Former postmaster preserves small-town connection to past with Museum of Postal History

2/18/2013
BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
A 1959 Eshelman Motor Corp. mail vehicle is parked in front of a mockup of the Capitol Theatre at the Delphos Museum of Postal History.
A 1959 Eshelman Motor Corp. mail vehicle is parked in front of a mockup of the Capitol Theatre at the Delphos Museum of Postal History.

DELPHOS, Ohio — While congressmen keep the future of America’s ailing mail-delivery system in limbo, one Ohio man is giving the iconic postal service moral support from the nation’s heartland.

Gary S. Levitt, a burly and gregarious 63-year-old, is the epitome of what a small-town postmaster used to be. He operates the little-known Delphos Museum of Postal History in tiny Delphos, Ohio.

Delphos, for the uninitiated, is a city of 8,000 people with Norman Rockwell-esque charm. Old homes adorn the outskirts of a downtown filled with Mom & Pop businesses.

Established in 1851, Delphos is off the beaten path. It’s in a rural area 30 miles from I-75, yet was an important link to the historic Miami-Erie Canal and the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first coast-to-coast highway. Its mayor, Michael Gallmeier, unabashedly declares on his blog that Delphos is America’s friendliest city, a place “steeped in tradition and heritage.”

Mr. Levitt has never actually lived in Delphos, yet is one of the town’s greatest ambassadors — and is making his passion for postal history one of the city’s hallmarks.

PHOTO GALLERY: Museum of Postal History in Delphos

He credits innumerable volunteers and donors who help him make a better museum out of a 111-year-old building that was once a horse livery during the canal era. With more than 11,000 square feet, the Delphos Museum of Postal History, near the center of town, is the size of a warehouse but with architecture that beckons memories of the city’s past. The second floor, where horses used to go up a ramp to be staged, is used as a studio by the Delphos Area Art Guild.

“I can’t build a thing, but I sure can babble,” Mr. Levitt says with a chuckle. “The people in this town love their history.”

The Delphos Museum of Postal History is housed in a 111-year-old building with 11,000 square feet that was once a horse livery during the canal era.
The Delphos Museum of Postal History is housed in a 111-year-old building with 11,000 square feet that was once a horse livery during the canal era.

There used to be seven or eight postal museums. But the Delphos museum is one of only three still known to exist. The only other one outside of Washington is the U.S. Postal Museum housed in the historic Schragg Marshall Post Office in Marshall, Mich. Most others are primarily stamp collections, as opposed to museums built around artifacts.

By far the most impressive is the National Postal Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution collection of museums in Washington.

“They had a little more money to work with,” Mr. Levitt muses, referring to the National Postal Museum. “They had $330 million. I had $2,500.”

A former teacher and former U.S. Army Reserve trainer, Mr. Levitt was drawn to a career in the postal service in 1978 after being hired as a part-time clerk.

He lived at the time near Lima, Ohio, and commuted to Delphos as he rose through the ranks. He was the Delphos postmaster from 1993 through 2004, when he became the postmaster of Dublin, Ohio, a Columbus suburb where he now lives. He retired in 2007.

Mr. Levitt said he did not grow up being a collector, but created the Delphos Museum of Postal History in the lobby of the U.S. Post Office in Delphos in 1995 while he was the town’s postmaster. The museum has a governing board and is operated as a nonprofit.

The first thing visitors see upon entering the museum is a huge mural of a small-town scene by Oscar Velasquez, a Bluffton artist who has painted murals on many northwest Ohio buildings. Mr. Levitt’s depiction is in that mural, one he jokingly says is a younger, trimmer, and more handsome likeness.

A 1906 Harrington rural mail buggy at the Delphos Museum of Postal History.
A 1906 Harrington rural mail buggy at the Delphos Museum of Postal History.

The museum’s relics include a 1906 Harrington rural mail buggy, a 1910 mail sled, and a scooter-like 1959 Eshelman Motor Corp. mail vehicle. Mr. Levitt’s pride and joy is his true-to-scale replica of a rail car that would have been used when America’s Railway Mail Service operated from 1864 to 1977, when clerks sorted mail between towns aboard rickety rail cars and encountered anything from train robberies to bad weather and wrecks.

The museum has about 250,000 stamps. One of the most treasured is a stamped envelope that retired astronaut Buzz Aldrin brought back from the historic Apollo 11 flight to the moon in July, 1969, in which Wapokenta’s Neil Armstrong became the first man to step foot on the lunar surface. The envelope was part of an extensive donation of stamps from a local physician.

Mr. Levitt’s wife, Fran Levitt, takes her husband’s endeavor in stride, even though it often takes him away from their Dublin house four or more days a week.

“It’s more than a hobby. It’s his passion,” she said.

Allen, Van Wert, and Putnam counties had 103 post offices in 1900. Today, there are fewer than 30.

That’s changed lifestyles for generations of people. “There’s nothing like coming to the post office and seeing your friends. That was the identity of town,” Mr. Levitt said.

According to the National Postal Museum, George Washington envisioned a nation bound together by a system of post roads and post offices — a mail system that would ensure the flow of information between citizens and government.

Mr. Levitt fears that message is getting lost as a result of a 2006 law that requires the U.S. Postal Service to pre-fund 75 years of health benefits for future retirees in just 10 years. No other federal agency has that burden. Critics say it is why the postal service is mired in red ink and now, in addition to drastic cuts in manpower and facilities, is contemplating the end of Saturday mail delivery.

Mr. Levitt goes beyond the walls of the Delphos museum with his support for the postal service. He writes a history column for area newspapers, as well as the museum’s Web site, http://postalhistorymuseum.org/

The Delphos Museum of Postal History is hosting its second annual gala today. The museum operates on a shoestring $32,000 annual budget, of which $18,000 goes for the building’s utilities. The gala begins at 5 p.m., with dinner at 6 p.m. Tickets are $25.

Later this year, northwest Ohio will host a major event for postal carriers. The National Association of Letter Carriers, Ohio Branch 100, is hosting its annual convention Aug. 7-11 at the Park Inn Hotel in downtown Toledo. Some 400 delegates and their families are expected to attend.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079