Plains Folk

Prairie Post Offices


This new book from North Dakota State University Press will stir your heart and agitate your mind. I’m talking about the unassuming work entitled The Prairie Post Office: Enlarging the Common Life in Rural North Dakota. Authors, K. Amy Phillips and Steven R. Bolduc. Historical chapter by Kevin Carvell. Photographs by Wayne Gudmundson.

Begin with the photographs. Lovers of books and galleries know, respect, and admire Wayne’s work. This is a little different, as most of the images are portraiture–of people, and of buildings. Look into the eyes, or as the case may be, the windows, but also linger a little longer with the image; study the balance, the lines, the shadow. The images are documentary, but there is artistic value added into them. That value makes them evocative in a way you don’t fathom at first glance.

Then, consider the historical treatment of postal service in North Dakota, as chronicled by Kevin Carvell, the Sage of Mott. Reading his essay with relish, I feel like half the time I am at large on the land, perhaps a mail carrier fleeing Hunkpapa pursuers around the slopes of Dogden Butte, and the other half the time I am a literary guest, partaking of cool drinks and rare books in Kevin’s landmark personal library.

Now, as for the main authors, Amy Phillips and Steven Bolduc. They have not produced an exhaustive history, nor even a comprehensive social survey. What they have done is evoke the public and community life associated with our country post offices and then sort out, methodically, the significance of it.

The subjects are seventy-six post offices that the United States Postal Service proposed in 2011 to close. We are talking about places like Fingal, 58031; Anamoose, 58710; Fortuna, 58844; Dodge, 58625. Phillips and Bolduc went out and talked with the postmasters and their patrons, sorted through the interviews, and came up with the categories comprising the significant functions of the post offices. These include,

First, providing time-honored public service. They get the mail to its destination, with dispatch and integrity.

Second, the information and referral role. Who are you going to ask, in a place like Kathryn, North Dakota? The post office is “the only place to stop, the only open door on Main Street,” says the town’s postmaster, Sharon Coleman.

Third, the social role. Possibly because most postmasters are women, people feel comfortable gathering and exchanging greetings and news at the post office. Fourth, the economic role. You come for your mail, then you eat breakfast at the cafe.

Fifth, the delivery of basic necessities. With an aging population, delivery of medications is vital. And if an old man is fretting about running short on some essential medication, your country postmaster might just call the kids and let them know of his need.

Sixth, the symbolic role. Raising the flag, symbolizing the federal connection, but it’s more than that. The post office, our authors say, “informs beliefs about the meaning of a rural way of life.”

Since the corporate reorganization of postal service in the 1970s, it has moved away from the high ideal of public goods and toward the minimal baseline of service provision. We see this playing out in our prairie towns. It may be symbolic of something larger in our national life.

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