Losing their identities

Published 9:53 pm Friday, March 1, 2013

During the course of the 20th century, some of the area’s busiest little corners saw overwhelming changes in commuting patterns, residential preferences and availability of transportation that turned them from the retail and social hubs of their communities to quiet, almost-forgotten villages whose vacant buildings testify to the changes wrought by time.

Holland, Whaleyville and Driver are examples of such communities in Suffolk that are fighting to remain relevant in the face of urbanization in parts of the city that have better access to the primary transportation network of Hampton Roads and, hence, to the area’s shopping and cultural opportunities. Other communities — like Cypress Grove, Somerton and others — could not keep up with the changes and exist now only as a few houses and a sign or two.

The shifting structure of communities within Suffolk has given the rural post offices serving those communities new roles they didn’t always hold. Whereas the old general store or village barbershop might once have served as the social center of a place like Holland, the post office has gradually taken on some of the responsibilities as those retail gathering points have closed.

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In Holland or in Whaleyville or Driver or Chuckatuck, taking a trip to the post office often means planning a few extra minutes to catch up with a neighbor or fellow church member met in the lobby there. Usually it means spending a few minutes trading inquiries about family welfare with the postmaster or other postal employee on duty.

One woman who knows a lot about those kinds of personal exchanges is Brenda Mauldin, who spent her first day in retirement on Friday after 15 years with the U.S. Postal Service. Mauldin retired from the Holland Post Office, where she’d worked for about nine years, but she’d served the communities of Driver, Whaleyville and Crittenden during her postal career, as well.

One thing she’d have found to be similar from one of those communities to the next is the sense of community that can be found at the post office. Mauldin expressed the thought well when interviewed on Thursday, her last day on the job: “I’ve loved it. I just love the people of Holland, and they’re truly like family. They’re just wonderful, down-home people.”

It’s hard to know what will happen to America’s rural post offices as a result of the stiff competition the U.S. Postal Service is seeing from the Internet and from package delivery services. One thing’s for sure though: The nation’s thousands of tiny little villages like Holland will lose another important part of what draws them together as communities, part of what gives them their identities, if those tiny post offices are closed.