The Eugene Post Office
Carrying a postal route
I took the examination for mail handler in Eugene, Oregon in 1948, but was not called in to work in the Christmas rush, to my surprise. In the spring of 1949 I called the postmaster to ask about the progress of my application, and he said he was waiting for official approval. One day I was in the Post Office lobby and the postmaster asked me if I would want to act as a substitute carrier for a few weeks while one of the regulars went on vacation.
I was glad to get the job, and after one day of instruction I carried a route for about a month. It was the route north and east of the Post Office, as far as the river and the old Ferry Street Bridge. After I got used to the route it was not hard to take care of it, except for the big weekly magazines that all came out on Thursday and Friday. One day I cased the letters backward and worked the route backward. Some people complained that they got their mail too early (it must be only part of it, they said) and some who were used to getting it early got theirs later that day. So I went back to the old routine.
While carrying the route I got the idea that I would pull a stunt that few people in the world have done. I was publishing Franson's Motor News, which I wrote, pasted up, and edited. That week I helped the printer for a few hours and ran off some of my four-page magazines. Then I addressed a few to garages and gas stations on my mail route as sample copies. Then I folded, stuffed, and stamped the envelopes. Then I took them to work in the morning and ran them through the canceling machine. Then I took them out on the route and delivered them.
So for that issue (a few copies only) I —
After the brief time as a carrier, my mail handler appointment came through, and I reported for work. I was the first mail handler ever hired at the Eugene Post Office, and the reason for my job was a change in train schedules that brought in the bulk of the mail from the east at night, on Train 329 from Portland. Previously the largest amount of mail had come in during the day, and it could be handled by the clerks on duty, very reluctantly.
The postmaster authorized the re-opening of the old Post Office building (built in 1909) alongside the newer building (1938). There was no connection between the two buildings, so all mail unloaded in the old building had to be just the parcel post that was (later in the morning) sorted there. Magazines, newspapers, and first class mail went to the new building for sorting. So the truckers that brought the mail from the railroad depot had to pre-sort into the sacks and boxes as they loaded it on their trucks at the depot. Naturally there were some mix-ups and some mail had to be handled twice.
I had the services of a clerk as a helper to get the trucks unloaded and the mail separated into categories. The clerks objected to the hard work so eventually I got a part-time helper. I can't blame the clerks; they were not hired to be stevedores, as I was.
That reminds me about the test for mail handler. It was basically a literacy test. After I had been working as a full-time mail handler for a few weeks, the Superintendent of Mails came in one morning and said there was an additional test to qualify me for the job. The test was to lift a 100-pound sack off the floor, carry it 20 feet one way and 20 feet back to the starting point, and then place it down on the floor, gently.
So the superintendent had a clerk stuff enough No. 1 sacks into a No. 1 sack to make it weigh 100 pounds by the newspaper scale on the back platform. The clerk brought the sack in and laid it on the floor. I picked it up and went through the ritual easily because I had been wrestling those sacks for weeks. Thus I passed the test for mail handler.
I held the job from 1949 to 1956, except for a few months in 1951 when I worked at the plywood mill in Springfield. After a few months in the plywood mill I thought about it and decided to go back to the post office.
My first night back while I was working the outgoing newspaper rack the Postal Inspector for the southern area of Oregon, Bill Andrews, saw me there and came up to me. I thought I was in trouble, but all he said was "Glad to see you back." He was the one who married the postmistress of Harrisburg as a result of having to spend a lot of time there investigating a robbery. In Eugene he liked to lurk in the gallery above the work floor, which the larger Post Offices had then, and he could see everything that went on.
He smoked a particularly foul pipe, and when we caught the smell of it we would make remarks about a skunk in the pile of sacks, or a burning mail sack somewhere. He knew us all, and was very tolerant and understanding about his postal workers. We knew he was watching us when we would sit on a box and read somebody's magazine. He also knew that we worked very hard when the trucks came and went.
One night three of us had just unloaded an exhausting load of weekly magazines, and were sitting on the first-class sorting table talking. The senior clerk on duty at the time was a decent-enough guy but a little stuffy, saw us and said we ought to go upstairs to the "swing room" to take our break, because it would look bad if somebody, such as the Inspector, came in and saw us on the table.
