Louise Geiger knows just about every inch of tiny Aripeka, where she was born 78 years ago. Yet somehow, the old wooden house managed to remain hidden from her for years.
She wondered: Was it destroyed in the great No Name Storm of 1993? Almost all the structures in this tiny fishing village that dates back to 1886 took in 4 feet of saltwater from the gulf. Mrs. Geiger figured the 10-by-14-foot house was now just a memory, not unlike the guava tree that once towered over it and shaded people as they came to pick up their mail.
Then, four years ago, somebody mentioned a woman in town planned an art studio in an abandoned house that needed a lot of work. Word travels fast in Aripeka, especially when you have seven cousins who live within three blocks. That old house had survived after all, and Mrs. Geiger knew what she had to do.
"I had to save it,'' she said. "For my grandfather. For my family."
The retired hairdresser, whose husband of 54 years had died a year earlier, approached the artist with a $5,000 offer.
Mrs. Geiger procrastinated. "I move kinda slow," she said. But eventually, she got a man with a tractor to haul the building to the plot of land where from 1952 to 1962 it was a branch of the U.S. Postal Service — before a new, more modern structure replaced it. She paid a few thousand dollars for renovations, found an antique desk and postal scales and other items. And at 1 p.m. today, after the benediction at Aripeka Baptist, the only church in town, she plans to gather with relatives and others to re-dedicate the building.
Why should she care so much about a post office?
In 1921, Mrs. Geiger's grandfather, James B. Kolb, stepped forward to save mail delivery for the handful of families who lived in the area. The government was set to close a small post office that had been established in the late 1800s, and Kolb said he would take on the assignment if the new facility were built closer to his home on the southern end of town, across Hammock Creek, which today separates Hernando and Pasco counties.
Kolb, who had worked as a contractor and a streetcar driver in Tampa before moving north to raise a family, built a small facility with wood from a nearby turpentine still. He and wife Amanda Elizabeth had five children, including Ellen, who was 3 when they moved to Aripeka. She married Henry Norfleet and in 1929, in their home/store next to the post office, they welcomed their second daughter: Louise.
"I'm the oldest person in Aripeka who was born in Aripeka," Mrs. Geiger said.
Kolb served as postmaster until his death in 1945. His daughter, Lizzie Bell Jackson, took over until her retirement in 1971.
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It had been a bone dry month in Aripeka before Tuesday morning when a thunderstorm moved in from the gulf and dumped nearly 2 inches of rain. At the post office, this was the main topic of conversation.
"Quite a rain, eh?" said Carl Norfleet, who has owned the town's only general store for years. James Rosenquist, the famous artist who lives nearby, once dubbed Norfleet the mayor.
Norfleet noticed his cousin Louise holding court on the steps of the renovated post office.
"She can tell you a lot," Norfleet said with a slight smile, "and some of it is even true."
Mrs. Geiger proudly showed off the new siding and the original doors, complete with a mail slot. She had planted a cabbage palm to the left of the building, matching old photographs. Unfortunately, her palm didn't survive the transplant.
Mrs. Geiger enjoys a tight family circle in this village, where she lived until age 7 and then moved to New Port Richey for many years, raising her own family and running a beauty parlor. Her husband, Jim, owned an electrical business and later was a commercial grouper fisherman.
When she returned to Aripeka in 1996 to care for her mother, she joined her cousins in a most unusual family tree. She has seven "double first cousins," she said, meaning that their father (James Lavern Norfleet) was her father's brother and their mother (Bertha Kolb) was her mother's sister.
Mrs. Geiger's cousins are Johnny Norfleet, Betty Millard, Wayne Norfleet, Verna Mae Sloan, Carl Norfleet, Joe Allen Norfleet and Carol Ann White. They all plan to be at the big shindig today.
Wednesday morning, Cousin Wayne and his wife, Nancy, pulled up to the post office, which has 600 mailboxes, though only about 200 are active. They have box No. 2, which Lizzie Bell Jackson kept until her death in 1993. Lizzie was so short she couldn't see if there was any mail in Box No. 1, so she took one from the second row.
"We'll pass it on to the next generation," Nancy Norfleet said.
Of course that depends on whether the Aripeka post office survives or simply becomes home to a historical marker. Folks on the Hernando side get their mail delivered from the Spring Hill post office. But on the Pasco side, you still have to come by and check your box.
The current postmaster, Joe LaFranca, wonders if someday the feds and tax-cutting politicians might decide to serve the Pasco side of Aripeka out of the Hudson post office and start home delivery. The 33-year postal veteran loves the interaction with customers, but the lines aren't exactly long and he doesn't sell many stamps.
Mrs. Geiger leases the post office to the government for $600 a month and recently put on a new roof and septic tank. "So it ain't exactly costing them a lot to keep it here,'' she said. "I don't think it's going anywhere."
Meanwhile, as long as nostalgia rules at ZIP code 34679, customers and visitors will continue to do what they have since James B. Kolb saved the day in 1921.
Bill Stevens is the North Suncoast Editor. You can reach him
at [email protected]
or (727) 869-6250.