More than a place for mail; rural town’s community post office closes amid financial strain

ST. GEORGE — To drive from St. George to Torrey, a town on state Route 24 in Wayne County, is to take a grand tour of rural Utah. Long expansive highways with even more expansive views are dotted with tiny towns where pockets of people continue to carve out a living.

A rock sign welcomes people to the rural town of Torrey, Utah, Jan. 20, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

Across the landscape, remnants of an old way of life, one dominated by agriculture and dictated by the land, still exist.

But even with today’s modern conveniences, it takes a heartier folk to survive and thrive in Utah’s rural counties and towns. The type of people who can take whatever life throws at them and adapt.

In Torrey, which sits just a few miles from the entrance to Capitol Reef National Park, the old ways of making a living have steadily given way to an economy dependent on tourism, due in large part to the state’s now famous “Mighty Five” tourism campaign.

The people are no less hardy, but they also don’t want to just roll over. So when word got around that the town’s community post office was closing, forcing residents to drive to the next town to send and receive their mail, community members started speaking out.

A Jan. 7 Facebook post from Torrey resident Julie Trevelyan said this of its closing:

Girding my loins to head to Torrey’s post office in Bicknell later this morning. For those of you not living here who don’t know about this, Torrey lost its post office on Dec. 31 due to financial reasons. The current solution is to have all our mail routed to the Bicknell post office. There is quite the backstory and information about this entirely stupid situation (contract post offices can be a challenge for small, rural towns), and quite a lot of irritation and upset at it. Supposedly solutions are in the making, but no word yet.

A community post office

Since the year 2000, Rob and Diane Torrey, and later their daughter-in-law Carrie Torrey, operated the community post office under a contract from the United States Postal Service.

The contract post office program was created to provide a retail outlet for small communities where there is not a post office, Margaret Putnam, marketing manager for the Salt Lake District of the United States Postal Service, said.

A post office sign is removed from a building in Torrey, Utah, Dec. 31, 2019 | Photo by Adus Dorsey, St. George News

A contract post office is usually located inside a retail establishment or business and is operated by that business’s employees.

In the case of Torrey’s community post office, the Torrey family negotiated the contract and operated the post office in a building on their property which also houses the Torrey Trading Post — a small gift shop — as well as rental cabins for visiting tourists.

The shared surname with the town’s name is merely a coincidence, but a fitting one for the people who operated what was known as the hub of the town; a place where neighbors and tourists alike would gather to share news and gossip as well as send and receive mail.

“When I moved to Torrey in 2013, one of the most charming aspects of the town was the little (post office). It was situated across an irrigation canal, adjacent to the Torrey Trading Post,” Torrey resident Barry Morgenstern said.

“Open 24 hours a day, the (post office) was a place for chance meetings and wonderful conversations and a way for people new to the community — like me — to meet others,” he added.

The small cabin-like building held just shy of 400 post office boxes, a counter where people could purchase some postal services, and rows of shelves that were usually full of people’s packages, Carrie Torrey said.

Mounted outside the building was a large bulletin board where notices of all kinds and interests were placed. There was a reserved section for town government use and right below the bulletin board there was space where the town implemented a local swap system so people could bring their used goods for others to take, Morgenstern said.

“I left useable carpet tiles and picked up books, for instance,” he said.

Carrie Torrey looks at the empty shelves that were once filled with packages for people of Torrey, Utah, Jan. 20, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

The Torrey community post office is where confused delivery drivers would go to get directions because the Torrey’s knew where everyone lived, Morgenstern said.

The post office is where tourists would come to gawk at the town’s “weather rock,” a rock suspended above the ground with a sign indicating what the weather was based on the rock’s shadow, movement or level of moisture.

“It is where, until her death, Dottie Weaver maintained a full bowl of Jelly Beans for everyone to enjoy,” Morgenstern said.

That is just the way things are in Torrey, Morgenstern added; a tight-knit community full of kind and helpful people with the post office at its center.

On growth, change and losing money

It worked really well for a while, Torrey said of the contract post office.

“It was a great thing when they first got it,” she said of her in-laws, adding that it helped them make improvements to their other business ventures on the property.

But even small towns grow, and the needs of a fluctuating population like Torrey’s changed to the point that the Torrey family couldn’t keep up.

Under a post office’s contract, reasonable compensation is provided by the postal service to serve as an additional revenue stream for the business, Putnam said.

Because a contract post office is a sideline revenue stream, not the primary part of a business or retail establishment, all costs to support operations are paid by that business including, but not limited to, utilities, employee’s compensations, credit/debit capabilities, services and products, Putnam added.

Notices seeking businesses to partner with the United States Postal Service in operating a contract post office are pinned to a bulletin board outside of the former Torrey community post office, Torrey, Utah, Jan. 20, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

Meaning that when the postal needs of the town grew beyond what one employee could handle, the family had to hire help, and their requests for what they felt was reasonable compensation were denied, Torrey said.

