RFD Maine — Rural Mailboxes

By Tom Seymour | Sep 26, 2012

Sometimes column ideas come to me in the most unexpected ways and at the oddest times. This topic, rural mailboxes, dawned upon me while taking an alternate route to somewhere or the other in order to avoid Route 1 traffic. Anyway, the road was way out in the country and houses were far and few between. They all had one thing in common, and that was a rural mailbox at the end of the driveway.

I have deduced that mailboxes, like so many other things in our society, tell much about the customs and perhaps even personalities of their owners. For instance, while there is no uniform code or law regarding type of mailbox post, a kind of unwritten code certainly exists and people do adhere to it.

And this unwritten code, when distilled down to its bare bones, dictates that while people living in towns, cities and suburbs must use commercially-made or at least somewhat presentable mailboxes and mailbox posts, people in the country my use whatever they darn well please. Of course in both instances, mailboxes must not be homemade but purchased, so that they conform to U.S. Postal Service regulations. But out in the country, even this comes with a twist.

Practical posts

First, let’s consider posts. Bear in mind that we’re talking about out in the country now and for the rest of this column. A mailbox post must, above all, consist of sturdy and rugged material in order to resist snowplow damage. The cutesy little metal posts found on in-town mailboxes won’t do here. Nothing but the most obdurate material can suffice.

The most common rural mailbox post consists of a 4-inch-diameter length of peeled cedar or other coniferous wood. In some cases, people take care to trim knots, but this by no means occurs across the board.

Such utilitarian, no-nonsense posts serve their intended purpose well. But for various reasons, they rarely stay perpendicular to the ground for very long. Instead, these and indeed, any, mailbox post tend to lean one way or the other, usually away from the road. In the case of the road where I live, we have little solid ground into which to drive a post, thanks to deep roadside ditches dug some years ago during the town’s dubious flirtation with using government money to dig ditches. Thankfully, the bucks ran out while there was still a bit of roadside left.

Anyway, we practical Mainers have devised any number of methods to keep our mailbox posts at least somewhat upright. This includes propping with braces, the most common remedy. My own post has assumed a considerable lean and in order to keep the mailbox somewhat plumb I have inserted a wedge between mailbox and post. This works well, except for when the wedge falls out.

Others use more ingenious fixes, one being to saw the post in two and put it back together with two flat pieces of plywood scabs. Thus while the bottom of the post remains tilted, the upright section sits at a proper angle. The thing looks kind of funny, but it works fine.

Some people, tiring of digging and re-digging post holes, simply set their post in a five-gallon pail filled with sand or stone. When something, as in a snowplow, knocks the mailbox over, it’s a simple task to set it upright. Also, I recently spied a mailbox post made entirely of cement blocks, piled one atop the other. Simple but effective.

Personal touch

The really interesting mailboxes and posts often reflect their owner’s trade. For instance, who hasn’t seen a welder’s mailbox post, the kind made out of a length of stout chain welded together?

Then we have the biker’s post. And yes, you guessed it, the post is in fact, an old motorcycle and the mailbox sits on top of it.

My all-time favorite is a lobsterman’s mailbox. This consists of a regulation mailbox set inside a wooden lobster trap. Clever, attractive and certainly a good advertisement for his lobster business.

Then we have the wag who places a 15-foot-high mailbox next to his standard one. The taller mailbox carries the legend, “air mail.”

Other people also use two mailboxes, one the standard regulation variety, the other consisting of a trash can on a post carrying the words, “junk mail.”

Even the person who lacks creative skills can get into the act, given the advent of custom-made mailbox covers. These are designed to hold a regulation mailbox and apparently are perfectly legal. My favorite one, a huge, plastic largemouth bass with its big mouth holding the mailbox, often occurs in conjunction with pink plastic flamingos. These, I believe, are wicked good.

Custom lettering

And then we have mailbox lettering. Rarely, if ever, do country people use the commercially-made, stick-on numbers and letters. I think I know why, too. They fall off, leaving the viewer to guess the owner’s name and box number. Just try and decipher, “T m S ymo r Bo 1 4.” You get my point, I’m sure.

Paint lasts longer but it, too, eventually fades. The kind of people who go to pains to make those clever mailbox posts often use stencils to paint their letters. Others simply employ a straightedge instrument. And then we have people like me. This group just paints the letters on freehand, hoping against hope that the paint doesn’t run too badly before it dries.

As so often happens, someone calls and says they are coming to visit and want to know my mailbox number. I tell them my number, knowing that the paint has long since faded. So all in a tizzy, I run out and write new numbers using a felt-tipped marker. This lasts up to one week if it doesn’t rain. Of course the prudent homeowner would go out and buy quality paint for this job, but in my mind it’s like a leaky roof, the one that doesn’t leak if it doesn’t rain. “Oh well, I’ll get around to it some day,” I tell myself.

So now you can see that rural mailboxes are far more than just vehicles to hold mail. They are mirrors of individual’s personalities, and as such deserve recognition as true American art forms. Long live the rural mailbox.

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