The local post office is full of surprising history.
This piece first appeared in The Vermont Standard.
Saturday morning tourists sauntering down Woodstock’s main thoroughfare blindly pass by one of the village’s hidden-in-plain-sight treasures. Even the town’s residents, many of them, regard the boxy red brick building at 22 Central Street as just another place to drop off a letter or mail a package. Those who venture inside and do happen to notice the lobby’s marble wainscoting or the frosted glass of the original service windows likely don’t realize that Woodstock’s nearly 75-year-old post office is a product of the 1930s recovery programs collectively known as the New Deal. A thirteen foot historic, and initially controversial, mural over the door on the east interior wall is particular testament to a government initiative that put money in the hands of artists during the Great Depression.
Then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the United States Congress created an array of economic programs to buoy the many Americans whose savings had suddenly evaporated in the economic collapse that began in 1929, and the legions of workers who subsequently lost their jobs or found their employment substantially reduced. Through agencies like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, the government spent billions of dollars and employed millions of workers in projects that put roads, recreational spaces, bridges, and buildings in towns and cities across the country.
In New Deal-era Woodstock, the post office had for a decade been housed in the ground floor of an apartment building on Central Street, after a forty or so year stint on Elm Street. In its earliest days days, though, the office moved about at the convenience of the town’s politically appointed Postmaster. Beginning in 1797, incoming and outgoing mail flowed at one time or another through dwelling-homes, offices, retail stores, and a saddlery, according to Henry Swan Dana’s The History of Woodstock.
In 1935, townspeople first got wind of the plans for a dedicated government building with a tongue-in-cheek headline on the front page of that year’s August 15 Vermont Standard: Woodstock Is Threatened, New Post Office Building. Local officials, says the article, claimed no knowledge of or interest in the project. “It is suspected that there must have been a ‘shuffling’ of names somewhere along the line,” the piece claims, “However, if Uncle Sam considers it best to house the post office in a building of his own here, we shall hear more about it.” Then Woodstock Postmaster Archibald Flower, “when interrogated,” the article continues, insisted that no application had been made for a new office. Other sources, however, credit Flower, who was known as one of Windsor County’s loyal supporters of the New Deal, as instrumental in obtaining the needed $56,000 of Works Progress Administration funding. In any case, Woodstock was reportedly the only Vermont town to be awarded a structure in the $60 million, 358-building emergency construction fund program managed by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Postmaster General.
Although the year “1937” is etched into its cornerstone, construction of the Woodstock Post Office was not actually completed until early 1938. The Windsor County Jail was razed to make way for the 60 by 57 foot colonial style building, which is 33 feet tall and outfitted with marble, wood, and wrought iron trimmings.
At the dedication ceremony on Saturday, January 29, 1938, the Boy Scouts ran the American flag up the pole near the front entrance, and Woodstock’s children marched from their school and down Central Street to sing the Star Spangled Banner. The building’s cornerstone was christened with a bottle of Vermont maple syrup.
Postmaster Flower sadly was not among the 500 revelers who shook hands with local dignitaries and sampled refreshments prepared by members of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The man described as “of thoughtful and sympathetic mind, and active patriotism,” didn’t live to see the completion of his project; he had succumbed to a heart attack six months earlier.
In the summer that followed, an apparently chagrinned Bernadine Custer learned that Woodstockers were not eagerly anticipating the mural that she’d been contracted to create for their new post office. “The postmaster in Woodstock… wanted to know if they had to have a mural,” Custer wrote to a friend. “The word mural is somehow associated with Orozco to them all,” she explained, referring to artist Jose Clemente Orozco, who painted a series of commanding but politically biting murals in the Dartmouth College Library in nearby New Hampshire between 1932 and 1934.
Custer, who wistfully acknowledged that “alas” she was no Orozco, was nonetheless a painter of some renown when she won several commissions under New Deal programs that selected artists to produce works for public buildings from competitions across the country. It’s estimated that during the decade-long program, the Painting and Sculpture Section of the Department of the Treasury engaged more than 10,000 artists who, between them, produced many thousands of paintings, sculptures and prints, as well as over 4,000 murals. Custer’s entry in a competition to embellish the post office in the Bronx borough of New York City did not win. But as was the custom in the program, the competition’s jury also identified high quality work from among the non-winning entries, and Custer was subsequently employed to create murals for Woodstock and the Summerville, South Carolina post offices.
