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Saturday, February 9th, 2008

Zuma post office a piece of Americana

Attached-to-home layout one of a few left in the United States

By Shelley Grieshop

Postmaster Charlotte Garman helps resident Tom Cole at the small post office in. . .

MONTEZUMA - Martha Kennard still remembers as a young child soaring on top of the shoulders of the postmaster in order to reach the small, square, post office box where her family's mail awaited her grasp.
"We had box number one and it was clear at the top of the wall," says the 85-year-old Montezuma resident, who has lived across the street from the village post office for decades. "Box number one is mine now and some days it's still hard to reach."
Ethel Stafford was the postmaster back then, serving the Montezuma community from the post office in her home from 1915 to 1956. She was a housewife and career woman, doing dishes one minute and selling stamps the next, Kennard recalls.
The post office, now located at 99 W. Main St., continues the town's long-standing, in-house tradition. The current office is attached to a two-story home in the heart of the village. Homeowner Scott Hoening leases the room to the U.S. Postal Service.
"Post offices located in homes are a slice of Americana that is slowly diminishing," says Ray Jacobs, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service in Ohio.
Jacobs said many post offices were established in homes years ago when towns were booming. It was usually a matter of convenience for the postmaster, who often worked another job from home.
"Then populations shifted and needs weren't as great in some places. Most of these 'home' post offices were moved to separate buildings or closed up completely," he said.
The uniqueness of Montezuma's post office is not only rare in the Grand Lake area, it is uncommon across the United States, Jacobs says.
There is no door-to-door mail delivery in Montezuma, so residents must have a post office box to receive mail. If the local post office ever closed, the entire town would be placed on a rural delivery route.
But that scenario is unlikely anytime soon. Despite a population under 200 and a single stop light downtown, the Montezuma post office is a hub of activity most days.
"People wouldn't believe how busy the place is," says Kennard, who keeps a keen eye on the activity taking place within a stone's throw from her front door.
Postmaster Charlotte Garman knows most of her customers by their first name. She chats with them about their health, where they'll vacation this year and every other topic under the sun.
"For some, I might be the only person they see all day," she says.
Although the sky-blue curtains behind the counter give the feeling of an inviting kitchen, Garman is all business, unlike some of the postmasters before her.
Laverne Kittle, appointed postmaster in 1965, lived and resided at the current site and was often spotted hanging laundry on the clothesline out back while keeping an eye out for customers. As a government employee, Garman says that's just not allowed these days.
She also quickly defends the notion that her 12-by-10-foot lobby is tiny.
"We do everything a large office can do," she says, as she weighs a box for shipping. "Some people ask, 'Can you mail packages from here?' They're usually surprised to find out we do it all."
According to a study by the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in 2004, small post offices cost the postal service an average of $63,000 annually to operate while bringing in revenue of only $31,000.
Despite the financial losses, the government is in no hurry to close their doors, Jacobs says.
"There's no push to get rid of these smaller offices," he says. You can't just close them anyway, it's a slow process. You have to prove their customers will get equal or better service if you shut them down."
Size really doesn't matter, Jacobs continues. The smallest post office in the U.S. is a former irrigation pipe shed in Ocotee, Fla. - an 8-by-7-foot building, he says.
"And it's still open," he adds.
The future looks bright for zip code 45866.
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