first_img Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. Email MARTIN CITY – Escaping the midday sun, Walking Steve sat in the shadow of the South Fork Saloon and stared across Central Avenue at the dilapidated blue and white building. “I sure miss that,” he said pointing across the street, a Marlboro 100 between his fingers. Walking Steve, which is the only name he would give, was gesturing to the now-abandoned Martin City post office. It closed in September 2007 – one of dozens shuttered across Montana over the last two decades. Others will soon join them. In late July, the U.S. Postal Service released a list of more than 3,700 retail offices across the country that will be reviewed for possible closure. The list includes 85 offices in Montana, including Olney, Stryker, Elmo and Dixon. But Martin City already knows what life is like after the post office closes its doors. “It was a community, like most post offices in America,” said James Stiller, who has lived here since 2003. “It gave the elderly something to look forward to every day, to share local gossip. It was a community beehive – everyone came in to get their daily honey.” For 15 years Val Johnson was the contracted postmaster for the small town just off U.S. Highway 2, east of Hungry Horse. In small communities, mail service is often contracted to private operators who provide a building and employees. Johnson loved her job and knew everyone who walked through the front door, but she could no longer live off what the Postal Service paid. When she left, Johnson said the Postal Service put the job up for bid and got a half-dozen offers to run the office. According to Johnson, though, all of the bids were too high and the Postal Service decided to close the office, combining it with Hungry Horse, one mile down the road. But even with an alternative relatively close, the move didn’t sit well with locals. “There are so many elderly people who don’t drive but walked to the post office. Now they have to find rides to Hungry Horse,” Johnson said. “That was the main issue I had with it. I just didn’t think that was fair.” One of the people she was concerned about was Walking Steve. Walking Steve, which is how he’s also known to locals, said he has lived in Martin City since 1975 and is a disabled veteran. Because of respiratory problems, he can’t walk far and having the post office close by was a necessary convenience. “I could make it to the post office and do my business and now they moved it to Hungry Horse,” he said through a thin gray beard. “I have to rely on my friends to do these things for me (now).” According to the 2010 census, almost one-fifth of Martin City’s population is over 62 and the median age is 45 years old. Ten years earlier the median age was 41. AARP Montana shared Johnson’s concerns and said that if the Postal Service were to close more offices in the state, the elderly would be most affected. According to Bob Bartholomew, state director for AARP, in some cases people would have to drive as far as 40 miles to the closest post office, a major challenge for older residents. “Post office closures not only disproportionately impact rural communities, but older Montanans in those communities would be disproportionately affected as well,” Bartholomew said. But for many residents in Martin City, and other small towns in Northwest Montana, the most noticeable effect of the post office closures has been the loss of a sense of community. “It was a hub of networking for the community,” Stiller said. “You’ve got Facebook now, but this was the old school way.” Stiller said once the postal service left, so too did the relationships created there. “You don’t know people anymore. It broke up the community,” he said. “It was a hub … and we lost that.” It’s the same feeling shared in other towns that have lost their post offices. Mark Thomas, a lifelong resident of Proctor, a small town off U.S. Highway 93 near Dayton, said the post office was where the community gathered before it closed in 2006. Thomas said that many local ranchers would often wait outside for it to open, get their mail, drink coffee and talk about local happenings. When the office was combined with the one in Dayton, that tradition ended. “I think it’s important,” Thomas said. “These old friendships that were created at the store every morning were important to the community.” Even four years later the closure of the post office in Martin City strikes a negative chord with residents, including Johnson, who said the closure was pointless, especially considering that Martin City’s population has only grown in the last decade. “They didn’t really give a reason to the community (for closing it),” Johnson said, leaning against a post outside the saloon. “All they said was it wasn’t economically viable anymore.” According to Postal Service spokesman Pete Nowacki, most post office closures in the past have had to do with operational or economic issues. “In a situation like that we were looking for a minimum bid which wasn’t met,” he said. “Each situation is its own.” Nowacki said the process to close a post office in the past is similar to what will happen in the coming months. The only difference is this time there will be many more closed. “Right now we’re doing studies where people go out looking at each office, gauging revenue, customers and the proximity to another facility,” he said. Johnson understands the anxiety of those who live in towns on the list for possible closures. “I just think there is something else the post office can do rather than close all of these small town offices down,” she said. “I think it’s a crop of crap.” With that she headed home, walking past the closed post office, its faded blue and white paint and empty flagpole. last_img read more

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