Special Delivery

Friday, June 11, 1999 - Lake George, Minnesota - "Six-forty and a dollar, sixteen. That's seven fifty-six, please." Iris Olson takes a ten dollar bill from a customer and gives him change. "Thank you - have a nice day." She takes two small boxes and an envelope from the counter, pounds them with an inked, rubber stamp and starts them on their journey to their destination.

A country cannot survive without a reliable, efficient postal service, and the United States has one of the finest in the world. In small towns throughout America, the post office is an important part of the community. During the first centuries of our nation's development, many towns didn't exist until they had a post office, and that structure usually was the center of town. For many people, it is the portal to the rest of the world, the connection to their friends, relatives and to the business of their lives. The daily trip to the post office is a ritual to look forward to, always offering anticipation of what lies behind that little, glass door.

Olson has worked in the Lake George, Minnesota post office - one of the smallest in the United States - for a decade, and she has been the postmaster here for three years. There are only 87 boxholders in this tiny town near the Mississippi headwaters, and today, she is helping one of them with some parcels, items he has sold over the internet.

Olson lives only two miles from work, but that is only one of the reasons she likes her job. After raising a family and becoming widowed, she found herself very much alone, and she applied to work here. With no delivery service in the town of Lake George, residents must come to the post office each day for their mail, and Olson has found herself very much in good company. "The reason I'm here is because I enjoy serving the people," Olson says. "They're my friends, people that I know and care about."
During the 1930's, the W.P.A. employed artists to paint murals in over 1,100 post office lobbies around the country. Click the photo to view several murals, in Art for the waiting.

Olson is one of only a few U.S. Government employees for many miles around this forest and farmland part of midwestern Minnesota. She works full-time and enjoys the benefits and security of the job. Though other post offices have closed nearby, she is confident the Lake George office will remain open, at least long enough for her to retire fifteen years from now.

A consummate government representative, Olson knows her postal regulations, and is proud of the services she offers, mentioning several USPS products in conversation, such as the popular priority mail; "It usually arrives in a major metropolitan area in two days" and commemorative stamps; "They're fun - people like to collect them, and each stamp truly represents a part of America."

This post office, rated a Level 11 (one of the smallest possible) actually originated in 1903 in the town of Yola, 3 miles north on Highway 4. It was moved here in the 1930's, and Yula is no longer a town. The log-covered building was enlarged in 1963 to it's present cavernous size of 9 feet wide, by 27 feet long. During our interview, several residents come into the small lobby (smaller than an ice-fishing shack, but larger than a bread box) They spin the knobs on their mailboxes, open the small door, peer inside and pull out their mail. Some will drop a letter on the counter, but all of them give Olson a kind "hello" or perhaps some chatter about the weather or such.

"This is very much the information center of town," Olson says. "That's very much a role of a post office in a small town." I wonder aloud if "information" includes gossip, and she grins; "It can be!" - but she doesn't elaborate. I ask her for some small town anecdotes, for a few examples where she may have, say, bent the rules a little to accommodate the quirky character of a small town, and she grins again, but (of course) she doesn't elaborate.

Life in a small town can be interesting, and Olson has handled some pretty unusual items, including live fish bait, and even a large box filled with elk and moose meat. These were shipped from Alaska and were packed in ice (but, evidently not enough ice) and they barely survived the journey - whew! Though she has no computer or point-of-sale terminal, she does accept credit cards, and is online with the USPS's new tracking service for priority mail. The post office is located on Highway 71 at County Road 4, on a popular bicycle path near a state park, and Olson serves a few cross-country cyclists each summer, as they mail postcards home or receive mail sent to them, care of: "General Delivery."

"The U.S. takes our postal service for granted," Olson says, "because we've had it for so long." She is right, and it is easy to complain about putting thirty-two cents on an envelope to have it delivered to the next town, but it would be difficult to have it delivered any other way for that price, and impossible to have it delivered across the country at that price, but our postal service does just that, millions of times each day.

Olson is in a unique position in her town. You can tell quite a lot about people by the type and amount of mail they receive and send, and Olson sees most of the mail. She probably knows more about some of her customers than their spouses do, but she uses this information only for the person's benefit. "I know every one of my customers," she says. "I know basically what they're going to be mailing, and I have handled their mail so much that I know what they need."

Seeing how she loves her job so much, and she does it so well, I wonder if Olson is a frequent customer of the USPS. "I'm not a great correspondent," she admits "- I used to be!" Maybe it's because of the telephone, maybe it's email, or maybe it's just that, with her job as a Postmaster in a small town, she gets to meet her friends in person every day.

Will you be passing through Lake George, Minnesota this summer, and would you like some mail? Send yourself a postcard!

(Your Name Here)
Lake George, MN 56458

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