The artist was born in Normal, Illinois in either 1898 or 1900. Sources differ on the year, and Custer herself declined to give a birth date in the biographical data she submitted to the Department of the Treasury, saying “when I come to be 40, I expect to still be earning my living, and if necessary I shall chip off a few years to get the job!” She began painting in her twenties and became seriously engaged in it, she reported, after graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1927. Her work was exhibited extensively during her life; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum and a number of other institutions and private collectors own her pieces. Custer and her husband split their time between New York City and Londonderry, Vermont, where for many years they owned a home. The Londonderry Historical Society, which inherited a large collection of her pen and ink drawings, oils, and watercolors, is now housed there.
Custer seemed to bristle at the suggestions of locals when she visited Woodstock to discuss plans for the mural with Postmistress Margaret Flower, who had succeeded her late husband. “It [took] so much time to hear…what and how she wants it done. Not to mention bringing in a local artist and a local historian who had ideas too,” wrote Custer to a friend, “I had the most help and the least advice from a Miss Crampton, who gave me photographs of early Woodstock…” In a 1985 interview, Custer told Vermont Standard reporter and historian Kathy Wendling that she did all of her own research when deciding what to include in the mural.
Over the course of a year, Custer worked on the oil-on-canvas in an unheated barn on her Vermont property. The finished Cycle of Development in Woodstock, for which she earned $660, was installed in November of 1939 over the door to the Postmaster’s office, where it remains today. It depicts the town’s early days on its left side, and more modern times on the right. Three 19th century movers-and-shakers, all with ties to Woodstock, are prominently pictured front and center.
The middle-most likeness is of Vermont politician and anti-slavery Senator Jacob Collamer, who lived and practiced law in Woodstock for many years. Hosea Ballou, standing at Collamer’s right, achieved notoriety as a circuit preacher in the Woodstock area; he’s has been called the “father of American Universalism.” The shorter figure to Collamer’s left is of Woodstock-born John Cotton Dana, a life-long promoter of reading who served as head of the Denver, Colorado, Springfield, Massachusetts, and Newark, New Jersey libraries. Other figures in the foreground represent Woodstock’s first hunters and farmers, then more recent golfers and skiers.
Postmistress Flower gave the work a grudging nod when she confirmed its installation to Washington officials. “Woodstock, Vt. is not mural minded,” she wrote, “but… it would seem that they are quite appreciative.” In communications with the artist, though, Flower was more exuberant, if only a bit. “You will be glad to know that the murals have been received most favorably!” she wrote to Custer, “It is generally conceded that we have drawn ‘better than average’—which is a great deal for Woodstock people to concede.”
However, one object in the mural rankled some. “There is a point which is brought out and which does not go over so big,” Flower wrote to the art project’s government supervisor, “and that is the gas pump. Woodstock does not put its gas pumps up front.” She asked “if there was anything that might be done,” implying that a few brush strokes could eliminate the offending device.
The painting appears to be unchanged, though. Custer felt the pump necessary for the work’s artistic and historic harmony. Its color balances the bits of red on the left side of the mural, she wrote in response. And, she continued, the pump “is used merely as a symbol to indicate that Woodstock transportation has changed from oxen,” shown on the left side of the mural, “to gasoline power. Anyway…I don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t exist!”
Today, the Post Office building retains much of of its initial form. A large open room in the back is used to sort the thousands of parcels, flats and letters that arrive twice daily from White River Junction. The original service windows are still visible in lobby, on its right side, although clerks now greet patrons from a much larger open counter at its center. The basement houses an old coal room and a bomb shelter, and, a long, narrow room that current employees say was used as a shooting range. Trees and flower beds rim the lawn along the Kedron Brook, creating a quiet and cool resting place.
Lisa Bassett, who has served as Postmaster since last July, says her job is much like running a small business. She’s responsible for a variety of tasks that range from seeing that her 8 mail carriers and 3 clerks have a safe work environment to ordering supplies and arranging for vehicle repairs to monitoring the office’s financial viability. But the people are fun. “There are always challenges,” says Basset, who is a 27-year United States Postal Service veteran, “You come to a new place and you have to learn the new people and the customer base. It’s a nice office.”