CUTTYHUNK — The Cuttyhunk ferry pulled up to the rural island at 10 a.m. on Thursday, carrying a load of people and supplies.
Longtime residents and visiting day-trippers lined the benches, and racks of Portuguese bread were stacked on the floor of the main cabin, en route from a New Bedford bakery. And riding along with the captain in the pilot house was a stack of boxes and bags: the day’s incoming mail.
The ferry provides a postal link from the mainland to the island, delivering letters and parcels two days per week in the winter and every day but Sunday in the summer.
“You use it to order your groceries, you use it to send money back and forth from the businesses — it’s your lifeline,” island resident Bonnie Veeder said.
When the boat arrives at the docks, ferry owner and captain Jono Billings loads the day’s deliveries onto the back of a golf cart and drives them up the hill to the island’s lone post office.
Now, however, that tiny, shingled post office is among the 43 Massachusetts locations being studied for possible closure by the U.S. Postal Service.
‘It would be devastating’
On Thursday, residents worried that losing the post office could make it harder for islanders to get everything from Netflix DVDs to food and prescriptions.
“It would be devastating,” year-round resident Paula DiMare said as she returned from her daily trip to the post office, holding a pile of envelopes and magazines. “I just think it would be very, very sad for this island to lose that contact.”
Cuttyhunk is the most remote of the Elizabeth Islands, a chain of islands that trails off from Woods Hole, separating Buzzards Bay from Vineyard Sound. With a year-round population of only a few dozen people, the island has just a handful of social meeting places: the ferry docks, the market, the church and, traditionally, the post office.
“It will really change the character of the town if it closes,” said Gail Blout, a selectman for the town of Gosnold, of which Cuttyhunk is part.
The first post office opened on the island in 1877, according to an account written up for the Cuttyhunk Historical Society by a longtime local resident. Mail was brought from the docks to the post office by horse. The office changed locations at least two times in the intervening years, before settling into its current spot in the 1950s.
Throughout the years, the post office had been a place for residents to meet and chat. Former Postmaster Carlyn Nunes — whose mother, uncle and niece have all also served as Cuttyhunk postmaster — remembered the office as a bustling, social place.
In recent years, however, the post office has lost some of that atmosphere, many residents reported.
“In the past, the postmistress was more social and consequently the post office was more social,” summer resident Nancy Wilder said.
But the importance of the post office to Cuttyhunk life has not changed. Now, as throughout the post office’s history, there are no alternatives to postal service on the island.
“Everybody doesn’t have a boat to go get their mail on the mainland,” said Kim Leonard, owner of Aritzen Barn gift shop. “What do we do, use carrier pigeons? Carrier sea gulls?”
Frances Veeder, Nunes’ sister, owns the house the post office is located in and rents the space to the U.S. Postal Service. But the first she heard about a possible closure was when she read a news story online, she said.
“We haven’t had any real notice,” she said. “They haven’t talked to me.”
Postmaster Janet Burke declined to comment on the record, but said that it is too soon to be writing obituaries for her office.
No decision yet
The post office has not announced any definite closures yet — only studies. The U.S. Postal Service will be gathering information about each targeted location, including customer feedback, employee workload and what other post offices are in close proximity, said Dennis Tarmey, spokesman for the postal service’s Greater Boston district.
Final decisions about the fates of individual locations should be made by December, he said.
The postal service also put forth the possibility that some communities could end up with “Village Post Offices” — limited postal-service operations located inside retail businesses. These locations would sell stamps and flat-rate envelopes and boxes and could also operate post office boxes.
Some on the island were skeptical that such an option would be a solution for Cuttyhunk. None of the island’s stores are currently open year-round, and all occupy small spaces.
“The market barely has room for what they’re already trying to sell,” Wilder said.
Tamsin Hewes, owner of The Corner Store gift shop, said she might be willing to offer postal services in her shop, if she could figure out the logistics of running a year-round operation from her seasonal shop.
“It would definitely be something I would consider,” she said.
“I would just have to figure out staffing year-round.”
Many islanders were optimistic that Cuttyhunk would retain postal service in some form, even if the official post office were shut down.
“I think probably there’s other ways it could be done,” said Kathy Olsen, a year-round resident for the past 12 years. “If it can’t stay, there’s got to be a solution. This island always reinvents itself.”
This story was published in the Cape Cod Times on July 29, 2011. Read the story and see a photo gallery at CapeCodOnline.com.