The Montavilla Post Office: 1891-1966

By PATRICIA SANDERS

Did you know that Montavilla had its own post office for 75 years? Some of you may remember its latter days when branches existed on SE 78th Avenue, just south of Stark Street, or even before when it was next to the Academy Theater. Over its long history, the Montvilla Post Office moved many times, but let me go back to the beginning.

In 1891, the US Postmaster General approved a post office in the new community of Montavilla and appointed James Downing, a Union Army veteran, to be its postmaster. The post office itself was located at the northeast corner of Base Line Road (now SE Stark) and Hibbard Street (now SE 80th Ave). It may have been inside Downing’s grocery store, which wouldn’t have been unusual. In small communities, like Montavilla was then, the same building often housed a post office, a commercial business and the owner’s residence.

Unidentified Mail Carrier, 1923. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs division, photograph by Harris & Ewing (LC-H234- A-7337)

Ten years later we see notable improvements in Montavilla’s postal service. The person in charge at that time was Postmistress Winnie A. Burdett, one of several women to be appointed over the years to head the Montavilla post office. In 1901, the first locked mailbox, outside the post office, where outgoing mail could be deposited. The same year saw the beginning of twice-daily mail deliveries to the post office via the electric trolley. (For more on this branch line built in 1900, see “Montavilla Memories” article “The Montavilla Streetcar Line“.)

The next really, really big improvement came in 1902: free home delivery. Previously mail had to be collected at the post office. But the Montavilla citizens wanted what other communities had, so they signed a petition requesting home delivery and sent it off to the Postmaster General in Washington DC. After a few anxious months, he granted their request and, at the same time, made Montavilla a branch of the Portland Post Office, even though Montavilla was not yet part of the City. (That happened with annexation in 1906.) 

There was one slight hitch: to get free home delivery, Montavilla would have to number the houses and paint street names on sidewalk corners, for greater ease of delivery. Incidentally, you may have noticed that many of the later, concrete sidewalks continued to include street names at intersection. (For more on Montavilla sidewalks see “Montavilla’s History Beneath our Feet“.)

When mail delivery finally began in Montavilla, one mail carrier delivered it all: John Jensma, a 36-year-old Dutch immigrant. He was responsible for delivering to all of Montavilla’s 300 households. By 1907 the households had doubled, but his salary had not changed, a mere $1,100 per year. Nor had another carrier yet been added, but there would be more.

Interestingly, Jensma was not only a mail carrier, he was also a poet. His poem published in The Morning Enterprise of September 2, 1913 gives insights into the postman’s predicament in the early 20th Century:

“The Carrier’s Story”

Once when I was a younger man,
Now fifteen years ago,
I joined the city carrier force
And hoped with it to grow.

‘Twas then a pretty decent job
Demerits were not known
And if you acted decently
With ease you’d hold your own.

But our benign superiors
Thought we had too much ease,
And they applied demerit screws
And gave us many a squeeze.

I tramped the streets, I packed the sack
Till blistered, sore, and lame;
Then when I could not walk so fast,
They held me up to shame.

Demerits soon began to come;
I was too dreadful slow,
I soon would have my pay reduced
Or from the service go.

Up Stairs, down stairs
Six hundred times a day,
And then they tell you all the time
You do not earn your pay!

I read the signs, I took the tip
And took a rural route;
No blisters bother now my feet,
Demerits are cut out.

Of course my pay is not so high,
Still, I feel now no remorse,
That I Ieft the bats of burden
And joined the rural force.

The demerits Jensma refers to relate to policies of Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson. Purportedly for cost-cutting and worker efficiency, he introduced an award-demerit rating systemfor retention and promotion of postal workers. In 1913, time and motion studies assessed the performance of all mail distribution jobs. Hence Jensma’s concern about slowing down. Burleson also wanted older carriers to step aside for younger ones, even though there were no pensions for postal workers. No wonder Jensma joined and became active in the Oregon State Association of Letter Carriers.

Jensma continued to work as a carrier until 1927. During these and later years the Montavilla post office changed locations several times but always within the Stark St commercial core. One of these locations that still exists is 7828 SE Stark, one of the commercial spaces planned as part of the 1948 Academy building. Today this space is occupied by Johnny’s Barber Shop

In 1956 the post office moved one last time, to a new building, just around the corner, at 544 SE 78th Ave, where Do It Yourself Heating is now. The Montavilla post office finally closed in 1966.

Postscript:

While Montavilla lost its post office, postal service continued for several years inside Dickson Drug Store at the northwest corner of Stark St and 80th Ave where The Country Cat is today. Shortly after the death of the store’s owner William Dickson in 1966, his wife Barbara applied for and received permission to be a contract post office. The Dickson Drug postal service continued to serve the Montavilla community until 2004.

Acknowledgments:

As you might be able to tell, this article took a great deal of research, more even than usual. I would like to acknowledge Kate McCarter’s much-appreciate assistance in this effort. Thanks also to Dianne Dickson Lawrence for her information on Dickson Drug Store.

Request:

The information Kate and I gathered on the Montavilla Post Office far exceeds what is in this article, so if you have questions, please feel free to post them below and I’ll try to answer them. Please also do share to share any memories you may have of the Montavilla Post Office— its buildings, people and stories— in the comment space below.

Or you can send information, memories, photos or related documents (news clippings, letters, etc.) to pat.montavilla.history@gmail.com.

Read all of the “Montavilla Memories” articles by Pat Sanders here

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