LACOOCHEE — The post office here is more than just a place to mail packages and pick up stamps.
Customers swap recipes, talk farming, pass along gossip and share news.
"If my kids get into something, I find out before they tell me, and they wonder how," said Wendy Williamson, the officer in charge at the post office. "I work at the center of the happenings in Lacoochee, so of course I know. I tell them, 'Don't you know where I work?' "
That center is marking a milestone today: The Lacoochee Post Office is turning 121 years old.
So what's the key to its longevity?
In a community without a city hall or center of town, the post office has for years served as a gathering place.
Williamson said residents have stopped by to tell her both good and bad news. Like the time a neighbor's son had a heart attack and died. Or the time a woman named Gussie told Williamson her "chickens had biddies."
"I said, 'I have two hens that are sitting,'?" Williamson recalls. "I'm supposed to bring her some squash."
Regulars say they enjoy the small-town feel. And there's little to no wait time to get their letters mailed or to pick up items like envelopes.
"It's local, and the people here care," said Carol Noble, 47, of Ridge Manor. "I could go to Trilby's post office, but I don't."
Popped up everywhere
In the first few decades after the launch of the Pony Express and the end of the Civil War, post offices popped up all over the Pasco County landscape.
One of the first opened in 1872 in Fort Dade, receiving deliveries every Saturday by horseback from Brooksville. Others appeared in Tuckertown (1876; now Richland), Anclote (1878), Hopeville (1878; near Port Richey), Hudson (1882), Sumner (1882; now San Antonio), Gulf Key (1883; near Aripeka), Port Richey (1884) and so on.
Then, on May 22, 1888, the post office opened in Lacoochee, a small town that later became home to the Cummer Cypress Co., which logged cypress from the Lacoochee Swamp.
The sawmill closed in 1959, but the post office stayed.
Over the years, the post office moved to two other locations before settling 40 years ago at its current location, a former grocery store near the railroad tracks.
For years, residents had to come to the post office to retrieve their mail. Home delivery arrived for Lacoochee residents in the early '90s, said Frank Kelley, the post office's current postmaster.
Still, 460 of Lacoochee's 800 post office boxes are being used, at a cost of $28 to $115 a year, depending on the box's size.
"A lot of people are maintaining their box because their grandparents passed it through the family," Kelley said. "They have some things come to a P.O. Box that are more sensitive, and the rest comes to the street address. It's a personal preference."
While methods of mail delivery changed over the years, so did the roster of people who previously held Kelley's position as postmaster.
The first postmaster served for three years. The longest serving postmaster served for 38 years.
Shirley Ann Marsee, 66, who served as postmaster from 1973 to 2003, held the second-longest stint.
Marsee, who moved back to Rebecca, Ga., after she retired from postal work, has fond memories of her time in Lacoochee, where she attended church with the same people whose mail she handled.
"I enjoyed the people, and they were like family," she said. "I knew their mothers and fathers, their kids and grandkids. I grew up with them."
Kelley, who has served as postmaster since 2005, said he likes to think of the post office as an "old-fashioned" place.
"You come in, pick up your mail, talk to your neighbors and find out the day's events," he said. "Joe Johnson's daughter getting married and things like that. It still goes on today."
On a cloudy afternoon this week, a steady stream of customers file through the post office.
Williamson, 43, of Center Hill works alone while Kelley is on a temporary assignment at a post office in Ozona.
A few minutes before 3 p.m., a lanky man with a bushy white goatee walks into the building. Simon Myers has had a P.O. Box since 1965.
Myers used to hang out with Williamson's husband's uncle, a guy named W.C. Turns out, W.C.'s daughter is getting married in September, Williamson tells Myers, and W.C. had stopped through town this past weekend.
"Oh yeah?" Myers says.
Myers' stepdaughter was married to Williamson's first cousin.
How'd Myers find out?
"I was chucking mail in his box and saw something for Nelly," Williamson said, smiling at the memory.
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4609.