The post office2/3/2016
The post office was established at Fort Des Moines in 1845, and was known as Raccoon River until June 1, 1846, when the name Fort Des Moines was given it. Josiah Smart, who was the Indian interpreter for the military authorities at the Fort, was appointed as the first postmaster but declined to accept the appointment. — “History of the Des Moines Post Office,” by Ilda M. Hammer, as published in the 1933 fall edition of the Annals of Iowa.
Hmmm . . . did Josiah Smart decline the appointment because of the long holiday lines?
The line twists and curves out the double doors to the very front of the building. Customers wait with packages stacked head high, moving forward on intuition more than sight. The swamped woman SWAMPED at the receiving window is calm. She’s seen a few holidays. She smiles at each customer. Warm. Understanding. Efficient. When it is my turn, I actually think she might lean across the window and wipe some fictional smudge off the edge of my mouth and tousle my nonexistent hair. She doesn’t.
“What can I do for you?” she says warmly.
Doesn’t she see the 30 people behind me? Isn’t she panicked?
It is now a month later. The post office in Beaverdale has settled down from the holidays. Winter has decided to remain for the interim. The high temperature is zero, with wind chill pushing the wrong direction. The rush from the car to the double doors is just long enough. And now, when you walk into the main lobby, shaking off the cold, there’s Brenda Kelley still at her window. Still smiling.
Dr. Thomas K. Brooks filled the place March 2,1846, as the first regular postmaster. Dr. Brooks had his office in the old Indian Agency House, which was situated where the Tuttle stone packing house was in 1909, in South Des Moines. Later Dr. Brooks removed the office to his own home in Thomas Addition, on Court Avenue. At the close of the year (1846) Dr. Brooks resigned, and Phineas M. Casady succeeded him in office.
“I started with the Des Moines post office when I was 20.” Brenda Kelley gives a long sigh. “I’ve been here 37 years last August,” she says with a “can you believe it” grin.
“I started working downtown at the main branch. This is the first window I’ve ever done here at Beaverdale. I started that in 2010. Otherwise I always worked downtown. I worked nights; I worked days. Sorting mail. Whatever. Never worked with the public. Never thought I would want to. No way would I do that. But I decided to give this a shot.” Kelley pauses. “And I love it!”
Kelley laughs at herself, still dumfounded by her late-career joy.
People come and go to her window. I watch. She listens carefully to each and every one. Full attention.
“There are a lot of interesting people in this neighborhood. A lot of older people. I love helping them. I love helping people find the right box. Like a guy this morning. He was going to Chicago. He had it in a medium flat-rate box, which is $12.65. Going to Chicago you’re going to pay half that in a different box. So I say, ‘What do you think if we try something else?’ So we got a different box, and it was only $6.35. That just makes my day.”
Post office employee concerned about your wallet? Really?
“I have several women who call me mommy. I think they are Puerto Rican or Cuban. It first took me aback, but now I think it’s cute.”
Come on. There have to be angry and frustrated customers at your window?
“I can’t get upset with customers for being upset. I’ll try to help with anything I can. There’s a lot of it out of my control. I’ll check every recourse that I can. I try to do as much as I can.”
Really? But don’t you just get pushed around?
“This one kid, he’s having his girlfriend do this and that, and then he wants me to write the address on his big box. ‘Is there something wrong with your hands? Are you OK?’ I said, ‘I think you can do it.’ He took offense. He really took offense.”
Kelley shakes her head in remembrance.
“I said to him, ‘Hey, if there is something wrong, I’ll help anybody.’ One lady comes in who can’t see real good. So I’ll write out all her stuff. Come on. You’re a young kid. Big old box. You write the address on there. Do not put that box on my scale and want me to write the address when you’re capable.’”
Lord help this kid. He’s outmatched.
“I’ll let them know. You’ve got to try it. There are some people you need to help. Others, here’s the tools, you can do it yourself.”
OK, but hasn’t the U.S. Post Office had some rough years with reduced money and shortened staffing and other workplace concerns?
“I love the Post Office. I love my job. But the big bosses are all about the numbers and that’s just not it. It’s about people. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it. They say I’m the face of the postal service at the window. I don’t care what the postal service thinks, I care what my customers think.”
Mr. Casady moved the post office to his own law office on Second Street and the Rock Island tracks, where Green’s Foundry used to be. The mail was not very heavy at that time, for it is said of Mr. Casady that he used to carry it in his hat, and distribute it to the parties to whom it was directed, “ lifting the post office from his head” in order to find the letters.
That was in 1847. And in 2016? Who’s looking for letters under their hat? Who’s carrying our post office on their heads?
The mail sorters work every night. The truck drivers run nonstop with their loads. The carriers trudge through the snow, sometimes hours into the dark evenings. Brenda Kelley goes back to work at her window in Beaverdale.
“What can I do for you?” CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.