One of the first things that caught my eye as we drove along Michigan Avenue in Marshall, Mich., was the Rexall Drugs sign, resplendent in blue, orange and white. I couldn't remember having seen one for about, oh, 40 years.
The next was the nature of the buildings lining the street, nearly all appearing to date from the 19th century.
Finally, when we parked and I went to put money in the meter, I knew I wasn't in Chicago anymore. The meter had two slots, one labeled "1¢ or 5¢" and the other "10¢." But when I tried to insert coins, the meter wouldn't accept them. One of our guides later explained that they were kept for display only.
I shouldn't have been surprised. The main reason we came to Marshall was to spend a day steeping ourselves in history. The parking meters — like the drugstore sign and the buildings lining the main drag — were Exhibit A in a whole town devoted to one overriding theme: celebration of its past.
Our first official stop of the day was the United States Postal Service Museum, housed in the basement of the town's post office. Our guide was the genial Michael Schragg, museum founder and curator and former town postmaster (his daughter is the current one). He's also the person for whom the post office building is named. The private museum is open by appointment only, with a handful of people conducting the tours.
As soon as we met Schragg behind the post office by a small garage housing two former mail vehicles, it became apparent that the postal service has been a lifelong love of Schragg's. He has been collecting postal artifacts from across the country for decades. When he talks about the postal service, he uses the word "we."
Leading us slowly through the museum's basement rooms, he effortlessly unspooled the postal service's story, and with it, the story of a country evolving from its largely rural roots through the major convulsions of war, industrialization and societal changes.
Among the historical tidbits:
Early post offices were in businesses, barns or even private homes.
The postal service originated money orders during the Civil War because many soldiers' pay was being stolen when they sent it home through the mail.
Free city delivery began in 1863 in cities where postal revenues could pay for salaried letter carriers.
Rural free delivery began in 1896 in West Virginia, after agitation from farm families unhappy at not receiving the same service as city dwellers.
Women were first hired to deliver mail in cities during World War I.Among Schragg's treasures at the museum are:
A small wooden box from Chas. W. Ryan, M.D., a Battle Creek, Mich., eye, ear, nose and throat doctor, addressed to "Mr. Edw Rimmer, Marshall, Mich," in 1933, with medicine still inside it.
A hand canceler resembling a sewing machine, dating from the early 1900s.
A curved piece of bark used as a missive by a soldier stationed in Alaska in 1942 who couldn't find paper to send a note to his girlfriend in the Chicago area.
Schragg, 65, retired from the postal service in 2002 after a 32-year career, 23 of those as postmaster. When asked about the current challenges faced by the service, which is losing money on a massive scale, he doesn't hesitate to express his fears.
"If Congress would let us run it like a business … we could make it," he said. But he doesn't see that happening. "I do think that in another 20 or 30 years the post office will be out of business," he said. "I think we're like the horse and buggy. … Once us older people pass away that use it, no one will use it. I'm afraid that's what's going to happen."
Schragg recommended the nearby Schuler's Restaurant and Pub for lunch, and thither we headed.
The main dining room's dark interior suited us well after the summer day's bright heat. The building, we were told proudly by our server, had been a restaurant for more than 100 years and had also at one time or another been an inn, stables and a bowling alley.