The Winter 2011 issue of South Dakota History is now wending its way to members of the State Historical Society via the United States mail. Mail service, and post offices specifically, have been in the news within the past few weeks as officials debate the ways in which the United States Postal Service might gain a sounder financial footing. Particularly interesting to people in largely rural states like South Dakota is speculation as to which post offices might be closed as part of the postal service’s belt-tightening efforts. Like schools, post offices have long been part of a community’s core. Having a post office makes a place a “real” town. The post office is, in effect, a community center where people come and go not just for letters and packages, but for conversation and camaraderie.
That’s what makes James L. Krysan’s photographic essay in this issue of South Dakota History so timely. During the early 1970s, Krysan began photographing post offices in small eastern South Dakota towns as a hobby. After recording fifty-seven over a period of six years, he set the pastime aside, only to have it beckon him again in the early 2000s. In returning to the places he had photographed a quarter-century earlier, he discovered that seventeen of the post offices were no longer there. In fact, of the 465 post offices that were operating throughout South Dakota in 1970, 340 remained open in 2010, illustrating that the closure trend is not a new phenomenon.
Krysan’s essay in South Dakota History pairs images from twenty towns, documenting the structures and how they have changed over time, thanks to economics, population shifts, modernization, and changing federal policies. Each post office building has its own unique story to tell, and Krysan’s photographs are one way of saving those that are destined to disappear.
Photos copyright James L. Krysan