Hope’s Post Office: Center of Controversy, Community
By Jeannine Stafford-Jabaay
Hope, Alaska’s small post office is the hub of the town’s social activity and has been a frequent subject of fond concern and even contentious arguments amongst locals.
Two years ago, as the USPS was closing branches across the country, Hope’s post office saw a reduction in hours, something adamantly opposed by many residents and staff of the USPS. Six years before that, the location change from downtown Hope to where it sits now was at the center of great controversy at many Hope, Inc. meetings.
Most recently, the community saw a changing of the guard in the Post Office Mistress from Linda Graham, who served for 27 years, to Lori DeFrance, whose grandmother-in-law, Ann Miller, was Post Mistress for 26 years before Graham.
“I feel I am upholding to some history,” says DeFrance.
“I retired the end of June as I had reached my seventieth birthday, which had always been my retirement goal,” says Graham. “My advice to Lori DeFrance is simple. It’s a great job. Just deliver the mail, do your reports and keep your finances straight. Everything else is just frosting on the cake.”
But small town life in rural Alaska isn’t always quite that simple, even when the community physically sits on the state road system.
“Weather always plays a part when you live in Alaska,” said Graham. “There was the time there were massive avalanches down on the highway both north and south which cut off the road system and also our electricity for eight days. We did without mail until Chugach helicoptered in a generator for the town and brought in many bags of mail at the same time. It was several more days before the highway was opened and we had outgoing mail, too. The town spent months on that generator while Chugach repaired the miles of mangled line.”
Sharing an additional incident, Graham continues, “Another time the mail was held up occurred when the highway into Hope was a sheet of ice, and a semi jack-knifed coming down a curving hill and totally blocked the road about two miles out of town. The mail carrier couldn’t make it into town past the semi, so I carefully drove out to the site, and with my logging spikes on, I was able to walk up the icy road, under the trailer of the semi, and give the mail carrier the town’s outgoing mail and retrieve the incoming mail.”
With a 2010 census showing a mere 192 full-time residents in Hope (that number has increased with the opening of Borough land), not much winter activity happens in town. The post office is one of the few year-round businesses open, and as such, it is a place of convening and conversation.
“Since most folks know what time the mail comes in,” says Graham, “it is very common for several folks to arrive at the post office at the same time to pick up their mail. While there, they can have a few words with their neighbor, maybe a short chat with one or more, and read the bulletin board for upcoming social events.”
But the post office’s bustling activity is somewhat more deliberate than that.
“Hope, Inc. established that the post office should be the place for announcements,” says Shawn Butler, former president of Hope, Inc., the nonprofit organization that manages the infrastructure of the town. “And it should have been that Hope, Inc. business and announcements were to be placed in the special glass case in the post office. However, that never happened. People complained that there were too many announcements, and they would sometimes miss important announcements.”
Instead of the use of the glass case, a frequently updated bulletin board sits prominently inside the front doors.
Many in town still remember the days that the post office sat in a historic and drafty log cabin in downtown with no running water.
During her time with the USPS, Graham states, “For 19 of those years, the building I worked in didn’t have running water, so I had to use an outhouse. No big deal, except when the temperature was below zero.”
Many felt that the post office was too small for the growing town and that the staff deserved better facilities.
“The Hope Post Office has been located in at least six different buildings since it was first established in the late 1800s,” Graham said. “The last location before the current one is now Food On Second, a fairly small building space that Hope was outgrowing. Getting a new building was almost a necessity due to not only lack of space, but there was also no running water. Having grown up in Hope and being used to roughing it, I was most happy about all the space the new building had, although the flush toilet is pretty nice too.”
The move to its current location at the intersection of the Hope Road and Resurrection Road was no simple endeavor, and it came with great debate.
“The primary reason it moved is that the post office downtown did not meet workplace standards,” states Butler. “It did not have running water, adequate heat in the winter and only an outhouse for a bathroom. Ann Miller owned the old post office building, and she had been the Post Mistress prior to Linda. Obviously, she and her family didn’t want to see the post office moved. Half the town liked its convenience, the other half didn’t care much where it was.”
The process to finding a new location became a Hope, Inc. and USPS priority. But the efforts made some individuals very troubled.
“The USPS put out bids looking for land that they could use to build a new post office,” said Butler. “The current location was offered up by the [Kenai] Borough after USPS had awarded the site to the Grahams. Some of the Hope residents were upset at the location. Those citizens were worried about crossing the Hope Road from Resurrection Road to get to and leave the post office. That was the most often concern voiced at the meetings. I took over Hope, Inc. just before the USPS announced their award to the Grahams. The government bid was fairly decided, but some of the townspeople were very upset about the decision.”
“Those that were upset asked for a special meeting, and they were really outraged,” Butler said. “So, as in many small town issues, some were really adamant that we do something, and some really didn’t care. In the end, the Postal Service agreed to consider a Borough bid, if they put one in. We got the Borough to submit a bid. During the town meeting, many people pointed out that crossing from Resurrection to the other side of Hope Highway really wasn’t that dangerous, but those that wanted the Borough bid didn’t care.”
Ultimately, the new post office location was determined and the building constructed with modern conveniences such as indoor plumbing.
“For me it was a crazy time,” Butler said. “And while we took a special vote, the new location barely squeaked by with a majority. People were calling senators on this issue, it was crazy.”
For now, the populace of Hope continues to enjoy a well-run post office with regular albeit reduced business hours, a place to enjoy an exchange with other locals, find out what may be going on in town, stay connected to the outside world and visit with the friendly new Post Office Mistress.