Dead letter office: Why we don’t (and won’t) get mail delivered in JH

JACKSON, Wyo. — Life in Jackson Hole at the turn of the century was difficult, to say the least. Something as simple as mail delivery — a commonplace daily occurrence most Americans take for granted today — was far from simple.

At the turn of the century, packages, letters, and postcards often went unclaimed or returned to sender. And it didn’t matter whether you lived on the outskirts of the county in, say, Hoback or Moran, or whether you were right smack in the heart of town on Deloney. The mail was slow and spotty, and if you went to retrieve it at the post office, it very often was nowhere to be found.

We should be clear. The turn of the century referred to here is the last one. Like, 21st century. Like, 20 years ago. And nowadays, in 2020, receiving a package from Amazon or a letter from across town is just as much of a gamble as it was in 2000.

But, and here’s the real kick in the shorts, in many ways mail delivery has gotten worse since the turn of previous century. Way worse.

When the zip code was zippier

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Snow. It’s the first one. Look at this hardy mail carrier as his team gets stuck in soft snow over Teton Pass in May 1912. Why can’t we get this brand of ‘can do’ today? Photo: Records of U.S. Forest Service, Bridger-Teton NF, Archive Negative No. 95-G-10996A

The good ol’ days of 1900 in Jackson Hole. Population 639, mostly men, and the valley boasted no less than five post offices. That’s right, five. Elk, Grovont, South Park, Wilson, and Jackson. More, in fact, if you count Antler, which operated up until December 1899. Then you’ve got the Brooks Post Office, in operation from 1905-1912, and the Hoback P.O. (1921-1943), and the Moose Post Office (1923-present), and the Jenny Lake P.O. (summers only beginning in 1926).

You get the picture. There were practically a hundred people to a post office back in the early 1900s. Today, there’s that many in line in front of you on December 23 or when you really have to pee.

The biggest difference between 1900 and 2020? Mail service was better 120 years ago.

Fast-forward from yesteryear to yesterday. With all the technology at mankind’s disposal—satellite imagery, real-time tracking updates, drone delivery—there are still hundreds of ‘undeliverable’ packages stacked in a back room higher than Teewinot Mountain awaiting the second half of their roundtrip because of a missing 5-digit number.

How can this be?

That’s a nope. Photo:Mikaela Wiedenhoff

Welcome to the Black Hole that is Jackson Hole, where packages come to die. In 2006, over 90 million items were marked “undeliverable as addressed” and sent to the USPS dead letter office in Atlanta, Georgia. An estimated 89 million* of them bore an 83001 zip code. US Postal Service announced in late December 2019 it plans to purchase 186,000 vehicles at a cost of more than $6 billion to update an aging fleet. None of them will be coming to Jackson Hole.

For the umpteenth time (there is still someone who has not heard the message), Jackson, for the most part, does not have home delivery of mail. Drunken teenagers here roam suburban streets swinging bats into the night air with futility.

Instead of 10 mail delivery trucks bringing parcels to the door of every resident in Teton County, we have 24,000 people all hopping in their vehicles and driving to pick up their mail. Makes sense, right?

Missed opportunity: “Wait a minute, Mr. Postman”

Aggressive sign posted at the post office on Maple Way a couple years back. Thirty-five of them, in fact. Photo: Buck // Buckrail

It did in 1974, anyway. That was the last time Jackson had a say in whether or not we wanted mail brought to our houses and businesses. We will not again have that opportunity. More on that in a moment.

It’s common belief that a big reason we do not have home mail delivery is that our winters are too snowy. That may have something to do with it. It’s why residents in Mammoth Lakes, California don’t get mail to their house, either.

But more accurately the reason to give the mailman a permanent day off in Jackson is more like why they did it in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. It’s so we can kibbutz with our neighbors in an environment known to drive its employees so mad they’ve named a violent psychotic episode for it. The Post Office is a chance to catch up with one another.

Home mail delivery in Jackson Hole is very difficult … to explain. Photo: Chad Peltola

Depending on customer volume and corresponding staffing — typically following a 300 to 1 ratio borrowed from a UCLA Introduction to Music Appreciation classroom* — the chance to catch up leads to the opportunity to grow sick of one another, break up, and makeup again before our yellow card even sees the counter. Similar to Woodstock, there have been deaths, births, marriages and other U.S. Census Bureau statistical changes registered in the time it takes to buy a book of stamps.

Back to Jackson. The year was 1974. There were barely more than 2,000 people living in Jackson. Everyone talks about a vote taken where we actually chose against the convenience and sustainability of having mail brought to our door. That’s not exactly true.

Floyd Graefe was the postmaster then. He remembers the regional office in Cheyenne thinking home delivery was a given. Everyone thought so. A newspaper poll indicated a slight majority (53%) wanted to get their mail at home. So an official federal survey was sent to town residents and the movement failed.

Graefe couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t so much that people voted against having letter carriers, or for a Post Office parley, it’s just that not enough people bothered to return the survey. Only about 20% (or around 400 people) responded. USPS required a 75% response rate for the results to be valid.

So, in essence, true J-Hole apathy is the reason we do not get our mail delivered in Jackson. And never will. Tell your friends and family.

The recent use of dogs* trained to detect post office box numbers with nothing to go on but a physical address and the scent of Aunt Gertie’s holiday fruit cake inside has so far been unsuccessful in assisting postal employees with matching a customer name to a box number. USDA photo

Like your packages, the chance is lost

Strange, unidentified vehicle not seen in these parts since, like, never. Photo: Pope Moysuh

For several years after that fateful 1974 survey, town residents occasionally mustered initiatives and made noise about a retry but nothing ever came about. Even when a postal box in Jackson was a three-year waiting list and the original post office on W Pearl was so overflowing boxes were added to Stone Drug, nobody felt compelled to seek home mail delivery.

Once the new 25,000-sf, $4M post office on Maple Way was built in 1995, the deal was sealed. With the USPS losing a record $8.8 billion (with a “B”) in FY2019, postal spokesman for Wyoming, David Rupert, says don’t expect the hiring of letter carriers anytime soon.

In fact, since a revision to the Postal Operations Manual in 2018, Jackson will never, ever, have anyone bring you your mail to your house. Never. Ever.

From now on, all new addresses added to the 156.6 million it delivered in 2018 will be handled kiosk style. Meaning cluster boxes out on the highway or at the entrance of your cul-de-sac If, that day ever comes.

And it won’t.

Because, ultimately, we’ll probably never be bothered and organized enough to do anything about our funky mail delivery system in Jackson Hole. We just love to complain about it. With our friends and neighbors. At the post office.


* Very possibly likely not true or accurate. 

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