PASS-A-GRILLE — For the past few weeks, the locals lobbied postal clerk Dick Weber for his final postmark.
The post office was closing on Friday after nearly 106 years, and it was for many in this town like the loss of a stolid old-timer.
The post office gave this quirky beach community a sense of completeness. They had a museum, stores, restaurants, hotels, a post office.
"It made us a small town," said Amy Loughery, who owns Bamboozle, a clothing store next door to the post office. "It was real."
Two years ago, the U.S. Postal Service tried to close the Pass-a-Grille post office. It hadn't broken even in years, and just 140 of the 300-plus post office boxes were in use.
The locals protested. They got two more years.
This year, with billions in debt, the Postal Service decided to close it and as many as 1,500 like it across the nation. There was no fighting it this time.
All that was left to do was to celebrate it. And compete for that final postmark.
• • •
On Friday morning, they came in walkers. They came on crutches. They came with dogs and kids and memories.
Longtime residents traded stories about the past. Business owners worried about what would happen to the foot traffic in the business district. Others came in with stamped envelopes to stock up on Pass-a-Grille postmarks.
Frank T. Hurley Jr., 86, a Realtor who wrote a book about Pass-a-Grille's history, recalled how in 1905, the postmaster got the post office here by saying on an application that the town had 22 people. In fact, only two of these residents may have been human and likely to receive mail, the rest were chickens, hogs and pigs.
Nearby, two maintenance men waited patiently to haul off the post office's ladder and fire extinguisher to another office. But first, the sign had to come down.
Everyone crowded around outside as the workers cut down the wooden sign. It will go to the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum a few blocks away.
"It's sad," said Marsha Anderson, who has lived here for 35 years. "It's like a funeral. It's part of our street. Our downtown is going to change."
Shirley Merry Lynch, in a coral-colored knit outfit and pearls, rested on her walker and dabbed her eyes with a tissue. Her mother, Blanche Merry, was postmaster for 32 years, beginning in the 1930s. In October 2005, at the 100th anniversary of the post office, they gave her a plaque proclaiming her honorary "postmistress."
"I've got to sit down and blow my nose," said Lynch, 85, sniffling. "I hate to see it close. My mother must be turning over in her grave. Or her ashes are."
As the group dispersed, thoughts turned to Weber, 62, who has served the community for about 10 years with a cheerful efficiency and a ready supply of biscuits for people with dogs.
"Let me say goodbye," said Bobbi Grant, a local tour guide, tears coming to her eyes. "I'm sorry to see you leave here. It breaks my heart."
Weber, who will move initially to the Corey Avenue post office, gulped and gave her a hug.
"You need stamps or anything?" he asked.
They'd brought him a cake, a bottle of champagne, a T-shirt, a beer. Everyone wanted a picture with him.
"Are you sad to be leaving," asked Stephanie Lee, 37, who's been coming here for 30 years.
"Yes, this is a sad day," Weber said, eyes downcast.
He was fretting to himself about who would get the last postmark. He didn't want to disappoint his customers. Not on the last day.
As the minutes ticked away to 4 p.m., one or two people trickled in. There was no line. The folks who wanted to be last didn't show up.
Weber was about to lock up when Auddie Shelby slipped in the door. He had long dreadlocks. He was mailing indoor tanning products for his online business. He'd said for weeks he wanted the last postmark.
"Am I closing out 106 years of tradition here?" he asked.
Weber quietly stamped packages as Shelby peppered him with questions: "Do I get the last receipt? Can I flip the switch?"
No, that was for Weber to do.
He pulled off the official navy blue tie that he wore on special occasions. Then he walked to the door and turned the key behind Shelby. His head fell forward. For a moment, he was overwhelmed as he thought about all the people before him who had locked that door.
Then he turned and walked past the half-eaten coffee cake that said "We'll Miss You" in orange icing, past the stack of unused mailers. From the sidewalk, a woman waved at him. He waved back and laid his tie down on the counter.
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or 727-893-8640. Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.