A country post office

In the clean chill of a country morning, Melvin Nicholson unlocks the door to the tiny white-frame building, gathers a few sticks of kindling, and fires up the Tip Top wood-burning stove. Outside, thin black smoke rises against a bright sky.

Across the highway, cattle browse lazily through hay. Around the mid-Virginia county of Madison, dairymen, farmers, laborers, housewives move through their morning chores. But when Mr. Nicholson has hauled the morning mailbag inside and hoisted the Stars and Stripes, the post office of Radiant, Va. 22732, is ready for business.

That little post office out there at the figurative crossroads of America is perhaps the humblest of government institutions -- small, obscure, slow paced, and lacking in self-importance.

Yet these small post offices, formerly designated as "fourth class," have been sources of intense local pride when threatened with termination by a budget-conscious government. Together with the churches, schools, and general stores, post offices are the common ground for those who live far from each other -- part of the fabric of back-country America. A government office, it is distinctly ungovernmental in its social function. On the wall is a little sign reading, "Bless this house and all who enter."

It is dear to the hearts of many rural citizens, prized for many reasons: essential service, community focus, ostensible demonstration of federal tax money at work. Through it each weekday trickle all the business notices, mail-order treasures, love letters, and journals of news that knit society together.

"In Michigan forests," wrote French statesman/author Alexis de Tocqueville early in the 19th century, "there is not a cabin so isolated, not a valley so wild, that it does not receive letters and newspapers at least once a week." And later he noted of young America: "The post, that great link between minds, now penetrates into the heart of the wilderness."

We recently watched a workday unfold at the tiny Radiant Post Office. The general delivery windows opens at 7 a.m. and does business until 1 p.m. For whatever the reason -- the cozy room, congenial atmosphere, or the Christmas Eve feeling one can get waiting for the mail to come -- the post office is a favorite drop-in spot for the farm folk of Madison County.

Take Effie Tucker. Out for her morning stroll on the day we were there, she arrived in due course at the front step of the post office.Miss Tucker wasn't expecting a letter. She didn't get one. But that didn't prevent her from spending a good portion of the morning in friendly conversations with a friend, Helen Brockman, beside the stove.

Postmaster Nicholson knows all his customers' names. He may even know the particulars of the mail they are expecting -- though, naturally, he lets none of this detract from his chartered duty of "intelligence, diligence, and discretion" in sorting letters and periodicals for 43 general delivery and 55 star route families.

Little things make up the day's work. The latest issues of Progressive Farmer, Boy's Life, Ebony arrive on a Friday. Social-security checks come another day.

"BAck on Valentine's Day," Mr. Nicholson says with a smile, "we got a letter from across the county with handwriting all over the envelope.It was the funniest-looking thing. And you should have seen the grin on the young man's face when he came to pick it up."

On this particular day, Alice Lohr perks up the small talk by arriving upon an auburn stallion. Her father-in-law, George Lohr, drives up on his John Deere tractor. A dozen customers trickle in and out. Still, Mr. Nicholson has a couple of hours of quiet time to himself.

The name Radiant was chosen by Joseph H. Tucker, grandfather of Effie Tucker, in 1885. Its significance is not recorded, but the US Post Office Department (precurser of the Postal Service) accepted the name because it did not duplicate any others in Virginia, an important consideration in the days before ZIP codes.

Over the years, post offices such as this have been the only "town" that many farming areas have had. Economy measures have reduced their numbers in recent years, but the Postal Service recognizes the fact that rural post offices serve purposes other than delivering the mail.

"It will probably come as no surprise," writes journalist Richard J. Margolis in a report prepared recently for the US Postal Rate Commission, "that during my investigations I found not a single rural citizen who seemed prepared to give up his local post office without a murmur . . . . The marriage between Americans and their post offices has endured much too long, and has been far too successful, to permit anything but a painful separation."

Mr. Margolis says the crossroads post office remains invisible to rural residents as they conduct their daily business. But when its survival is threatened, or when an outlander like himself begins asking questions, they come up with answers that explain the depth of their loyalties.

"I guess the post office is like drinking water," a woman in Milroy, Minn., told him. "You don't appreciate it till you don't have it."

"These are places where the flag flies," says Allen Lanier, editor of Postmaster's Advocate magazine and himself the postmaster in Guyton, Ga. "These are places where the federal government gives the people some type of return on their tax money.

"No, it's not always self-supporting," he says. "But, funny as it may sound, delivering the mail can be secondary to flying the flag -- to being a good neighbor."

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