CHARLES TOWN—The motto of the United States Postal Service is, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Now visitors to the Jefferson County Museum online or in person can see how the post office system has evolved in the county as part of the museum’s latest photo exhibit “Jefferson County Post Offices—Then & Now,” which traces the system from 1875 to 2021.
The “Then and Now” entry hall exhibit began in 2015 and has featured subjects like area churches and schools with photos of how they began and what they look like in present day.
“I think it has been our most popular exhibit because people can compare a school they went to and see what happened to it,” said Sara Huston, museum curator and outreach coordinator. “Sometimes buildings they remember are no longer there.”
Jane Rissler, museum director, said the exhibit’s location is also a factor.
“The museum itself has been open by appointment only since the pandemic. Since the photo exhibit is in the hallway, people can come downstairs from the library [located above the museum] to see it or look at it when they attend a county commissioners’ meeting on the same floor,” Rissler said.
The inclusion of post offices in “Then and Now” was due to museum volunteer Susan Whitmore, who was inspired by an article in the “Washington Post” about artist Mary Welcome’s photography of what the post refers to as “unassuming, one-story structures in rural towns.” Rural towns ultimately made many contributions to the postal service, specifically Jefferson County.
In 1896, Postmaster General William Lyne Wilson, born near Middleway, started the first experiment for Rural Free Delivery (RFD) to post offices in Charles Town, Halltown and Uvilla. The RFD program was created to deliver mail directly to rural destinations. Before it started, people living in remote homesteads had to pick up mail themselves or pay private carrier for delivery. Rural carriers sold stamps and money orders, registered letters, and served as traveling post offices. Within a year, 44 routes were operating in 29 states.
However, the increase in rural routes led to the decline of small post offices. In Jefferson County, for example, only nine post offices remain today of the 27 that had been established in towns and villages between 1792 and 1918. The new exhibit includes photos of post offices or former post offices in 14 of those towns and villages.
And Jefferson County has another first in the postal system. Vesta Watters Jones of Charles Town, was the first female rural mail carrier in West Virginia in 1919 and among the first in the United States.
Mailboxes were also not always part of the postal system.
“People used all kinds of different things like cigar boxes to hold their mail,” Rissler said. “The standard metal mailbox didn’t happen until 1901.”
Inside the museum is a sample of the early mail box.
Letters also have changed. Rissler has examples of cross writing on display.
“Over the years, when paper was expensive, people would start writing a letter from left to right then write from right to left between the spaces on a page. These are so difficult to read,” Rissler said.
Those who enter the museum can see what was once part of the Summit Point post office, donated to the museum in 1989.
“We leave one of the post boxes open because a family came in who had relatives who once had that box and they knew the combination,” said Huston.
To see the new exhibit online, go to the museum’s website at www.jeffcomuseumwv.org. Under “Exhibits,” click on “Virtual exhibits.”
During the pandemic, the museum is open by appointment only, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visitors should call, preferably 24 hours in advance at 304-725-8628 to make an appointment.