By Jean Redstone
Before there was the Internet where you could buy your newest ‘ugly Christmas sweater’ and have it sent; before there were local, official postal trucks delivering your sweater; before, even, there were zip codes, there was Elizabeth Lowery.
And if you lived in certain areas of Swedesboro, you saw her practically every weekday.
Lowery, ‘Liz’ to those who know her, delivered mail to the rural areas of town for the last 38 years and she has recently retired. She’s not the only one. In the past year five mail delivery workers have retired, confirmed Randy Rossi, supervisor at the Swedesboro Post Office.
It’s a bit of a shake-up for him. Rossi began with the post office some 20 years ago. “When I got here I was the youngest worker and when they retire, I’ll be the oldest,” he confided, a little wistfully. “Between them all, there’s over 100 years of work history leaving.”
Of those 100 years, Lowery accounts for 38, and her colleagues David Conover, and Shannon Falls, also recently retired, tally 25 and 34 years, respectively. The retirees were happy to reminisce about a job they obviously enjoyed, and about the changes a quarter of a century plus brings to those jobs.
Lowery, who became a member of the Million Mile Club after serving 30 years without an accident, grew up on a small farm in Auburn and “I liked to be outside so I wanted a rural delivery route.” She still lives in Auburn.
Lowery began with the Swedesboro Post Office in 1978. She and her husband, John, are a postal family. He retired from the Woodstown Post Office 24 years ago, after working there 27 years, Lowery said.
“When I started, we didn’t have zip codes or anything like that,” Lowery recalled. “We sorted by names. You could put someone’s name and the town and the rural route number – So and So, RD2, Swedesboro, NJ – and we knew where to deliver it.”
Conover, who began as a substitute for Lowery’s route in 1991, added that when he started, he “had to memorize people’s names on the routes. There could be 300 to 400 names.”
David “Dave” Conover of Monroeville has actually been delivering mail since 1969 while in the Navy. “I was a postal clerk on an aircraft carrier from 1969 to 1972,” he explained. “I liked it in the P.O. on the ship.”
And he admitted he was probably one of the more popular crewmen. He delivered mail to the 3,000 personnel on the carrier, and noted that “morale was very important in the service and mail was a lifeline to home.”
He chose to support his wife and children through postal work because it was much the same. “People are glad to see you and you’re doing a service,” he said.
It was somewhat different and somewhat the same for Shannon Falls, a resident of Washington Township, who also joined the post office after leaving the military. He served in the Army from 1979-1983 until his discharge. He was a paratrooper with the Army’s 82nd Airborne.
Like Conover and Lowery, Falls wanted an outside job to support his wife and family. He, like them, remembers having to memorize homeowners’ names. But it was different for Falls. He joined as a city carrier and walked his route for about five years, until he became a “mounted” carrier.
Mounted, he explained meant you used a truck for your route. City carriers used a post office-owned vehicle, unlike the rural carriers, who back then, supplied their own. City carriers are also issued uniforms, whereas rural carriers travel the countryside in everyday clothes.
Lowery and Conover used their own cars. “Up until about five years ago we had to supply our own vehicles,” Lowery said. “They gave us a car allowance but owned the car. My husband and sons would sometimes have to come out at all hours and fix my Jeep so I could get home.”
“A lot of people don’t know you could special-order a right-hand drive car or truck,” Conover added, chuckling. “People would see a kid or a dog on the driver’s side and wonder what was happening.”
Not surprisingly, the biggest change the carriers noted was the increasing density of the area’s population and the resulting loss of farmland. For Falls, who began walking the streets of Swedesboro and delivered mail to doors at the steps and porches in town, the population change meant loss of a walking route “of 450 houses or so.” When household density required a change to a mounted route, he carried mail to 600 homes in Becket, Logan and parts of Woolwich, which is the “city route 5,” Falls said.
For city carriers like Falls, another major change is that mailboxes are now standing out by the street. “All new buildings in the last 20 years or so have to have mailboxes out on the street for mounted delivery,” he said. “It’s more efficient, I guess, but I used to know the people I delivered to much better before the mounted route. I was up on their porch every day.”
Lowery, whose route when she retired took her through Oldman’s Creek, Bridgeport, Logan, Woolwich and Auburn, served 460 “boxes” (mailboxes) on a route that took her 54 miles every day. When she began 38 years ago, her route was 400 boxes and 63 miles. So she was serving more households on less land.
