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Mail delivery has evolved throughout Bemidji's 125 years

We all recognize the importance of Christmas mail, but mail delivery as most of us know it has evolved a great deal during Bemidji’s 125 years.

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Mailmen handle bags of mail at Bemidji's newly constructed brick post office. Construction on the building began in 1917 on the northeast corner of Sixth Street and Beltrami Avenue and was completed in July 1918. (Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society)

Editor’s Note: The Beltrami County Historical Society is partnering with the Pioneer on a series of monthly articles highlighting the history of the area . For more information about the Historical Society, visit www.beltramihistory.org .

We all recognize the importance of Christmas mail, but mail delivery as most of us know it has evolved a great deal during Bemidji’s 125 years.

At first, the mail came in twice a week from Park Rapids to the Carson Trading Post. In 1898, two years after incorporation, the post office was moved to 120 Beltrami Avenue with Ed Kaiser as the postmaster. The location of the post office was important because, in 1898, the Great Northern was bringing passengers and freight into the business area. The area is roughly defined as First through Third Streets and Bemidji Avenue westward to Park Avenue.

In the early years, it was still necessary to go to the post office to pick up one’s mail. With the hotels and most business places close to the railroad depots, businessmen wanted easy access to their mail. It was just a short walk to the post office even after the post office moved to 116 Minnesota Avenue. Consequently, there was a great deal of resistance when the post office was moved north to Fourth Street and Beltrami Avenue in 1905.

A free mail delivery system was the answer. In October 1905, an inspector arrived to look over the city and inspect sidewalks, house numbers, etc. Postmaster Carson urged all businesses and residences in the city to be numbered at once.

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In December 1905, the city was split into three postal districts. The first district was composed of the tract of land lying east of Beltrami Avenue; the second district was composed of all the property south of Fourth Street and west of Beltrami Avenue, including Swedback's and Carson's additions to Bemidji; the third district comprised the portion of the city which was west of Beltrami Avenue and north of Fourth Street.

The downtown portion of the city received three deliveries each day -- morning, afternoon and after the distribution of the mail at the post office in the evening. The residential portions of the city had two deliveries daily.

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Bemidji mailman Harry F. Geil. (Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society)

Three carriers, Adam Otto, Dennis Considine and J.C. Cobb were employed, and their routes were arranged so that each had a portion of the business district. Bemidji got its first free city mail service on May 1, 1906. Adam Otto moved on to become deputy postmaster and Harry P. Geil replaced Adam Otto as the third carrier. His diaries describe some of his duties and adventures within the city.

Christmas rush

In 1911, the Bemidji Post Office reported the greatest Christmas rush in years. The men were working four to six hours a day overtime in order to handle the deluge of packages that were pouring in. About 10,000 parcels were received in the week preceding Christmas. Stamp sales reportedly reached $150 a day. The carriers resorted to sleds to distribute the parcels as they couldn’t possibly carry them all. Postmaster Anton Erickson said in the Pioneer that he expected the daily parcel number to hit the 3,000 mark or more by Christmas Day.

A large amount of mail was sent annually from Bemidji to Germany and the Scandinavian countries. "All of this mail must be placed in this post office by Dec. 10 at the latest,” said Mr. Fosnes in Minneapolis on Dec. 3, 1912. “There may be stormy weather on the Atlantic, and that would delay mail to a very great extent.”

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Bemidji firemen are pictured with Christmas trees on Beltrami Avenue. (Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society)

In 1912, Red Cross officials announced that their Christmas seals would be sold in Bemidji stores for the last time. The seals sold for one cent each and the money derived from the sale went to a fund used for stamping out consumption (tuberculosis) in the state. Seals were available at Barker's, Netzer’s, City Drug, Peterson's and Abercrombie's, Henry Miller's grocery store and The Pioneer shop.

By October 1913, the organization reconsidered its position. Officers of the association had mistakenly thought that people were growing tired of soliciting merchants and others to sell the seals and that people might be excused from continuing the practice. However, the need and the response were still there. Christmas seals were again enthusiastically sold and used throughout the season. In 1919, the program was taken over by the National Tuberculosis Association and then by its successor, the American Lung Association.

Parcel post makes its debut

The post office's parcel post service officially began on Jan. 1, 1913. The new service suddenly allowed millions of Americans access to all kinds of goods. The introduction of rural free mail delivery in 1902 had suggested that mail wagons could deliver parcels as well as letters, newspapers and advertising catalogs. Posts in other countries all carried parcels, but the law did not permit it in the United States.

When parcel post came to the U.S. in 1913, it was a deliberate effort by the government to inject competition into the parcel delivery market. It was an immediate hit with the public and businesses. More than 4 million packages were shipped on the first day.

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A Christmas card from Cecelia (Wattles) McKeig's family in about 1950. (Courtesy / Cecelia McKeig)

Parcel post transformed the commercial marketplace, as companies like Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward blanketed the country with mass-produced goods. The arrival of the Sears and Wards holiday catalogs set everyone’s heads spinning with dreams of something special under the Christmas tree.

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In November 1914, Postmaster Anton Erickson again asked for cooperation from patrons by mailing early. Government officials provided for additional clerks, carriers and horse-drawn conveyances to reduce the congestion. Bemidji responded.

Mail early, include the zip code

Wartime came, but in 1917, Bemidji's post office handled the biggest Christmas mail in the history of the office, and carriers kept up without any extra help except for two on the parcel post delivery. The regular office force handled the added work. Postmaster Ritchie wrote, “The facilities in the post office are anything but adequate and this feature made the work of the employees all the more creditable.”

Construction of a new brick post office began in 1917 on the northeast corner of Sixth Street and Beltrami Avenue, but the new building was not completed until July 1918. The Bemidji Pioneer editor remarked, “Hurray! The new post office will be opened in about 10 days; then the present hole in the wall can be vacated.”

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Phil Wattles is pictured with a Lionel train set while Cecelia (Wattles) McKeig reads Christmas mail in the living room around 1953 at 422 Irvine Avenue in Bemidji. (Courtesy / Cecelia McKeig)

No doubt, wartime only increased the volume of mail in 1918. Postmaster Ritchie announced that the city carriers would make one delivery on Christmas morning just to accommodate the demand. The post office was open from 10 to 12 o'clock on Christmas Day. The parcel post delivery service was in operation all day on Christmas. Bless those carriers.

Early mailing was a recurring theme over the years. In 1921, Major Adam Otto of the postal service suggested that the city sponsor an “Early Mailing Week” commencing Dec. 5. But people will procrastinate and in 1970, Bemidji Postmaster Sherman Kerr was again telling citizens to mail early.

Kerr announced mailing deadlines on the front page of The Bemidji Pioneer on Nov. 3, 1970. He urged clear addressing and the inclusion of the zip code, which had come into use in 1963. “If a gift is worth mailing,” he said. “It is worth mailing early.” The same may be said about that Christmas letter.

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