The post office was her retreat because she was postmistress.
She was postmistress because her “Papa-Daddy” had “influence with the government.”
“Papa-Daddy” had influence because he and his family were “naturally the main people in China Grove.”
It was simple as that.
And being postmistress gave her the authority, status and security to do what she did.
Having a post office, even “the next to smallest in the state of Mississippi,” also gave status and security to China Grove, for it told the world that in the eyes of the highest of authority, the federal government, China Grove was a real town.
There used to be a lot of post offices like that around the South, personal provinces of leading families and visible proof that the community they led was something to reckon with.
And I have no doubt that if back then the postmaster or postmistress of one of those wanted to sleep there, they could have.
Only not anymore.
Slowly but surely, the same federal government that gave small towns their postal identity is taking it away. Just last week, the U.S. Postal Service put out a list of 34 Alabama post offices that are being reviewed for closing.
In most cases, the closures are due to population shifts away from rural communities. Many of these towns have already been reduced to the point that a post office is about all that remained to define them. Closing it will, in effect, confirm that the community is no more and in the process throw a little more dirt on the grave of the small-town culture of the South.
In the latter half of the 19th century, as economic activity throughout the region moved from the plantation to the crossroad, towns often rose where no town had been before. The coming of the railroad accelerated the process, as whistle stops became communities with a store, a gin, a warehouse and probably a grist mill owned — or at least controlled — by one man or one family, extended or otherwise. A post office confirmed the legitimacy of the place and the authority of the folks who, through their influence with the government, got it put there.
The P. O. also served as a window to the outside world; if the local merchant did not have what a customer wanted, he could pull out a catalog from Sears or “Monkey Ward” and mail off for it.
One of the post offices on the Alabama list is in Franklin, just north of Monroeville. Its history and fate is that of so many. It once was a thriving town run for and by the Johnson Lumber Co. When I last visited some years ago, all that remained was a century-old, two-story store and a scattering of other buildings, one of which was the post office.
The store, which handled all of the community commerce, sold everything from canned goods to coffins — yes, one was on display upstairs. But business was slow and the lady behind the counter spent most of her day painting slabs notched out of pine trees so they looked like slices of watermelon.
When I bought one, she asked if I would like to buy the whole store, which she said was for sale though there was no sign advertising it to the public. The only condition she said, pointing to an elderly black man who was tidying up shelves, was that whoever bought it “took him in the deal” because he had worked there so long he was like part of the property.
After we talked a bit about what happened when the mill closed, she pulled out a sack of coins, tokens, in denominations that ran from a dollar down to a penny. These were what lumber-company employees were paid. They were redeemable only at the store — a circle of commerce that kept the community going and the workers tied to the company as surely as if it owned them.
But the company was gone. What remained of the Johnson land was mostly in timber and leased to hunting clubs. The family seat, a lovely Victorian home, was a bed-and-breakfast run by a Johnson descendent who spends half her time there and half in Mobile.
It was a charming place. I wonder if it is still open.
I guess I could write her to see how things are going. I have the address. P.O. Box 202, Franklin 36444.
But I better write soon. The mail won’t be delivered there much longer.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.