Former postmaster recalls a 30-year career in tiny Ash, N.C.
Delivering the Mail by Allen Abel
The post office in Ash, N.C., is bounded on two sides by a cornfield and on the third by a gas station that has run out of gas.
The spectacular beaches of Brunswick County — Sunset, Ocean Isle, Holden — are just 10 miles away as the laughing gull flies, but the only waves to be seen are those in the fields of sunflowers, soybeans and maize. Ash could just as well be in Kansas.
To quote from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s well-known poem, Ozymandias, “nothing beside remains” in downtown Ash: not a food market, not a hardware store, not a bank, not a working service station, not a saloon.
But there is a post office, as there has been since 1884, and there is a man who has dwelled in these green acres for more than half that time.
Every post office has a story to deliver, if you open an ear to listen. In tiny Ash, this is largely the history of a man named Waburn Walton, the hamlet’s former postmaster and a prominent member (though he waves off the suggestion) of the local gentry.
Walton, who is 94, helmed this crossroads post office for 30 years, beginning in the 1960s. (He also owned the building in which it is located.)
After he retired, he dropped by to present his successor, Carla G. Hughes, with an original work of art that features a proud bald eagle rampant on a United States flag.
“It’s just paint by numbers,” he said, but Hughes put it on display anyway. It is still there.
The saga of the Ash detachment of the U.S. Postal Service enfolds devotion to public service and heavy lifting in a quiet corner of the Tar Heel State.
In the yellow house on a rural road that he has shared with his wife, Betty, since 1956, former Postmaster Walton recalls earlier, but not easier, times.
“Didn’t have a telephone,” he said. “Didn’t have paved roads. Didn’t have electricity. The ice man came twice a week.” (Ash almost didn’t have Walton, either. In 1953, he shipped out for Korea on the USS Oriskany, but by the time he got there, the war was over.)
Imagine this: to grow up in a world so different, yet the post office, in a man’s tenth decade, is the same.
Walton told the story of a carload of postal officials who arrived in Ash to scrutinize a clerk who was suspected of removing coins from charity envelopes, a penny or a nickel at a time.
“I doubt it all added up to twenty-five cents,” he said.
No charge was ever filed. Left unspoken is the hint that Walton protected the transgressor, who might have forfeited a lifelong career over such a picayune sum and who, 60 years later, still lives in Ash. It is, indeed, a small, small town.
There is another post office, in Longwood, N.C., 4 miles south of Ash. There is a post office in Nakina, 13 miles to the north, one in Lake Waccamaw, one in Whiteville, one in Bolton, one in Hallsboro, one in Calabash, and two in Shallotte. Each has its own story, scandals and joys.
“This is good money, but they work so hard,” Postmaster Hughes said of her all-female complement at the Ash station.
“It’s our job, but it’s also our responsibility,” she continued. “Without us, there wouldn’t be any way for people to get their checks and their bills.”
“We were respected,” Walton said of this same work in an earlier epoch, in a town with little else left. “We got fairly decent wages. We got a pretty good retirement.”
“I took it seriously,” Walton recalled.
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