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Little old Strawberry Festival post office clings to life

PLANT CITY

As 81-year-old Bill Kiel walks into the old building, his eyes scour the scene.

Peering at the ceiling, he sees the electricity wired in for modern-day amenities. Checking out the walls, he notes the wooden slabs cut from a type of tree that bugs won't eat. Inquiring about the age of the building, he seems satisfied with its 19th century birthday — Wild West days, he says.

"An old post office," he marvels, mostly to himself, an old guy who likes old stuff. "How 'bout that?"

For decades, a post office has opened in the middle of the Florida Strawberry Festival just for the 11 days of the harvest celebration. Letters and packages used to bear a hand-stamped postmark, special to the festival.

Now, like all post offices across the country, this one has suffered a reduction of staff and services. And it's in danger of becoming just a relic in an antique shack.

"It's not a lot," said retired Plant City postal worker Linda Wetherington, 60, the one-woman show who runs what's left of the festival post office.

Nothing is actually mailed from the festival anymore. Wetherington doesn't even use the little mail room, with service windows sandwiched between tiny glass mailboxes and letter slots. Instead, an ancient mail scale and safe sit dusty in that back room, which has been relegated to storage space. That's where Wetherington prints postage from the U.S. Postal Service's website for flat-rate Priority Mail envelopes, the only kind of mail she accepts at the festival. She's just the messenger, shuttling those parcels and stamped postcards and letters to send from a regular post office.

"Most of it is just a courtesy to the people," Wetherington said.

The mail she gathers in a single day measures about a foot long when stacked in a carrying tray, she says.

Wetherington charges a few extra cents on stamps and a dollar or so on packages to help cover gas and printer costs, but she doubts she breaks even.

In its heyday, the festival post office served fair workers spending 12-hour days at their booths. The mail services offered convenience: When vendors made sales, they could ship products for their customers. At the end of the day, merchants could buy money orders instead of carrying wads of cash.

But for the past three years, the log cabin hasn't opened as an official post office, Wetherington said. And last year, the whole building was closed.

Next year, she hopes to get a decorative rubber strawberry stamp, just for an original touch on the envelopes that pass her way.

• • •

Linda Wetherington misses the romantic, small-town mentality that post offices embraced when she started as a Plant City postal worker. Back then, she wrote out addresses on monthly bills for a little old lady who always confused the "to" and "from" spaces on the envelopes.

"It's good customer service," Wetherington said. "I guess I just enjoy life, is what it all comes down to."

When festival vendor Doug Maynard comes into the post office with a package in hand on a recent day, he's telling Wetherington jokes within minutes.

"Just like a post office away from home," he said, dropping off an order for a personalized photo frame.

These days, the post office has been swallowed by the conversion to a one-room country store. Forgetful fairgoers buy disposable cameras, nostalgic visitors buy postcards and queasy overindulgers buy antacids.

Sometimes tourists look past the quilts stacked on the service window to peer into the old mail room. They reach a finger out to fiddle with the latches on the mailbox doors, arms stretching as bodies keep moving past.

But Kiel, the man with an eye for history, lingers.

"Amazing," proclaimed the visitor from Port Orange, sticking his head into the archaic mail room.

"I just hope they take care of it and it lasts another 100 years," he said. "That would be nice."

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

.If you go

Last weekend

Unlike most, the Florida Strawberry Festival post office stays open on weekends from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. It is near Pioneer Village on the fairgrounds between the entertainment tent and expo hall.

The festival runs through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children 6 to 12, free for children under 5. The fairgrounds are at 303 N Lemon St. in Plant City.

Little old Strawberry Festival post office clings to life 03/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 10, 2011 3:30am]
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