By Barry Dalton
As you walk up the stairs to enter the Vandalia Post Office, the red brick masonry, which was recently repointed, makes the white stonework appear like massive columns. At the top of each column is a symbol of the land, air and sea etched into the stonework. These represent the U.S. Post Office’s history of delivering the mail by every means possible.
“It’s a beautiful building but it’s the people who make it work,” said Vandalia Postmaster Ryan Eskew, whose administrative area also covers the post offices in Laddonia and Farber. “I know that sounds all warm and fuzzy, but that’s what I truly believe makes a post office. It’s the people.”
Upon entering the post office, you leave behind the bricks and mortar and enter an area of warmth with its solid oak doors, window frames, classic post office boxes and 1930s style breezeway.
“I think more than the building, the most significant thing is the people who work here, and the people who have come before us,” Eskew said. “Former employees still come in here, and they still take pride in what they did, and that’s getting their job done right and pleasing customers.”
When you approach the service windows, you are greeted by a spectacular mural that fills the wall above. It’s a pastoral scene representing the customers served by the post office as they work the fields. The 13 by 6 foot mural, “Corn Harvest,” was painted in 1939 by Joseph Vorst, who spent time in Vandalia observing the town. The mural was cleaned and refurbished in 2004.
Eskew, who has been postmaster since March 2019, says that the post office is the most trusted government agency for a reason. Eskew says he’s not concerned with mail delivery during election season.
“In small offices, we do what we gotta do,” he said. “Our main goal is customer service. That’s what the postal service is all about 110 percent is customer service.”
Under the “Corn Harvest” mural, you will notice that the postmaster’s door is often open.
“The first thing I did when I got here was I opened that door up,” Eskew said. “And you’d be surprised how many customers come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t even know this was a real door.’ You know, I want to talk to the customers. I want to hear what’s going on out there in the lobby.”
On the walls and shelves of the post master’s office are several historical post office artifacts and photos, including images of the Vandalia Post Office first being built, old scales, old carrier hats and two old leather mail bags, one with the U.S. Mail “Standing Eagle” emblem retired in 1993 and the other sporting the Mr. Zip icon from the 1960s. Mr. Zip, or “Zippy,” was used to promote use of ZIP codes, which were introduced in 1963 to speed up mail delivery.
“We don’t use leather bags anymore,” Eskew noted. “The current bags are a blue canvas material, which is a little bit lighter, obviously bigger, for the amount of parcels and prescriptions that we have. I started out as a carrier, and when I tried that [leather postal bag] on and thought back to, what did they do when it was raining, with that big heavy leather sack? Because back then they had a lot more paper volume, you know, magazines–first class letters were just crazy–and you know to think they walked with those heavy bags.”
Eskew found many of these items in the post office’s basement, which is actually an old fallout shelter. The Vandalia Post Office was built in 1936-37 and was dedicated to Clarence Cannon.
“Me being kind of a history buff with the postal service, it was just cool to find these historical artifacts. It’s like finding an old baseball card.”
These items remind Eskew of the long history of the postal service, which was established in Vandalia in 1871, and what its development has meant for our country. He is also reminded about how difficult the challenges have been, but that the people who make up the post office have always found a way.
“Before LLVs, which is what we call mail trucks, they had the three-wheel carts they pushed up and down the street and relay boxes,” he explained. “Somebody from the post office would go out and fill the relay box up with mail, then the carrier would walk to the relay box and deliver the mail and go back to the relay box and do it again.”
Because it’s a small post office, it doesn’t have a plethora of extra people, Eskew said.
“So you’ll see me out there [delivering mail sometimes]. I wear my own uniform. I put my old blues on and I go out there and carry mail. Because that’s what got me started in the post office. I like doing that.”
Eskew points to the blue mailbox that he just moved from downtown to the County Market shopping center as one of the ways the Vandalia Post Office works to better serve customers. The postmaster takes pride in how effective the postal service is and how relatively inexpensive mailing a letter actually is.
“We’re funded by postage,” he said. “It’s the cheapest thing going. What else can you get for 55 cents? We’ll deliver across the country for 55 cents for a first class letter.”
For that reason, Eskew doesn’t see the post office going away, because of the trust that postal workers have earned over the years.
““It’s a service to the public. We’re a service,” Eskew said. “Everybody always thinks the mail service is going away, but we just keep chugging along.”