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Residents say closing post office would kill small Nevada town

GABBS — Hazel Dummar and her husband, Ray, operate the only restaurant, store, hotel and gas station in this northern Nye County town.

It’s a place where many people are senior citizens living on Social Security and food stamps. They depend on the Postal Service to deliver not only their mail, but also life-saving medications.

The Dummars fear that if the U.S. Postal Service closes the post office in this 300-person community, they will face 80-mile rides to Fallon or 60-mile trips to Hawthorne to transact business some of them have accomplished since the 1940s by walking a few blocks to their own post office.

"It will kill the town," Dummar said.

As much as the loss of the post office’s services, though, she and other Gabbs residents feel that if the town loses its post office, it loses its heart.

LIVING IN GABBS

The town looks like a place where time stopped in the 1950s.

There are few new buildings. Many homes are in need of repair, but almost everyone has a garden. Paved roads are rutted. Only the churches look new.

Gabbs is where the high school’s senior class numbers four. Pictures on the wall in the Gabbs School show as many as 20 seniors in past years. The total school enrollment, kindergarten through 12th grade, now is just 68. There were not enough girls for a basketball team last year, so two girls played on the boys team.

The town’s very existence has depended on mining. Founded in 1941, it initially was the company town for Basic Magnesium Inc. Today, Premier Chemicals still manufactures magnesium oxide, used as an anti-acid or laxative, and other items.

But the town’s population, once 800, continues to drop. Gabbs lost its incorporated city status in 2001.

Dummar estimated three-fourths of Gabbs’ residents are older than 60. Almost everyone moves away after high school because there are no jobs.

She and her husband, Ray, have run most of the town’s businesses for the past 50 years. When they’re gone, they don’t know if anyone will operate the restaurant, the gas station, store or motel. Their children won’t move back to Gabbs. It’s just too isolated for them.

A good hiker could walk the length of Gabbs in less than five minutes.

On a recent fall day, most people walked — or rode bikes or motorcycles — to pick up their mail and chat with Postmaster April Koeppel.

Seventeen-year-old Trevor Brown arrived on foot to pick up a bundle of mail for the Gabbs School. He awaits responses to his college applications and a future he knows will be someplace other than Gabbs.

Connie Stinson, a teacher and the local ambulance driver, was next. She told a story of how their ability to respond quickly to a certified letter meant her husband kept, rather than lost, his job.

Neva Ikehorn said she doesn’t drive and complained how the loss of the post office would be a special hardship for her and other older people.

"We all vote by mail, too," she added. "How would be get our ballots here? I guess they didn’t think of that."

But the town’s residents all seem to know that they would lose much more than postal services if their post office closes.

TOWN’S DEATH FEARED

Dummar said she and her husband are not leaving Gabbs.

"I love it here. It is so peaceful and quiet."

But she also feels strongly that Gabbs needs a post office.

"Without a post office, what is a town?" she asked.

Guy Rocha, retired state archivist and a Nevada historian, said closing the post office is a deathblow, at least psychologically, for rural Nevada residents.

In frontier America, the first thing settlers wanted was a post office because it was "a sign of permanency," he said.

The message the Postal Service is mailing Gabbs, Tuscarora, Silver Peak, Denio and other isolated Nevada hamlets is "you no longer warrant having a post office. Your town is declining."

"If you don’t work for the school, the mine or the county, there is just no employment in Gabbs," said Reyna Martin, the town secretary. "Losing the post office would be the first nail in our coffin."

She believes a boom is just around the corner. Gold exploration companies are combing the nearby mountains. Drillers discovered oil in a test well.

Her daughter, Koeppel, is the postmaster. Postal revenues have been in the $18,000 to $20,000 range for the last four years. It wouldn’t take much of a boom to top the $27,500 minimum revenue that the Postal Service set for post offices to survive.

"The goofy government," said Bud Sonnentag as he collects his mail from his box in the post office. "In the big cities, people get their mail delivered to their doors. We don’t and we are a drain on the budget?"

Sonnentag may not realize it, but mail in cities is not always delivered to the door. In the Las Vegas area, for example, mail already is delivered to neighborhood cluster boxes in newer neighborhoods.

