Box 28, Arenas Valley, NM — A tiny country post office played a big role in my youth

In 1949, when I was six years old, my parents transplanted my sister and me from New York State to the tiny, unincorporated village of Arenas Valley in southwestern New Mexico, six miles east of Silver City on the old highway between Silver City and Fort Bayard.

Only two or three hundred people lived in Arenas Valley, which was in a transportation backwater. The Arenas Valley Road had once linked Silver City with nearby Fort Bayard and towns in the mining district — Central (now Santa Clara), Bayard, Santa Rita, and Hurley. By 1949 the new Highway 180 bypassed the village. But, remote and tiny as it was, it had a post office!

My dad at home in Arenas Valley. The U.S. Post Office in Arenas Valley was located in the Postmaster Olga Harper’s home (the white structure in the distance, beyond the end of the white picket fence). ~ Ingraham Family Photo

Whiskey Creek becomes Arenas Valley

Arenas Valley had been called Whiskey Creek. According to local legend, the name resulted from an incident during Prohibition: after a heavy rain in the nearby Piños Altos Mountains, whiskey barrels had floated down a nearby arroyo (a steep-sided, normally dry gully) from an upstream still. The name was changed when postal officials decreed that “Whiskey Creek” wouldn’t look proper on a cancellation. So it became Arenas Valley.

The new name suited the location: Arenas means “sand” in Spanish, and Arenas Valley is a very sandy, very dry place. Postal officials might have chosen any number of other, appropriate names for Whiskey Creek: “Jackrabbit Valley,” “Yuccatown,” or simply “Tumbleweed” (or their Spanish equivalents) would have been appropriate.

The certificate recording Mrs. Harper’s appointment as Arenas Valley Postmaster; see a larger version.

On December 13, 1946 Arenas Valley, Mrs. Olga Harper was named postmaster. That’s right. Postmaster. In the U.S. Postal Service, there is no such thing as a “postmistress”. The certificate announcing her appointment is shown at the right. 12/20/1944 and closed on 4/20/1987 Three years later, in 1949, soon after my family arrived in Arenas Valley, Mrs. Harper’s middle son, Ernest, would become my best friend.

The post office, located in the Harper’s ramshackle home, opened for business on January 1, 1947, adjacent to the former living room, which had been turned into a small “corner store”. I recall the store, but not the post office as it was then.

Postmaster Olga M. Harper mailed this envelope, containing a quarterly report for July-August, 1947 and postmarked October 1. Envelopes postmarked in Arenas Valley, which was never larger than a small village, are very difficult to find. (An overzealous clerk in Albuquerque probably applied the three October 3 date stamps.)

The village post office

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Olga Harper quits & Joe Moore becomes postmaster

Mrs. Harper closed the store and ended her postal career after five years. Arenas Valley resident Joe Moore was named postmaster, and the post office was relocated just one lot to the east, on Joe’s property, in a building near his home on the south side of Arenas Valley Road, approximately in the middle of the “built-up” area; we school kids used to catch the school bus for Silver City across the road from the post office, and in the afternoon it would let us off at the post office.

The second incarnation of the U.S. Post Office at Arenas Valley (the white building on the horizon at the centre of the photograph) was on the property of the new postmaster, Joe Moore. ~ Bea Ingraham Photo

The post office, as administered first by Joe Moore and then by Hazel, was a nondescript, two-room wooden structure of indeterminate age and heritage. It had just one door, a gritty linoleum floor, and a large crawl space at the back. Its ornate mail boxes and wicket and a few “Wanted” posters announced that it was an institution of the federal government.

Joe and Hazel Moore

I remember Postmaster Joe Moore only as a tall, gaunt man, seemingly uneasy, but quiet in a friendly sort of way. He never looked well and indeed was not well: he was suffering from tuberculosis and died on October 23, 1952. His wife, Hazel V. Moore, succeeded him; she was appointed Arenas Valley Postmaster on June 3, 1953.

I well remember Hazel, a thin slip of a woman with dark-blonde hair, the mother of three waif-like little kids, Jimmy, Charlie, and Suzy. She always seemed tired, and often sad, but she was a kind woman who who patiently endured our unlimited curiosity about the larger world that she represented. We respected her and felt so comfortable in her presence that we easily called her not Mrs. Moore, but simply “Hazel”.

My friends and I assumed that Hazel took special interest in our activities. Danny Sanders and I once proudly went into the post office to show her our latest acquisition, a very large, rather angry bullsnake. Her response shocked us, and probably the snake, too: She screamed. It wasn’t a girlish “Eek!” — it was a full-throated, adrenalin-charged scream. Danny and I retreated, alarmed that our thoughtless invasion of the post office might have killed Hazel.

