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They get their mail in the old-time way

Hamlet's post office home to 1906 lockboxes

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Wilma Campbell admits her job as postmistress in the western Manitoba hamlet of Isabella is pretty easy.

BILL REDEKOP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Wilma Campbell admits her job as postmistress in the western Manitoba hamlet of Isabella is pretty easy. Photo Store

ISABELLA -- When folks out here need their mail, they go to their 108-year-old postal station -- a small enclosure with a smiling postmistress and a bank of mailboxes encased in dark-stained cabinetry.

Customers fiddle with a combination lock, pull open the metal box, remove their mail.

The hamlet of Isabella, with a population you can count on one hand -- four -- has one of the last postal stations in the country with combination locks.

The lockboxes, made of brass, were installed in 1906. Canada Post once tried to replace them with modern key-lock boxes, but it was rebuffed. Did the community really prefer the old lockboxes? You bet your brass, was the response from the 29 households who still pick up their mail from the Isabella postal station.

"This is history. Isabella, all it is, is a museum, basically," said postmistress Wilma Campbell.

That is, there are more museum buildings here than people. The private museum of Bernice Still, featured two years ago in the Free Press, fills five heritage buildings alone. The fully functional lockboxes fit hand in glove with the historical motif.

Now the community risks losing the postal station despite the moratorium that's been in place since 1994 against closing rural post offices.

Isabella is on the far west side of the province, about 50 kilometres northwest of Virden. The postal station serves folks within a 10-kilometre radius.

You can see why folks here want to keep their lockboxes. A lot of urban Manitobans will soon find out what it's like to pick up their mail from community boxes as Canada Post begins phasing out home delivery. They'll have to trek to the lockboxes, fish in their pockets for a key -- yet another key -- and retrieve their mail.

"(Combination locks) are certainly more convenient than the new variety (of community mailboxes)," said Campbell, Isabella postmistress for the past 15 years. "You never have to worry about bringing your key."

The old lockbox combinations have just two numbers. There's a wide dial for one number and an inside pointer for the second number.

Canada Post says it began replacing combination locks ages ago because key locks are more secure. There are still a few post offices with combination-lock boxes, including one in Cowan, east of Swan River.

But there's so little crime around Isabella, you hardly need a lock, Campbell said. There have never been any holdups or mailboxes crowbarred open. "I had my sign stolen off the outside wall. That was five years ago, and Canada Post never replaced it. I'm sure the sign is in some university student's room," she said.

The original postmaster here was William Iverach, and the position stayed in the Iverach family for 65 years. More recently, Bernice Still held the position for 29 years, seven months and 21 days before Campbell succeeded her.

Postmaster and postmistress are important-sounding titles. It had to do with the times, Campbell said. "I think they used to have a lot more status. In 1906, the postmaster was really somebody. Now, it's a clerical job."

Campbell works five-hour days. She was required to work Monday to Saturday until two years ago, when Saturdays were dropped. Postmasters and postmistresses are unionized under the Canada Post Masters and Assistants Union, but have never struck.

Campbell concedes the obvious: She's not very busy. The retail function, like selling stamps, has really gone downhill since email, although there are more parcels. "I quilt," she admits, when asked how she passes the time. The interior walls of the post office are decorated with her art quilts. "And, of course, I do a lot of reading."

The future of the post office is in doubt because Campbell retires on July 31.

That starts a process. A spokesman for Canada Post said the local rural municipality has to request the position be filled, so the RM is going to survey the community. If the community wants to keep the post office, as seems likely, then Canada Post has to find someone to replace Campbell. If it does, the postal station remains open. If it doesn't, it's the new-style community boxes.

"I call them idiot boxes," said Still of the newer boxes. She wants to keep the antique lockboxes, the same ones featured in the Canada Postal Museum in Ottawa. She proffers a third idea: Keep the post office unstaffed, removing its retail function, and just have the postal delivery driver sort the mail into the 29 lockboxes.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2014 A11

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