3,700 post offices nationwide targeted for review by the U.S. Postal Service, the timetable breaks down this way:

Postal Service officials are gathering information on the history, revenue and the type and volume of transactions at each of the offices. They also are assessing each community's postal needs and customers' comments about their post office.

When that review is complete -- no date has been set -- the service will notify communities where post offices have been targeted for closing.

That sets a 60-day clock ticking, during which time the Postal Service will hold a community meeting, evaluate all information collected and decide whether to recommend that a specific office be closed.

Communities will have 30 days to appeal the decision to the Postal Regulatory Commission.

The Postal Service is expected to start closing offices as early as 2012.

"We understand and we've been hearing from our customers about their concerns for their local post offices," said Beverly Howard, a customer relations coordinator for the Postal Service. "At the same time, we have to make sound financial decisions."

The agency, she said, had to cut costs wherever possible.

"We have to at least break even," she said. "We have a balancing act to do."

All postal customers, she said, will continue to receive mail services, although it may not be "in a bricks-and-mortar post office."

-- Ted Gregory

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(c)2011 the Chicago Tribune

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