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One of the smallest post offices in Rockbridge County just got smaller

By Hamlet Fort

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May 15 was a day Kitty Cash was dreading. That was the Tuesday her hometown of Vesuvius expected to learn whether its post office would have to shut down forever.

Like thousands of Americans in rural areas across the country, Cash relies on her post office not only to send and receive mail, but as a center for her community – a place for neighborly interactions, visits and gatherings. May 15 could have changed all that.

In the fall of 2011, the United States Postal Service declared it would review about 3,700 post offices nationwide and consider some for closure in an effort to reduce costs and debt. The Service is also pushing federal lawmakers to pass legislation that would end mail delivery on Saturdays, reducing the service’s internal costs by a substantial amount. The USPS is a financial hemorrhage for the federal government, and measures are being taken to remedy the problem.

Virginia, like every other state, is full of small, rural communities, most of them unincorporated. While these hamlets may not have a town hall, a courthouse, restaurants or movie theaters, the residents still receive mail, and tiny, single-room post offices are a staple of these communities. To some villages, the post office is all they have.The Vesuvius Post Office was one of two in Rockbridge County considered for closure, out of 11 countywide. Cash, a grandmother with alert eyes set in a wrinkled, tanned face, speaks with a voice jostled by decades of smoking. She was anxiously waiting for the decision from the USPS.

Vesuvius has Gertie’s, a tiny shoebox of a restaurant and country store, and its Post Office, a simple country gem a quarter mile up the road. The Post Office is a single room with a side window to a smaller office. The wall beside the window has 54 brass-front P.O. boxes that each open with a  single tiny combination dial with letters, a quaint remnant taken out of a West Virginia post office that was obsolete when first installed in Vesuvius in 1958, says Kitty’s husband, C.T. Cash. The Post Office shares the plain brick building with Kitty Cash’s hodge-podge gift-and-antique store called Granny’s Attic. The building replaced another one, built in 1908, which had also housed the Post Office and a store that burned down on Dec. 28, 1957.

The squat brick building, which opened the following April, is on a two-lane road parallel to the Shenandoah Valley Railroad tracks, a strip of land running along the west flank of the Blue Ridge mountains that hints of a more prosperous era. The building is fronted by a patchwork of pavement that is empty most of the time. A bench outside is where Cash goes to smoke her discount Tahoe cigarettes. In the back of her store, she operates a local museum of sorts, a collection of history and memorabilia from the area’s past.

Vesuvius was named for an ironworks built nearby called Vesuvius Furnace, an operation whose hot smoke, combined with the surrounding mountains, was reminiscent of the famous volcano Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Vesuvius enjoyed its most prosperous era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the Shenandoah Valley Railroad was extended through the community. In the 1880s, the town gained a railroad station, a depot, a general store and a post office. The post office and depot faced one another, with the tracks in between. Trains would come through daily, bringing in everything from coal to blueberries and, of course, the mail. The depot and post office were the center of the town, and the center of the community’s spirit.

Highways, especially Interstate highways, were gradually replacing many of America’s railroads. Former booming railroad towns became irrelevant. In 1963, the trains stopped coming to Vesuvius. The depot was torn down and the community’s vitality took a beating. When the depot was taken down, Cash says, Vesuvius became just a spot on the map. All that remained of the depot now was a patch of grass where it once stood.

But the Post Office survived, the last link to the prosperous decades of the past. And Gertie’s opened up. In a way, the Post Office became more important than ever, a literal and physical connection to the past and to the outside world. Currently, the postmistress is on maternity leave and a replacement is filling in from another post office.

As Cash talks, she flips through a binder stuffed with old photographs, documents and memorabilia, telling an endless series of stories from the pages.

 Cash knows more about the Post Office than anyone, and she should. Her father-in-law, Clarence T. Cash, ran the general store and was the postmaster from 1945 to 1993. “He went to work in the store when he was 14 years old,” Cash says. “My husband’s whole family – this is his uncle, he carried the mail, and his aunt, she was a clerk in the post office.”Cash spent most of her adult life in and around the store, which is now transformed into Granny’s Attic. “The store was the center of everything,” She talks about how country stores and restaurants once lined Vesuvius, and the railroad was the source of its growth.

 May 15 finally came, and so did a decision. The Vesuvius Post Office will remain open, but like hundreds of post offices elsewhere, will have its hours of operation cut in half. Starting in 2014, the Post Office will operate on a four-hour a day schedule, shortened from its previous eight-hour days.

 Cash says that Post Office officials allowed most rural post offices to remain open so that communities like Vesuvius could retain a piece of their identity. She says the news came through a phone call.

She sounded optimistic as she reported that her town’s Post Office is safe – for now. “We’re pretty excited about it,” she said. “I’d rather see four hours a day than gone.”