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Maggie, the resident mouser and barn swallow chaser at the historic Hye Post Office, disappeared for a couple of weeks not long ago. Where she went nobody knew, although some Hyelanders thought the resourceful tabby might have been visiting a bevy of brothers and sisters who live at a winery across the road or at the old dance hall, with its plentiful population of mice. Maybe she was scouting out a new residence, aware, somehow, that her familiar haunt was threatened.
“She had a lot to say when she came back,” Hye postmistress Dorothy Beyer told me one Saturday morning in May. “She just meowed and meowed.”
Beyer had a lot to say to Maggie, as well, and to the Hill Country folks who have relied on the post office for generations. She could tell them that the threat to close the Hye Post Office, along with nearly 4,000 other rural post offices around the country and more than 200 in Texas, had eased in the wake of widespread protests. Despite desperate financial straits, the U.S. Postal Service had come up with a plan to keep the community mainstays open. For now.
As soon as I walked into the Hye Post Office, on U.S. 290 between Johnson City and Stonewall, I immediately was transported back to Bigfoot, Texas, in the mid-1950s. Visiting our grandmother in Bigfoot each summer, my brothers and I could have played for hours on the road in front of her Red & White grocery store, had we been allowed to, without worrying about traffic. Except for the sough of mourning doves in the majestic live oaks, the Frio County village was slow and quiet—until, that is, about 10 o’clock every weekday morning. That’s when postmistress Lizzie Thomas got the mail up at the Bigfoot Post Office, directly across the road from the grocery store.
In my mind, it’s a summer weekday morning, and my brothers, cousins and I, shirtless and in shorts, are dangling our bare feet off the grocery porch. Our mustachioed Uncle Happy, in his yellow Ford pickup, pulls up across the road, gives us a wave and swings open the post office screen door. Austin Winters strolls in from his house up the road. We see a blue Chevy pickup, as I remember it, slowing down as it approaches; that’s Clarence Thomas coming in from his peanut field, his blue work shirt already darkened with sweat. And there’s Edie, our aunt, in her lime green Buick Century, on her way to Schott’s Grocery in Devine after she checks the mail.
Inside the small, concrete-block building with its wooden floor and pressed-tin ceiling, they all greet Lizzie—Bigfoot’s postmistress since 1913—check their individual boxes, and then with letters and bills and packages in hand stroll across the road to our grandmother’s store. They buy a soft drink, sit for a spell on the red wooden benches lining the store’s long porch or lean against one of the wooden columns and have a smoke. They visit with neighbors, catch up on the news. For a little while, the post office has brought them together.
I loved those mornings, loved hearing the country voices telling stories, trading gossip, talking about the weather (“Hot enough for ya?”). I love those moments all the more these many years later, knowing that for me they are gone forever.
Fortunately, tiny Bigfoot still has its post office, and so does Hye, population about 200 and growing.
The first Hye Post Office opened in 1886 in young Hiram “Hye” Brown’s store south of the Pedernales River. The present white stone building, trimmed in red and green and featuring distinctive Bavarian metalwork, was constructed in 1904 and over the years has housed, along with the post office, a general store, a feed store and most recently an antiques shop.
Village founder Brown died in 1918, and his widow sold the store in 1923 to Fritz Deike (pronounced dike), best known for his sons’ baseball exploits. Nine sons of Fritz and Lina Deike formed a team that played town teams in Wimberley, Johnson City, Grapetown, Stonewall, Fredericksburg and other Hill Country burgs. “They were the only all-brother baseball team in the state,” said Levi Deike Jr., whose father served as the Hye postmaster for 62 years.
A plaque at the front door of the post office notes that a 4-year-old Lyndon Johnson mailed his first letter at the Hye Post Office. Decades later, in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson swore in Postmaster General Lawrence F. O’Brien on the post office steps, and old clippings on the wall mark that day.
“This little community represents to me the earliest recollections of the America I knew when I was a little boy,” the president told the crowd that November day, occasionally pausing as cattle trucks and pickups zoomed by on 290. “It was a land of farms and ranches and people who depended on those farms and ranches for a living.”
Beyer shares that sentiment. Now 77 and postmistress since 1998, she grew up in nearby Willow City, graduated from high school in Fredericksburg and farmed and ranched with her husband until he died of cancer in 1989. With 50 head of sheep, a herd of goats and a passel of dogs, cats and guineas, she still farms and ranches.
She gets to the post office six mornings a week by about 6:30, hauls in bags of mail that have been dropped off from Austin and gets it sorted by 8, when it’s time to unlock the front door. She has been closing at 1:30 in the afternoon, but those hours eventually will change under the new Postal Service plan.
About 40 people a day drop by to pick up their mail and, as in Bigfoot years ago, to linger awhile and visit. “They like to come in and find out if there’s anything going on with their neighbors, if their neighbors are OK, if there’s a death in the community. I spread that,” Beyer said.
