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Rural communities have rallied to save the U.S. Postal Service long before the rest of the country joined in the fight.
When USPS announced it would potentially close nearly 3,700 locations in 2011, the cuts disproportionately affected people in rural places. People in these communities organized to save the service that keeps their businesses running, their ballots counted, and their loved ones connected. They wrote letters to Washington D.C., protested outside postal branches, and purchased stamps and P.O. boxes to boost revenue.
For some, the actions were enough for their post offices to survive unchanged for another day. Others weren't so lucky. Pressure to cut costs led to closures, reduced operating hours, and combined ZIP codes. At the time, rural people felt like they faced these challenges alone.
Now, in the middle of a global pandemic and economic crisis, millions of Americans are fighting for the Postal Service nationwide. With more advocacy and support than ever, today's tactics currently bolstered on social media come from the same playbook rural residents have created over the past several decades.
To discover what lessons could be learned from past efforts, we traveled from New Mexico to North Carolina to interview residents and retired postal workers who've long fought for the survival of a service their neighbors depend on.
Editor's note: These images were taken distanced and outdoors in accordance with COVID-19 public health precautions.
Farmer Herbert Brown, 63, packages grape tomatoes from his farm, Browntown Farms. Warfield has a population of 115 people.
In 1908, his grandfather purchased 340 acres of land and the area became informally known as Browntown. Today, he grows everything from hemp to berries and relies on the local post office to ship his jam to customers.
"We ship it out on the weekly, especially around the holidays," Brown said.
The Postal Service's flat rate boxes help Brown offer more affordable shipping rates to his customers.
"Plus, they give you the package to put it in," Brown said. "You know, everything fit in this package will go. The jars are heavy, [but] I can put three jars in a box today and it fits perfect."
August 22, 2020
"We're sad of the fact that the post office is open at 12 o'clock now," Brown said.
"But, you know, you get used to it. They tell you when it's going to open and close—you fix your product around that time."
The Warfield post office is one of many nationwide where hours were reduced as a cost-cutting strategy, forcing rural residents to adjust their schedule.
In 2019, a study conducted by the United States Postal Service Inspector General found rural customers are more likely than non-rural customers to say that the Postal Service is valuable to their community.
August 22 2020
Rural post offices are hubs for every part of a rural resident's life—from paying bills to receiving medicine.
Here in Lometa, a town with a population of 856 in central Texas, the post office is adjacent to the historic Santa Fe Railway (now the BNSF Railway). In its lobby, hundreds of century-old brass P.O. boxes pay homage to the long, connected history of the USPS.
When rural free delivery was introduced in 1893, many residents switched to mailboxes. The decline of P.O. box use led to the shuttering of more than 20,000 post office locations, according to the Inspector General.
A constitutional right, the Postal Service is obligated to serve every American, yet profit struggles and strict regulations continue to create access issues for rural communities.
July 24, 2020
Hallsboro, North Carolina
"Whenever they make these decisions concerning the post office and how it's costing the government money, well, we pay taxes. And we are the government," said Barbara Powell, 71, a retired teacher who uses "warmth" and "personable" to describe her local post office.
Powell grew up here in Hallsboro, and has seen how its population of only 465 people, especially the aging community, depends on the post office for essential everyday needs.
"So, I think that they need to consider the fact of how the decisions are affecting everyday people that they don't see."
August 12, 2020
Martha Cobb, 63, the postmaster in Hallsboro, spends the hour before opening sorting mail and cleaning the lobby for customers.
According to Powell, Cobb is the best postmaster they've had in years.
"She's one of a kind, and we hate for her to vacation, but we understand," Powell said.
August 13, 2020
Puerto de Luna, New Mexico
Richard Chavez, 72, is a highway contractor for the Postal Service in Puerto de Luna, a town of 222, delivering a 100-mile route four times a week to families in isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of those customers are ranchers or elderly folks.
Highway contractors fill a gap in both post office locations and UPS and FedEx deliveries in rural areas.
Chavez was 18 when he left Puerto de Luna to enlist in the U.S. Military. Ten years later, he returned to his home, a veteran of the Vietnam War. The peaceful lifestyle reconnected and grounded him in the land where his Spanish, Mexican, and Native American ancestors spent thousands of years.
July 25, 2020
Chavez holds a photo of his uncle, Lalo Chavez, who was the last postmaster in Puerto de Luna. The office was shut down in the 1970s.
Living in a predominantly Spanish-speaking community, Postmaster Lalo Chavez assisted his residents in understanding local government documents, paying bills, and communicating with businesses.
July 25, 2020
St. Charles, Missouri
"You can Google 'Why is the post office in debt?' or 'Why did Congress make this decision?' And it never really talks about that," said artist Mollie Chounard, 42.
After learning of the Postal Service's dire circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chounard sought to understand the policies that ultimately could lead to its bankruptcy—like the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, passed in 2006.
Chounard printed postcards for a Kickstarter campaign to celebrate and advocate for the Postal Service. The project finished with 44 backers, exceeding its goal of $2,000.
On behalf of her backers, she sent special edition postcards depicting a giant eagle carrying a mail truck to the White House.
August 9, 2020