We said we didn't feel in the mood to climb stairs and he should go back to his sorting of the outgoing first class mail for Train 330. He said he would have to turn us in for insubordination because he was the senior clerk and was responsible. Dick Strite cussed him out and we stayed where we were for about ten minutes, a reasonable break time, and then went to the old building to stack the parcel post bags.
We were told to report to the Superintendent of Mails. We did, but we carefully timed it so we all went in together, except the senior clerk, who came in later. The Superintendent asked us what happened, and we told it exactly as it was. Harp got a few demerits, we got none, and we got a new respect for our Superintendent, who had handled mail all his adult life and knew what the jobs were like.
There were some strange and interesting people at the post office, and the one man I think was the most different was Dick Strite. He was about 30 years old, ex-Navy, and was a born gambler with the ability to get rich or get himself killed. He was not afraid of anybody or anything.
He was assigned to me as a helper and we worked well together on the night shift, from 9 PM to 6 AM. I was told some of his problems by the Superintendent, and Strite talked freely about his past and ambitions. One night he said he'd like to own a prize fighter, a black Cadillac, and a piece of the action in Las Vegas. He was clever at cards, and could deal one-handed from the top or bottom of the deck.
One night we were taking a short break from the heavy work, talking about trivia, and we were sitting on the steps that went up to an upper floor that was sealed off and I never visited. The door was wired shut. We both heard what sounded like the door opening and footsteps on the upper stairs. We both looked up and then looked at each other.
"Did you hear that?" I said, and he said he did, and he then ran up to the top steps and saw that the door was still fastened shut by wires. We talked about it for some time while unloading the next truck, and were still puzzled.
Years later, in 1978 with my brother on a visit to Chicago, I heard something in our hotel room, and realized right away that the faint noise and shaking was the reaction of the old building to the ground vibrations of a heavy freight train. Both the Eugene Post Office and the hotel on Cicero Avenue in Chicago were within a block of a railroad where heavy right trains came by at night. On soft or sandy soil the ground shakes under all trains, and if the conditions are right, the vibration can be felt in old, shaky, and creaky buildings a block or two away.
Dick Strite and I got along fine, talked about everything and had a lot of friendly arguments. Finally he got bored and decided to quit. He wrote on one of the platform posts "Strite quits" and the date of quitting. And he did, on exactly that date. I never saw him again, although his parents lived just across the alley from our house. His father was the sports editor of The Eugene Register-Guard.
That newspaper name reminds me of a strange event. There had been some mail thefts at the railroad station, so Inspector Andrews deputized me to keep watch on the mail there for two nights. I was chosen because I was already on the payroll and was known to the railroad crew as a regular Post Office worker whose job sometimes took him to the depot.
While there I saw nothing criminal, so I went back to my regular work. In the newspaper article about one of the thefts, the reporter said that a sack of newspapers, among other things, was stolen. I could not understand anybody stealing newspapers, but then I was hit by a flash of understanding.
The newspaper sacks were for small towns along the tracks, and the labels on them said Eugene Register-Guard and then the name of the destination. I believe that some semiliterate person saw Register and connected it with registered mail, which everybody knows is very valuable; and the word Guard, added to that, would say to the would be robber: Register-Guard, or this is valuable mail and must be guarded.
So if it happened that way, the name of the newspaper could have led to a crime. Could be. The name is not descriptive, and not clever. The Oregonian has the good newspaper name in Oregon.
One of the hardest jobs I had at the Post Office was handling the Sears catalogs that came in by rail and had to be sorted at Eugene for shipment to the whole southern half of Oregon by rail and truck. Those catalogs were heavy, and a No. 2 sack filled with them weighed about 90 pounds. The catalogs we handled at Eugene filled a boxcar up to the weight limit. We placed several railroad baggage trucks on the platform and passed the sacks out one at a time, calling out the truck the sacks should be stacked on. That was just a rough split; we always resorted them later when the boxcar was empty and we could call the railroad to take it away.
Also, while unloading we had to delegate somebody to count the sacks just to see if Sears was paying enough postage. The tally always agreed within a few dollars, and the Post Office always accepted the Sears postage check. I had to sign the papers that came with the load and take them to the postmaster's office.
