The tiny post office in Armstrong, Texas, with ties to a wealthy ranch family
Delivering the Mail by Allen Abel
Six mornings a week, as the sun climbs over the barren lands of Kenedy County, Texas, a gray Dodge Caravan hauls out of the village of Sarita, bound for a kingdom of limitless skies, hereditary political power, herds of russet Santa Gertrudis cattle and one of the tiniest and most curious post offices in the contiguous United States.
At the wheel the day a Linn’s Stamp News reporter came along for the ride was a contract employee of the United States Postal Service named Irene Maldonado, a native of this land of livestock and legends.
In a tray in the back of the van were fewer than 10 pieces of mail — that day’s entire incoming haul for the half-dozen box holders at the little blockhouse post office at Armstrong, ZIP code 78338.
Maldonado’s destination, tucked into the briars on the east side of the road, was a wooden shanty resting beneath a flagpole without a flag.
Driving north on U.S. Route 77, you would never guess that the weathered shed hadn’t been abandoned years before. Driving south, with the median filled with tall trees on your left, you would never suspect that it was there at all.
We are just a few miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico as the chachalaca flies and a two-hour drive north of the border at Brownsville, Texas. All of Kenedy County boasts roughly 350 souls on 1,500 square miles of dirt.
Still, the Armstrong post office endures, even though it was officially shuttered by the USPS on Nov. 4, 2011.
“A review of business activities for this Post Office revealed the office workload had declined and maintenance of an independent Post Office here was no longer warranted,” the Postal Service announced in an Oct. 21, 2011, statement.
“It’s just basically a shack,” Jeremy Hallett, who works as a clerk at the post office in the county seat of Sarita, said: “There’s no counter to staff, and no staff — no services at all. Just some boxes and a bathroom.”
“If you blink, you pass it,” said Corey Roop, the postmaster in Riviera, up in Kleberg County. “The customers that use it all have keys. You can leave packages right on the floor. Everybody trusts each other.”
“It was pretty small,” agreed Lucia Longoria, the officer-in-charge at Armstrong from 2002 to 2005.
“Once in a while you would get somebody passing by to buy a stamp or an envelope,” Longoria said. “But it had a counter, and it had a restroom. It got pretty crowded in there.”
In 2003, a writer named “Phil Lately” from an online publication called Texas Escapes visited the Armstrong post office and found “a small wall of brass-doored boxes, a folded flag and a barred clerk’s window. There’s even the requisite looped-ring clipboard of most-wanted criminals — just in case they might be attempting to blend in with the crowds of passers-by and pedestrians of Armstrong.”
Since then, the retail counter and the brass-doored boxes have been removed, leaving a standard metal cluster box on the bare floor of the shed. The pint-sized letter box and the green collection box that greeted Phil Lately in 2003 are long gone. Today, the only pedestrians outside the post office have four legs and moo.
“It doesn’t even come up on the postal radar anymore,” Maldonado said while unloading the Dodge Caravan at the Armstrong post office on a chilly December morning.
“But when they tried to shut it down, the people fought against it,” she said. “It’s funny, but a lot of the people down there don’t like to pay their bills online.”
It turns out that “the people down there” are some of the wealthiest and most influential Texans this side of the Panhandle — the lords and laborers of the Armstrong Ranch. Or, as Roop put it, “there’s a couple of millionaires in there and one of them is friends with George W. Bush.”
The Bushes, the Reagans, the Nixons, the Fords and the Stetson-hatted Armstrongs of Kenedy County long have ridden the range with the Republican Party elite.
Anne Legendre Armstrong, the wife of fourth-generation rancher Tobin Armstrong, served President Gerald Ford as the United States’ first female ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Today, it is Anne Armstrong’s daughter, Sarita Armstrong Hixon, who sits as the Precinct 3 commissioner for Kenedy County, helping to govern the vast expanse she owns. And yes, Sarita shares the name of the little town where Maldonado picks up the post in the gray Caravan.
“When I was growing up, there was always a post office just inside the west gate of the ranch,” Hixon told Linn’s in a telephone interview, solving the mystery of the shack by the highway.
Hixon recalled: “About 15 years ago, they decided they were not going to fund a full-time postmistress, but if we kept the building on our property, they would send a mail person down to deliver the mail. So, we moved the building.”
“There are some ranches and hunting camps down there and they all maintain and pay for a box and they have access to the building with a key and they retrieve their mail on a daily basis if they want,” Hixon said. “We are fortunate and grateful that they continue to deliver to those boxes.”
“My mother had a box there,” she said. “They used to have an Armstrong, Texas, postmark and she was very proud of that. She was so upset when they withdrew that and they said it would be Sarita or Corpus Christi. She was very, very upset, but there was nothing to be done.”
“So, she got over it,” Hixon concluded.
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