Frances Hanifen, secretary at the "Home of the Tarantulas," the nickname for the Gabbs School, said the loss of the post office would be devastating for older people.

"The only time some senior citizens get out of their homes is when they go to the post office. They visit with their friends. It is the highlight of their day. The post office is a social place."

Many residents are older because in Gabbs they can live on their Social Security checks, she said. They own their homes — which sell in the $40,000 range — and rely on occasional bus trips to Fallon to see doctors and stock up on food at supermarkets.

CLOSURE HIT LIST

Last summer, the Postal Service announced a plan to potentially close 3,652 of the nation’s 41,000 post offices to help clear an $8 billion annual debt. Fourteen of the offices identified for potential closure were in Nevada, including Gabbs and 11 other rural towns of about 500 or less people. These are communities where the postmaster works no more than two hours a day.

Slated for closure is the post office in Denio, in the far northeastern corner of the state. The town is 100 miles north of Winnemucca, which would be the closest Nevada town with a post office. Denio, home to about 160 people, has had a post office since 1887.

Also Tuscarora, 60 miles north of Elko. It is the home of an artist’s colony that depends on the postmaster to send paintings and pottery to buyers around the world.

And Silver Peak, home of the nation’s only mine for lithium, the stuff used in batteries. Its residents already lack a gas station. The closest post office is 60 miles away in Tonopah.

Some already see closure as a done deal.

"The government is going to do what it wants to do," 82-year-old Albert Farnsworth said as he opened his box at the Gabbs post office earlier this month. "Everybody has money troubles, the government, too."

Postal Service executives just completed holding town meetings — which drew crowds larger than some towns’ high school football games — to assure residents that mail delivery won’t stop and they will continue to deliver six days a week.

CLUSTER BOXES COMING

Yes, there’s going to be an inconvenience for these people if they lose their post offices, acknowledged David Rupert, spokesman for the Postal Service in Denver. But he emphasized postal authorities are working to pick up and deliver every letter and package.

"We can continue to provide about 95 percent of our services," he said. "Nobody is going to lose the town name, their ZIP code or their address. They will have to drive a little further" for special services such as money orders.

A Carson City native, Rupert said "cluster boxes," or groupings of dozens of metal lock-and-key mailboxes, will be placed in a convenient area, probably on the site of the town’s closed post office. Carriers will deliver mail to the cluster boxes.

The Postal Service also will create "community post offices," or enter into contracts with a local business, likely a gas station or general store, where residents can buy stamps and flat-rate packages.

But no longer will residents be able to weigh and send out odd-sized packages, buy money orders or use certified mail. For those services, they must go to the closest city with a post office.

Representatives of the United Parcel Service and Federal Express said they will continue to deliver and pick up packages in these rural Nevada towns, as long as residents have a physical address.

NO TIMETABLE FOR CLOSURE

There is no timetable when these rural post offices will close.

"Every few days decisions are made," Rupert said. "Some are taken off the list. The bottom line is we don’t get tax revenue. We have to pay our own way."

Few people write letters anymore, he said. They correspond by texting and via the Internet. They pay their bills online. Put all of those factors together, and it’s easy to understand why the Postal Service is in debt even with 44-cent first-class stamps.

The Postal Service would not close any offices if it could discontinue Saturday service — a step blocked by Congress — and did not have to make annual $5.5 billion payments to a pension fund, Rupert said.

Congress passed a law in 2006 that requires the Postal Service to make the annual payments to cover the expected costs of retirement and health care benefits for postal employers over the next 75 years.

Still, some post offices could be saved. The post office in Baker, near Great Basin National Park, was on the initial list of closures, but it is off the latest list.

Many rural residents have been contacting U.S. Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller to protest their potential closures.

State Sen. Dean Rhoads, who represents residents in most communities on the post office closure list, has been encouraging residents to call or write their U.S. senators.

Rhoads lives on a ranch just outside Tuscarora. Until his wife retired, she was the community postmaster. He and other ranchers depend on the mail for the delivery of parts for broken farm equipment.

"It is vital for people in rural Nevada to have post offices," he said. "Many people hardly ever go to Elko. We rely on the mail."

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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