“It used to be the boxes were in a line on one side of the road, like they do on farm roads,” she said. “Now I drive loops and circles in the developments. A lot of farms sold and they put in developments.
”My landscape changed dramatically,” she continued, “from farms to housing and Pureland Industrial Park. I had a handful of farmers left and I guess they’re holding on. They farmed their whole life, the farmers, and now they’re gone. All the way down Center Square Road was all farms. Now it’s shopping and houses. All down High Hill Road used to be all farms, and now there’s only one farmer left.”
“It’s sad,” Conover interjected.
“It’s sad for me, too,” Lowery agreed.
Some of the landscape changes Lowery has seen tug at her memory. The post office she began with became a dentist’s office when a new one was built in 1983, she said. “I’m the last current carrier that worked at the old post office. Now there’ll be no more people from that era working to deliver mail.”
She remembered, too, a little building on a rural corner. ‘There was a little schoolhouse on the corner of Pedricktown and Center Square Roads and I’d pass by every day. I checked on this. It was built about 1920 as a one-room schoolhouse and then had two more rooms added. I remember it had an outhouse. It still had an outhouse.
“It was torn down, maybe around 1980, but I still remember it and the outhouse.”
While Lowery saw the loss of farmland, Conover said his route remained largely rural. He covered areas north of Rt. 322 and west of Paulsboro Road. But largely rural or not, he still saw an increase in households. When he first began delivering, he travelled 52 miles a day, he said, to reach 350 mailboxes. By retirement, he was travelling that same 52 miles, but delivering to 500 boxes.
And there were other changes. “It got lonelier, with the personal interactions less. It was not as laid back or personal as it used to be,” Conover said. Lowery noted the same change. “People are not home the way they used to be. You don’t have the contact with customers there was. Most women are working now, not home,” she said.
“I remember one night I broke down in the rain and the customer I was going to saw I was broken down. He came out with his wife and loaded all my mail and myself in his car. His wife sat in back and handed me the mail, so I kept delivering. That wife would make a sandwich for me every day for lunch,” Lowery added.
“I doubt that would happen today,” Conover said. “People aren’t home. They wouldn’t know you were stuck.”
Falls noted the same phenomenon of less personal contact. “Used to be,” he said, “people would come out and chat, ‘Oh, you’re early today’, or some small talk. Now, some people you never even see.”
Another big change the retirees recalled was the heaviness of the Sears, J.C. Penney and other catalogs that used to come to your house by mail. “Most everyone on the route got catalogs in spring and fall and a Christmas Wish Book,” Lowery said. “They waited for those catalogs.”
“They used to ask when they were coming,” Conover smiled. “That was something big.” So big that, according to Lowery, customers would buy extra-large mailboxes so the catalogs would fit.
Shoppers buy from the internet now, which is all three carriers saw a significant increase in package delivery, they said, while holiday card delivery has decreased. “Packages, whoo! They go through the roof,” Falls said. “Sometimes I carry 100 to 200 a day at holidays. It’s packages that make the post office work today.”
There’s been a change, too, in holiday décor, the retirees noted. Where houses used to put a candle in windows and a tree, now whole houses are lit and the outside trees, too. “And people are decorating with a lot of colors and those inflatable things,” Conover said. “And now it’s the thing to do to decorate for Halloween and Thanksgiving. I will miss seeing that.”
Although the time has gone when a home owner would come get the mail and chat for a while with the postman, as Lowery remembers doing, the people are still the happiest part of the job, the carriers agreed. Especially at the holidays, when often they’d enjoy an offered plate of cookies, or a cheerful holiday greeting, they said.
“It’s hectic at Christmas but people are glad to see you and you feel like you did something good,” Conover said. “I’m going to miss that.” Falls seconded the sentiment but divulged he had a plan. “A lot of the people I became friendly with, I’ll keep in touch with,” he said.
The carriers said they expect to miss their customers most when the holiday season and its conviviality arrives. As bringers of packages and mail, they used to be a major part of the season’s cheer.
For one carrier, however, this holiday season could bring something that promises to spread joy.
Lowery, a self-described “hands-on mom-mom” of five grandchildren is expecting her sixth grandchild in time to celebrate a very Merry Christmas.