Signs mark local towns of the pastLast year, the United States Postal Service unveiled a plan to close thousands of rural post offices across the country. It was an attempt to save the bankrupt agency millions of dollars a year.
By: Sarah Gorvin, The Republican Eagle
Last year, the United States Postal Service unveiled a plan to close thousands of rural post offices across the country. It was an attempt to save the bankrupt agency millions of dollars a year.
But nearly as soon as the plan was announced, communities began objecting, many worrying that they would lose their sense of community. The USPS ultimately scrapped the plan earlier this summer.
“We’ve listened to our customers in rural America and we’ve heard them loud and clear – they want to keep their post office open,” Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said back in May.
Those small communities may have been on to something, considering what happened to dozens of small towns in Goodhue County when they lost their rural postal centers decades ago. All that remains of many of these cities is a sign from the Goodhue County Historical Society marking the locations.
“There are more than 60 (former towns),” said society Director Char Henn.
It was the implementation of Rural Free Delivery service around the turn of the century – which deposited mail into individual boxes located on each farmstead – that caused many rural post offices and the towns they were located in to become obsolete.
“It used to be you had to go to the post office to get your mail,” Henn said.
But it’s not just the postal service that can be held accountable for many small towns’ demises. Henn said better transportation, which allowed farmers to travel much longer distances in shorter amounts of time, also should be blamed.
“It wasn’t as necessary to have a town every couple of miles,” she said.
Another factor was rail service. Quite a few towns disappeared when railroad tracks were built miles away from the city center.
“One of the biggest things (for survival) is if they got a railroad,” Henn said.
The rail was such an important factor that Wanamingo, for example, slowly moved its city center about a mile so that businesses had easier access to rail transportation.
“Wanamingo didn’t want to die,” Henn said.
Now the “ghost towns” can be found in every township in Goodhue County. Some of them – such as Claybank — currently consist of nothing more than a gravel road surrounded by grassy ditches and corn fields.
Other towns show slightly more signs of former life. In Burley, near County Roads 1 and 6, a crumbling brick school house and an old implement dealership still stand.
The historical society began marking these ghost town locations with signs in the 1990s.
“We just looked at all those places that had post offices,” Henn said. “If it had a post office, we considered them.”
The society relied heavily on research done by Roy W. Meyer, a college professor who grew up in the former town of Forest Mills and extensively studied Goodhue County’s ghost towns and former post offices.
As staff and volunteers worked, the society decided that the former town also had to have had businesses at one time to be considered a ghost town.
“The stores were pivotal,” Henn said. “We did say that had to have had businesses.”
Depending on what’s left of the site, the society places one of two signs at its location. If there are no public buildings left, the site gets a sign reading “Former site of … .”
“There’s no place really to gather as a public function,” Henn said. That means that there could be a few houses left, but not much more.
If the community still functions — Welch, for example — the town gets a sign saying the year it was established.
Still used today
It may seem that if it wasn’t for the historical society’s brown signs, Goodhue County’s ghost towns would fade completely from people’s minds. But Henn said the former locations have a way of popping up in everyday life.
For example, the National Weather Service still commonly uses the former towns as place markers when they announce the paths of thunderstorms and tornados.
“They hit all those little towns that may or may not be towns,” Henn said.
In addition, Henn said the records from former towns has become invaluable for people researching their ancestry. Often old documents show who owned what stores and for how long, she said.
“They have names and dates — so-and-so owned this store — and you can get a lot of downtown history,” she said.
But for some people, finding ghost towns becomes something of a treasure hunt during visits to the Goodhue County History Center.
“Every so often, people come in and say they’ve been following the signs,” Henn said.