When they needed to purchase a postage meter to keep up with growing demands, the family had to pay for it out of their own pocket, she said.

Up until its closing, the small post office could not offer a way for patrons to use credit or debit cards or send international mail.

Torrey’s post office isn’t just a post office for the residents of the town, Torrey said, it also received and processed mail for the areas stretching outside of Torrey including Fruita, Capitol Reef National Park, Notom and Caineville.

The post office was also where tourists would come to send souvenirs, postcards and trinkets back home, though many of them were turned away due to the post office’s inability to send international mail, Torrey added.

In order to continue to operate at a functional level, they were paying a lot of money out of pocket and going into the red, Torrey said.

The Torrey’s were unable to satisfactorily renegotiate their contract with the United States Postal Service, so they chose to terminate the contract. On Dec. 31, 2019, they closed their doors. All that is left of what was once a center of the community is an empty building.

What’s next?

For the time being, all the mail previously received at the Torrey community post office is being routed to Bicknell’s post office, which is a federal post office and not a contract post office.

The distance from the former post office location in Torrey to the Bicknell office is approximately eight miles one way. For residents in the outlying areas, the drive can be upward of 30 miles one way.

In addition to the added drive, residents can now only access their mail during business hours because their boxes are in the back room of the Bicknell Post Office.

“It has definitely been a challenge. They have more P.O. boxes than I have,” Cassy Snedeger, the postmaster of the Bicknell office, said.

Where Torrey’s community post office had about 380 boxes, Bicknell only has about 223, she said.

A photo of the Bicknell post office where Torrey residents now go to send and receive their mail, Torrey, Utah, Jan. 20, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

Snedeger said that while it has been especially difficult for Torrey residents, she has welcomed the opportunity to get to know the people of Torrey better while their mail is being routed to her office.

When the Torrey’s decided to terminate their contract, the postal service sent out a notice to business owners in Torrey soliciting retailers and individuals who might be interested in “forming a partnership” with the postal service to take over the functions of operating the contract post office.

“The Postal Service is currently in communication with several prospective contractors in awaiting their application and offer,” Putnam said. “We hope to have another contractor and (contract post office) in Torrey within a few months to meet the  growing needs in that area.”

One prospective contractor is Don Gomes, who, along with his wife, owns and operates a consignment store centrally located in Torrey on Center and Main, just a stone’s throw from where the old post office was located, Gomes said.

Though the consignment store, like most businesses in Torrey which close during the winter, is not open year-round, the building has garage space formerly used as a tenant rental that would be perfect to accommodate post office boxes, Gomes said.

He said he is aware of the challenges that operating the post office would entail, including a high volume of mail and maintaining financial feasibility, but he believes they would be able to do it.

Torrey said she is excited for the next person who will take on the challenge but remains skeptical that it will be financially viable.

“I really hope that someone does take on the contract, but I really think that whoever does is going to end up in the red,” Torrey said.

Gomes is just one in a small group of applicants who are vying for the contract, which residents hope to have in place sooner rather than later.

That being said, for some residents, like Bill Barrett, that isn’t good enough.

Barrett said there are five federal post offices in Wayne County — post offices are located in Bicknell, Hanksville, Loa, Lyman and Teasdale — and only one of them, Loa, which is the county seat, operates at a higher volume than the Torrey community post office.

Torrey’s famous “weather rock” sits still outside the former community post office, Torrey, Utah, Dec. 31, 2019 | Photo by Adus Dorsey, St. George News

While he understands a town like Hanksville, which is more isolated from the rest of the towns in the county, having its own federal post office, he doesn’t understand why other towns with much smaller mail volume would have one and not Torrey.

“(Torrey) is big enough that it ought to have its own,” Barrett said.

And he is not alone in his thinking. Town clerk Paula Pace said the national park surpassed a million visitors in 2019, and the town really could use its own post office both for town needs and to support the growing number of visitors.

Some residents have launched an unofficial campaign to “raise a stink,” Barrett said, to try to get a federal post office in Torrey.

Many of them are part of a group email thread, Trevelyan said, where they share information and organize their efforts.

Residents have sent letters of complaint to the postal service, made several calls to the retail manager over contract post offices, as well as others at the postal service, and have been petitioning their county and state representatives to get involved in their cause.

It is a valiant effort, one that Barrett knows will take time, but it is also one that the postal service says is not likely to succeed, partially because of the postal service’s own financial challenges.

In a response to one Torrey resident’s query, a complaints and inquiry clerk at the postal service sent a reply that, in part, said this:

We understand the desires of the residents of Torrey for a local post office over a (contract post office). The Postal Service is a self-supporting agency; as mail volumes are declining and with some financial challenges, we must ensure that we focus our limited resources on the maintenance of our existing infrastructure and service. Rarely do we build or establish new postal facilities.

Pace said she gets the general sense that the residents are being slighted, as if the postal service feels bad for them, but not that bad.

Still, even though Barrett knows that rural communities don’t often make a big impact, he plans to make as much noise as possible.

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