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Postal service cutback could kill a piece of Florida history


Nobody knows who mailed the first letter. The correspondent may have been Freddie Wood's great-granddaddy, William Drayton Evins, a Confederate Army captain who founded the little North Florida hamlet where barred owls still call from the pines at night.

Florida's oldest working post office has creaked in the wind in summer, smelled of orange blossoms in winter and transacted business in three different centuries. Since 1882, Evinston's rural citizens have licked thousands of stamps, opened letters of joy and heartbreak and told tall tales while sitting next to a wood-burning stove.

But the end may be near. In an austerity move, the U.S. Postal Service proposes closing 3,700 post offices, including 34 in Florida. The Evinston Post Office — ZIP code 32633 — is on the list.

"If we have to close, it will kill our little town," Freddie Wood says. "It'll kill me, too."

"Have a seat," says Freddie Wood, 74. "No, not that one. That's where I always sit."

Old habits die hard at the Evinston Post Office, which occupies a 5-by-12-foot corner of the Wood and Swink General Store and is owned — and loved — by Wood.

He's a lifelong farmer, but his wife, Wilma Sue, was postmaster for 32 years, and his daddy was postmaster for the 43 years before Wilma Sue. His uncle and grandfather were postmasters before that, going back to 1913.

Wood, like the store and the post office, resists modernity. He drives a dilapidated Ford pickup truck that's missing paint where he has rested his perspiring left forearm for two decades. When he was a boy — and when his dad was busy with post-office duties — Freddie swept the floor, sold beef, pumped gas, hauled chicken feed and loaded manure into horse-drawn wagons. Customers included the author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who lived a few miles away at Cross Creek.

Not much happens at the post office, but when something does, it gives rise to great stories, some of which are quite possibly true. Once, an excited customer accidentally discharged a shotgun he had just received, loaded, in the mail. From his regular chair Freddie can still see the pellets in the ceiling today.

"Before I was born, there was a killing outside the front door," he reports. "The guy who fired the shotgun jumped on his horse, rode to Cedar Key and booked a ship to Cuba. The story I heard was they were arguing over a girl or who had the prettiest watermelons."

Freddie, who once fine-tuned his digestive system with a weekly dose of castor oil, doesn't own a cell phone. He has never learned how to use a computer. When Wilma Sue was postmaster, she kept track of business with pencil and paper. She retired shortly after a computer was introduced to her post office.

Built out of weathered heart pine when Chester Alan Arthur was president, the old tin-roofed building lacks air conditioning. The wood stove that used to warm the place was deemed a fire hazard and replaced by an electric heater a few years ago. In winter, the dogs who aren't supposed to be inside the store like to sprawl defiantly next to the heater. The indoor plumbing is such that some folks prefer to water the oak tree in back.

Evinston is a rabbit-ears-on-the-television kind of place. The post office, which is on lonely State Road 225 in Alachua County, serves about 80 families spread through the pine woods between Gainesville and Ocala. The store and post office is a gathering spot for Floridians who have no plans to become modern.

Evinston in its prime boasted orange packinghouses, a grist mill, a blacksmith shop and a railroad depot. Now it has the store and the post office and proud tin-roofed Cracker homes scattered through the nearby woods and pastures.

"When somebody is sick, you hear about it when you come to get your mail," says Marguerite Deaderock, who has been retrieving mail from P.O. Box 17 for more than four decades. When her husband passed away, neighbors heard about it from the postmaster, went home and began cooking for the elderly widow.

"When my wife was dying of cancer, I'd bring her here," says Bill Boe, a retired high school history teacher. "She found it comforting. When I get discouraged about all the changes that are coming to Florida, I like to come in here and sit.

"It's so much more than stamps, this place. It's living history. It's about preserving our heritage."

• • •

Everybody knows the U.S. Postal Service is losing millions of dollars every day. That's because Americans e-mail more and write letters less. We pay bills online, send our most timely correspondence by FedEx and ship Christmas packages by UPS. The U.S. Postal Service can save $61,000 a year by closing the Evinston Post Office.