The postmaster hired temporary help to unload the catalogs. Sometimes athletes from the University of Oregon were hired because the school had to find something for them to do. The postmaster was politically vulnerable, and he had to go along with several kinds of employment and rehabilitation schemes. University football players found out what the real world was like when they had those 90-pound sacks handed to them as fast as we could pick them up. We didn't think anything of it, but they got tired and out of wind very soon. So we let them take breaks in shifts (by turns) so there was always somebody standing on the baggage trucks to take the sacks as we handed them out.
A mail handler is supposed to be a stevedore and to handle bulk mail only, but at Eugene I had a wide variety of things to do. I co-signed all of the registered mail invoices on my shift (a clerk had to sign also). One night Senator Neuberger came in and said he had to get a big envelope of papers to Washington immediately and it had to be registered. We told him we could not legally take registered mail at night because the registered mail clerks had to handle it. He asked if there was some way we could get around that situation. So we faked a register number, put it on his mail, took it directly to Train 330, and sent it on its way. All of the postal employees along the way who handled that mail had to sign it on and off their registers, and it apparently went through. We heard nothing about it.
That reminds me of another weird trick done with the mail. Dick Strite (my helper) was always cooking up wild things to do. One night he decided to send an ordinary electric light bulb to somebody he knew in New York State. He painted electronic symbols on the bulb, tagged it as FRAGILE, OUTSIDE MAIL, DO NOT SACK, and sent it out with enough postage on the attached tag to cover the fee for insurance. But of course he could not insure it legally.
A few weeks later he got a postcard from the destination post office informing him that his mail had been damaged beyond repair and he should submit a claim for damage. But he had his fun, and let it go at that.
Another time he was reading the Bulletin and found that mail for Outer Mongolia was not accepted because there were bandits there. That challenge was too much for him. He made up a neat envelope with a typed letter inside saying that he was a philatelist and had no cancellations or stamps from Outer Mongolia, and asking somebody at the Post Office he named (copied from a map) to please send him a letter with a stamp and cancellation on it.
He got back a real collector's item: his envelope was returned with Chinese characters all over it, and rubber stamps in Chinese characters. Somebody wrote on it in English, "Mail for Outer Mongolia not accepted."
Every Christmas the Post Office would borrow the big Forest Service warehouse on the west side for handling the parcel post. Of course now the post office has lost most of that business to private handlers, but from 1949 to 1955, when I had charge of the Christmas warehouse on the night shift, there was a lot of mail there.
Load after load came in big trucks and was thrown on the floor. I had to move those mountains of mail so the morning crew could get to work right away when they came in about 4 AM. So I would stack the bags as high as I could throw them in a big stack about a hundred feet long. The morning crew would set up their tables at about the middle of the wall of sacks and then would start to dump sacks from one side of the tables and throw packages from the other side.
And the word "throw" is correctly used here; the mail was thrown into huge tubs arranged according to routes by the clerks who knew where everything in Eugene was. There would be about 20 tubs and when one was full it would be set aside and an empty tub put in its place.
When the mail for Christmas was the heaviest, I would stay at the warehouse until the day crew got there. Very early one morning a police car drove in the driveway there and one of the employees said, "Looks like we are being raided by the cops."
I went outside to talk to the officers and one of them said he had never seen anybody in the Forest Service warehouse at night. I explained that we were sorting mail and invited him in to see for himself. He checked it out, and said he never realized how big the mail load was at Christmas.
We know the reason he checked us out. A local hardware store had been burglarized by a team who drove up in a big truck, opened the door, turned on all of the lights, and looted the place. They made plenty of noise and nobody thought it was anything but a big wholesale shipment, probably to another store.
© 1999 Wilfred R. Franson
When I went to work there in 1949 this was called the "Old Building". The "new" building handled all public access, sorting of outgoing and incoming first class, and newspapers. All parcel post, going and coming, went through the old building. Strangely, there was no direct connection of the two buildings; we had to jump down from one platform and jump up to another platform to get mail across between the two buildings. During the Christmas rush, all parcel post and junk mail went through the old building, releasing the new building for the Christmas first-class rush.
— Bill (first mail handler in Eugene)
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