Beyer and friends of the post office have brought in Hill Country postcards and souvenirs for the occasional visitor to buy and paperback books for an informal lending library. “They thought about putting in a couch with coffee and donuts,” Beyer said. “I said I didn’t really have time to even sweep the floor, so they put in a lending library instead.”
On the morning I visited, Beyer’s first customer was Ellen Felps, a longtime Hye resident who was on her way to help clean up the country schoolhouse at nearby Albert. Felps, who wore a T-shirt with the Hye ZIP code inscribed on the back, took over her grandfather’s century-old post office box when he died. A historic preservation enthusiast, she was one of the Hye residents who pushed back against the Postal Service plan to abandon the rural post offices.
Felps is well aware of the post office’s community function. “We visit a lot,” she said, sitting in an easy chair while her friend the postmistress puttered behind the counter. “Some people come in here, and we spend 30 or 40 minutes talking.”
When word came down from Washington in the summer of 2011 that the Hye Post Office was targeted for what the bureaucrats called “discontinuance,” they launched the “Save Hye Post Office” campaign, sponsored by the newly created Hye Preservation Society. The locals sponsored town-hall meetings, invited Postal Service representatives to speak to residents, wrote letters to lawmakers and circulated a petition that attracted more than 1,500 signatures.
Hye postal patron Lynette Smith expressed her indignation toward the Postal Service in a letter to the Johnson City Record-Courier. “My initial reaction was to go to Washington, D.C., and box someone’s ears in,” she wrote. “Lucky for you my calmer side surfaced and I decided that I would instead write a letter. However, I will not be nice, polite nor politically correct. WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?”
Post offices, Smith wrote, “are the lifeline of small rural towns.”
In the spring of 2012, the Postal Service got the message from Smith and thousands of other post office patrons in towns and villages across the country. “We’ve listened to our customers in rural America, and we’ve heard them loud and clear,” said Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe. “They want to keep their post office open.”
The Hye Post Office will stay open but with reduced retail window hours eventually; Beyer is not sure exactly when. Other rural post offices will become so-called village postal centers in convenience stores or other local businesses. (That could be a future arrangement for Hye, as well.)
It’s not ideal, said Beyer, who wore a bright-red U.S. Postal Service knit shirt as she waited on a stream of Saturday customers. She’s concerned that the reduced hours will be an inconvenience to post office patrons and that the village postal center concept will offer only a place to buy stamps and pick up packages.
“You can mail packages if you’ve already got it filled out by computer,” she said. “They’re saying everything’s being done with the computer, but they don’t realize that for a lot of country people, the computer doesn’t work so well. They don’t have computers at home.”
“Lucky” Lindy Segall, who in 2007 traded hometown Austin for a ranch near Johnson City, was one of the leaders of the post office rescue effort. A former public relations executive, Segall is well aware that nostalgia will only go so far, particularly when the Postal Service is losing $35 million a day as email and other forms of messaging transform how Americans, young and old, rural and urban, communicate with each other.
Segall maintains that a review of Beyer’s financial reports and as much information as the Postal Service was willing to provide demonstrated that Hye “wasn’t a hemorrhaging operation” and that for the past couple of years, Beyer’s operation had been in the black. “Our contention to the Postal Service was, you are overlaying onto us your allegations that none of the 3,700 small rural post offices are profitable,” Segall said. “In our case, Dorothy was indeed in the black, and we were making even more suggestions of ways the Postal Service could save money, cut costs. What they didn’t want to hear is that it probably should start at the top.”
Segall represents a relatively recent Hye phenomenon, as does Levi Deike Jr., who dropped by the post office with Thor, his majestic yellow Lab, occupying his accustomed place in the bed of the pickup. Deike grew up on a ranch near Hye among the Deike nine and their numerous offspring, then lived for 40 years in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado working as an area manager for the Bureau of Land Management. He came home to stay in 2004.
These newcomers (or returners) are reviving this little postage stamp of a place in western Blanco County. As people move in, a post office can be just as vital to a 21st-century Hye as it was when Deike’s father and uncles were running grocery stores and gas stations and feed stores in the community—and playing baseball on weekends—in the early decades of the 20th century.
Beyer may not be behind the counter to see it. Although the Postal Service has no official retirement age, it’s strongly encouraging older postmasters to retire. Beyer has no plans to leave, unless the Postal Service makes her an offer she can’t refuse. Until that happens, the latest Postal Service missive assures her that Hye’s hours won’t be reduced until September 30, 2014. She has received several official memoranda, often contradictory, but that’s the one she’s banking on.
“I’m hoping that if we can hold on for two more years, they will have closed so many they’ll see it’s not working,” she said.
Stretched out on the post office countertop for a catnap about noon on a Saturday, a contented Maggie seemed to nod in agreement.
Joe Holley is a politics writer at the Houston Chronicle.
Pedernales Electric Cooperative serves Hye.