“The Prairie Post Office: Enlarging the Common Life in Rural North Dakota.” K. Amy Phillips and Steven R. Bolduc, history by Kevin Carvell. North Dakota State University Press, 2017, 102 pages, color photographs, maps and other illustrations.
Box 172, Rhame, N.D. That was my childhood address in Slope County. Our school bus driver was also our rural mail carrier, driving the route on gravel roads twice most days and once Saturdays. Our mailbox on the main road was mounted on a decorative iron piece that my father made in his GI Bill welding class in nearby Bowman, N.D. Somewhere I have a picture of my younger sister, age 4, standing on that mailbox.
What takes me down this particular memory lane is my recent reading of the beautiful and interesting book, “The Prairie Post Office,” published last year by the NDSU Press, sent to me in Bismarck via, what else but the mail.
This book describes in rich detail how the community post office is the linchpin of the rural town in which it is located. We all attend different churches and shop in different establishments (now frequently online). Many North Dakota towns do not have clinics or hospitals or even schools. But what many do have is a post office. It is what remains in the town as its beating heart. Here neighbors meet and chat. Here the diligent postal staff sees to it that everyone in their respective communities receive their mail, no matter its importance. And the potential loss of these rural post offices causes tectonic shocks to reverberate throughout these communities.
The book opens with a top-notch history of the postal service in Northern Dakota Territory and North Dakota by the inimitable Kevin Carvell, of Mott, N.D. Thereafter the chapters include highlights of the public service that the post offices fulfills and the social, economic and symbolic role of these places.
Each chapter is filled with photographs of the post offices and the people who keep them running, as well as citizens’ thoughts on their local post office’s importance. The layout is pleasing and the writing compelling — all the elements of the book make for a fine reading experience.
“As with areas elsewhere in the United State, rural North Dakota reflects the dynamics of change and continuity. … In our interviews, the prairie post office was referenced as representing and supporting this rural way of life. … Rural community members view the local post office as a symbol of social connectedness … important indicators of the community’s place in the body politic.” (pg. 85-6)
When I finished this book, I found I had a strong desire to see a picture of that old-fashioned metal door with Box 172 stamped on it. Sadly, I learned in a phone call to the current Rhame postmistress that progress had built a new building in Rhame and the old boxes were gone. Where she did not know. She remembered me though, and I knew who she was. This is the link that bonds us as North Dakotans, as Americans. Here is a photo from the book that took me down this memory lane.
When I was first married, we lived in rural Dunn County. One of the most thoughtful wedding gifts we received was a good old-fashioned mailbox, the kind one can buy at Menards or Ace Hardware.
Our routine, like every other citizen in the state, was to stop at that box each day and collect our mail. Oftentimes, we indulged in a long walk (about a mile, one way) to the mailbox. The elderly gentleman from whom we bought the place expressed shock at this, telling us that in the more than 50 years he lived there he never once even considered walking to the mailbox. In that time period, Jim took a part-time job as a rural mail carrier and often said that one really gets to know the neighbors by delivering their mail.
When we moved to Medora, we rented a post office box, and the post office there was definitely a hub of the town. Medora still has those old-fashioned metal PO box faces as it happens and a colorfully decorated exterior of the building, complete with a western theme.
These days, here at Red Oak House, we have a red mailbox of Scandinavian origin mounted on the front of the house. I’ve seen these for sale at the Norwegian store at Kirkwood Mall in Bismarck. I’m on a first-name basis with my mail carriers, sometimes handing them a popsicle on a hot August day. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Read this book and I promise you many happy thoughts about your connection to the prairie post office, the glue of our communities. Thank you to the authors and to NDSU Press for capturing this in a charming book.