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When I in eighth grade, I wrote a descriptive paragraph about the Arenas Valley post office for my English teacher, Miss Inez Rhodes. My wife, Susan, recently re-discovered the paragraph in an old scrapbook; coincidentally, it is dated October 4, 1956, her 11th birthday.

I don’t recall whether I wrote it in class or as a homework assignment. I received an “A” for content and an A- for “mechanics” — spelling, grammar, punctuation, and layout, and I suppose penmanship, although my handwriting was about the worst in the class. If you wish, you can try to read the original in a larger image, but the following transcription will be kinder to your eyes:

Box 28

My family’s mailbox, Box 28, was one of several cubbyholes to the left of the ornate wicket, featuring decorative, cast-metal doors with alphabetic combination locks. We unlocked it by twisting the pointer a full revolution or more clockwise to N, then counter-clockwise to C.

Once when Hazel was absent, I opened Box 28 and reached all the way in and felt around to see if I could get mail out of other boxes. I could! Easily! I didn’t take a thing, of course! I was no thief, except in fantasy.

Stamps at the wicket

I joined the Boy Scouts in the early 1950s, about the same time that some new friends introduced me to stamp collecting. As a result, I became a regular customer at the post office, anxiously anticipating the release of new commemorative stamps.

Hazel played her role perfectly. From behind her wicket, she would show me new issues that she had received and would sort through sheets of stamps to find ones that were perfectly centered, or nearly so. Hazel, unlike so many of today’s so-called “postal clerks,” always separated them from their sheets with a surgeon’s precision. I usually bought plate blocks and carefully stored them in a small booklet with pages consisting of glassine pockets.

Some of the stamps that I purchased at the Arenas Valley Post Office.

Stamps on approval

As a Boy Scout, I received the monthly mailing of Boys’ Life magazine. When each new issue arrived, at first I skipped the articles and went straight to the classifieds where there was always a full page of ads, and sometimes more, for stamps on approval.

A Garcelon Stamp Company classified ad from Boys’ Life magazine.

Most of my small allowance — 75 cents a week — went for approvals from such companies as Jamestown Stamp Company, H.E. Harris, Garcelon Stamp Company, and Kenmore. They mailed their clients inexpensive stamps, often in short sets without the high-value issues, packaged in printed glassine envelopes or attached to sheets with stamp hinges. The collector selected the stamps he or she wanted, and returned the remainder along with payment. It was an honour system, one that most collectors upheld (although I must confess that I, as a youthful collector, was not always prompt at making my returns). But I always eagerly awaited the day’s mail to see if it might contain a new selection of approvals.

A sheet of stamps sent on approval by the Garcelon Stamp Company.

The approval sheet at the left came from the well-known Garcelon Stamp Company. The approval sheet indicates that Garcelon was located in Calais, Maine, but that apparently was only a mailing address. Garcelon’s place of business was in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, just across the St. Croix River from Calais. Such approvals normally included only common stamps.

I had always been nuts about airplanes, perhaps because my dad was himself an airplane nut and had done a bit of barnstorming in his youth. It’s not surprising that one of the most exciting set of stamps I obtained not long after I started collecting was a Hungarian airmail issue, eight large stamps in squares and diamonds featuring both real and model airplanes. It was issued in 1954, and must have been hot off the press when I purchased it.

My collection also includes a treasured picture postcard which, although it doesn’t have an Arenas Valley postmark, at least passed through the Arenas Valley Post Office:

In June, 1954 I spent a week at Camp Tuff Moses Boy Scout Camp in the Gila National Forest, and mailed this postcard to my parents.

My message to my parents was brief:

Dear Mom & Dad I have been having a wonderful time. Sunday nite we had a counsul fire. There are several snakes here Ernest [and] I have caught 3 of them. Much Love Robert

Arenas Valley today is a sad little bedroom community whose residents neglect the virtues of fresh paint and pulling weeds. The lush orchards and neatly kept homes and gardens of my childhood have largely vanished, and roads and house trailers and “ranchettes” sprawl across the arid valleys and hills where I often hiked for hours and never saw another soul, except for the occasional appearance of the pitiful, elderly woman who owned a small ranch that adjoined our property and suffered, apparently, from schizophrenia. But that’s another story….

The Arenas Valley Post Office is no more. The U.S. Postal Service shut it down in 1987 at the age of 39. Several years previously, it had been relocated from Arenas Valley proper to a location on Highway 180 between Silver City and the community of Santa Clara (formerly Central). We true “Arenas Valleyites” never considered the families who lived along the highway to be anything but outsiders.

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Suggested reading:
Hiking to Fort Bayard / Remembering Arenas Valley