The Men (and Women) of Letters at the Montgomery Post Office
The history of mail delivery in Montgomery began with a race for the first post office, which grew into a community hub.
In 1835, Rufus Gray and his brother, Stephen Gray, left their home in New York and traveled west to the Fox River Valley.
When they arrived, they found a little settlement with several buildings and a ford in the river where the Galena to Chicago Stagecoach crossed. Further north, two log cabins stood on either side of the river at McCarty’s Mills (later named Aurora). The village to the south looked much more promising to the brothers as a site for a future city, so they decided to stake their claims in this area. It came to be known as Graystown.
In 1836, Stephen Gray went back to New York and convinced his congressman there to use his influence to locate a post office in what would become Montgomery. Already the Grays had big plans for the little village, and the nearest post office was 10 miles away over bad roads, in Naperville.
Elijah Pearce was appointed postmaster and his cabin, on the Military Road between Montgomery and Naperville, became the first post office. In due time, he received his commission and was notified that a key would be sent to him by the postmaster in Naperville. This key was to be used to lock and unlock his mailbags.
For some reason the key did not arrive immediately, and when Aurora’s first settler and mill owner, Joseph McCarty, heard of the delay, he jumped on the opportunity to intercept it. Of course, getting the post office in his town instead would be huge bonanza!
He hastily rode to Naperville where he convinced the postmaster there to hold the key until he could contact the Postmaster General in Washington. Amos Kendall, who was in Andrew Jackson’s cabinet, soon received two anxious visitors from Illinois: Joseph McCarty and Burr Winton.
The game of politics played out in the usual way, and the two men left with the spoils. The commission of Elijah Pearce was withdrawn. The key was sent to Aurora, where Burr Winton was appointed postmaster. The fate of the two cities hung on the delay of a key.
To further escalate the bitterness over the cancelled post office appointment, Joe McCarty’s younger brother Sam persuaded the management of the stagecoach line to come directly to Aurora to ford the river, instead of at Graystown. He offered to feed the horses and drivers for a month as part of the deal.
Soon Mr. Pearce was without travelers to stop at his inn, and the residents still had to travel for their mail.
Federal records reflect no appointments until 1848, when Hiram Bauder, Jacob Keck’s son-in-law, received one. A series of appointments followed, with changes every few years. Finally in 1888, Anna Pearce, granddaughter of Elijah Pearce, was appointed. She held the position until 1940, more than 50 years.
The post office was housed in Vaughn’s General Store, across from Gray’s Mill in 1885, and moved to the Beher store in 1889. Beher’s store was on the corner of Webster and Railroad Streets, a short walk from the Tom Stathis home where Anna Pearce was a boarder.
Chris Stathis remembered walking to the post office during the early dark days of winter, to escort Miss Pearce home with the cash box that she kept with her overnight.
The post office had always been inside of a grocery store until 1940, when a small building was built next to Beher’s Store on Webster Street. Sometime during the 1960s, another, larger post office was built on Mill Street. In 1997, the latest post office was opened near Settler’s Landing, next to Season’s Ridge.
In 1940, Bertha M. Van Sickle Paris was appointed postmaster. She held that position until 1962 when Chris T. Stathis was appointed. He held the position for 19 years, retiring in 1979.
Currently the U.S. Postal Service is planning to close some small-town post offices, to the disappointment of the citizens who rely heavily on them. Montgomery, as well as most small villages, had no home delivery until the 1960s. Everyone in the village walked to the post office at least once a day, so it often became a gathering place. Rural post offices are the heartbeat of a small village.
In our post office there were rows of little boxes, with glass doors in the front so one could see if there was any mail, before they dialed the combination that opened the door. If you choose not to rent a box, mail came as general delivery, and you had to ask the Postmaster for your letters and packages.
We always called Bertha Paris our “Postmistress.” It was not until I was well into adulthood that I learned this was incorrect, if not a bit insulting. A woman is to be called a Postmaster in no uncertain terms.
During wartime, the anxious mothers, wives and girlfriends ‘back home’ knew the schedule of the mail trains, and with their daily letter to mail; and they walked to the post office with eager anticipation and waited while the clerk sorted the incoming mail. Few letters made it all the way home unopened.
In the days before cell phones and e-mail, it would be impossible to overestimate the importance of the post office. Nothing will ever compare to the excitement of finding a familiar hand-written letter in your mailbox.