Recently, Freddie Wood arranged a town meeting at the Methodist Church to discuss strategy, which mainly involves writing to the postmaster general, President Barack Obama, U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, and various congressmen. The old post office's devotees are also telephoning Alice Ryle, the Postal Service's district discontinuance coordinator, and asking for a change of heart.

If pleading fails, Evinston residents will have to travel 3 miles to the modern post office at Micanopy, which has no bullet holes, no dogs, no Freddie Wood.

"We provide services at this post office that aren't always done at city post offices," says Wilma Sue Wood, who married into Freddie's post-office family a half-century ago. "We can't really be replaced."

In her decades as postmaster, Wilma Sue helped illiterate folks write letters and wrapped presents for physically challenged customers. Once she hauled a man and his wheelchair up the stairs and into the store, which lacks a ramp. Another time she figured out how to mail a 13-pound sweet potato.

A goat once walked through the door. One spring a small bird, a Carolina wren, flew through Wood and Swink General Store every afternoon, plucking spiders from the dusty shelves. Worried that the wren was going to nest, Wilma Sue hung a birdhouse outside the back door and made the wren happy.

As postmaster, Wilma Sue also served as town crier. A mother telephoned in a panic after misplacing her 3-year-old boy. Wilma Sue alerted every person in the community who had a phone. The lost child was found hiding under a dining room table. Another time, a terrified widow discovered a coiled rattle­snake on her stoop. The postmaster knew just who to call.

Wilma Sue was known for her dedication to the job. People like to talk about the day she drove her husband to the hospital in Gainesville after he was bitten by a black widow spider while picking okra. She dropped him off and sped back to her duties at the post office.

• • •

The former postmaster likes to pick peas in her husband's garden. Freddie also grows melons, squash, beans, corn, eggplant and collard greens. In season, he sells them at Wood and Swink, where customers who pick up their mail can also take home a cabbage or two.

Wood and Swink no longer is in the regular grocery business. Freddie sells T-shirts, beef jerky, pickled peppers, bubble gum, cold drinks and honey buns.

"If the post office closes, we'll have to close the store, too," he says. "We won't be able to afford to keep it open.'' He sells books, including his own folksy guide to Gardening in North Central Florida, My Way, and Cross Creek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' beautiful memoir of Cracker Florida from the 1930s.

Every afternoon like clockwork, J.T. "Jake" Glisson, 81, comes in to collect his mail from Box 0 and to tell stories. As a boy he lived next door to Rawlings; in fact, he is mentioned in Cross Creek. He remembers the day in 1938 he encountered an artist painting in the nearby woods and asked if making art was a good way to earn a living.

"Yes, son," said N.C. Wyeth, America's best-known illustrator, who happened to be working on a special edition of The Yearling. His son Andrew, who made a name for himself in the art world a few years later, stood next to his dad.

"Well, Mister," Jake bragged to the elder Wyeth, "If you can make money at it I guess I'll become an artist one day, too."

Years later, Jake graduated from the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota. He still sells his paintings.

"I love Jake's stories," says Scarlett Kinder, the acting postmaster. "The old stories are part of the charm of this place."

When a typical post office closes in America, residents fill out forms and drive to a new building that probably looks something like the old building. It's an inconvenience, yes, but usually not the end of the world.

But in Evinston, the post office is anything but typical. It's a relic of an old Florida that is all but gone.

"Let's face it, you can get your mail anywhere,'' says Anne Mudra, a customer for 26 years. "But this post office is pretty much our whole community.''

In the morning the post office gets busy. The mail truck delivers canvas sacks of mail, door opens, customers amble across pastures on the way toward Wood and Swink. Inside the dim building, jokes are told, gossip is exchanged, hound dogs sniff cowboy boots. Through the open door, customers hear the sandhill cranes trumpeting the coming of fall in the distance.

"Sir," a customer named Jean Wilkerson asks the fellow leaning in the doorway. "Do you happen to smoke?"

"No ma'am," I answer.

"Shoot," she says. "I wanted to get me some tobacco and rub it on this sore spot. I just got stung by a bee."

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.

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Postal service cutback could kill a piece of Florida history 09/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 20, 2013 2:02pm]
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