Small town has relied on special arrangement, ‘post mistress’ for years
By Tim King
Towns with a population of 50 people or less don’t have United States Post Offices. Farwell, in Pope County, is a rare exception.
In the 1920s Farwell was a bustling rural community on the Soo Line railroad. According to the 1930 U.S. Census, 147 people lived in the village, and that didn’t count the hundreds of nearby who came to do trade at the cooperative creamery, the large lumber yard, the grain elevator, and a number of other businesses and stores. Farmers likely came into town on Sundays to attend church at Farwell Lutheran or Nora Lutheran. They, and their families, could also listen to a concert by the town band and either watch or play in a Sunday afternoon baseball game hosted by Farwell’s town team. During the week, farm and town kids all went to Farwell’s handsome two-story brick public school.
But, following the boom years of the first third of the last century, Farwell’s population plummeted. Each census after 1930 registered a decline, and the 1980 and 2000 census’ each registered a more than 20 percent drop. By 2010, the population had shrunk to 51 residents, and commercial activity had all but disappeared.
Farwell’s story was a story repeated over and over throughout the region. Schools were closed and the creamery followed, businesses were shuttered, congregations shrunk, and post offices closed.
But Farwell drew the line at the Post Office.
“We have what’s known as a community Post Office,” said Brenda Danielson, who has been Farwell’s Post Mistress since the late 1990s.
Beginning in 1886, when Ole Irgen became the first Postmaster for Farwell, postmasters and postmistresses were all on the United States Postal Service payroll.
That changed with Brenda Danielson.
“I was hired as a substitute for Rose Anne Lundblad,” Brenda said. “When she retired as Post Mistress, they hired me for the job.”
When Brenda signed on in 1996, the handwriting was on the proverbial wall. The USPS was going to close the Farwell office. But the Farwell City Council, leaders of this tiny and shrinking village, were visionaries. Within two years of Ms. Lundblad’s retirement, they’d inked a deal with Washington so they could keep their post office and zip code.
“Being a community post office means that I’m an employee of the Postal Service, but that the City of Farwell pays my salary,” Brenda said. “I was on the Postal Service payroll for two years but after that Farwell paid my salary.”
Brenda, and her husband Darrel, had been in the Farwell area for nearly 25 years when she became Post Mistress. In 1973, they had moved back to the farm Darrel had grown up on, half way between Lowry and Farwell.
“When we came back home, in those early years, we did most of our business in Farwell. It was a little closer,” Brenda recalled.
At that time, Farwell’s creamery was still operating, and the railroad picked up the grain harvest at the elevator. There were two grocery stores, one with a cafe, to serve the farmers who came to town. There was also a gas station, an auto repair shop, and the school was still open. The post office, Brenda recalls, was in one of several locations it was in before ending up in today’s community center location.
Twenty years later, most of that commercial activity had disappeared, along with many of the farm families that had sustained it. Hanging onto the Post Office, and putting it in the newly built community center, were challenges in the face of so-called historical progress.
“That city council and those elderly people fought hard to keep our zip code,” Brenda said.
“They are all gone now. I’m not sure that people today understand what a service having it provides them.”
At the time, Brenda was willing to do what was needed to keep Farwell’s five digits (56327). She still is.
“I plan to keep at it until they shut it down,” she said. “I don’t know of any plans to do that right now. I’ll just take things one year at a time.”
Meanwhile, Brenda staffs the office four days a week, and an assistant spells her for two days each week.
The mail comes from the Lowry Post Office every day between 10 and 11 a.m. Then, Brenda sorts it and goes outside to put it in individual boxes. There are 36 boxes, provided to Farwell residents at no charge, but eight of them are not being used.
“If there’s a package that’s too big to fit in a box, it goes into a parcel box, and I notify the customer,” Brenda said. “If it’s too big for that I will hold it for them inside.”
The Farwell Post Office and community center has other friendly features like holding a box until a resident comes. For example, every morning Brenda gets the coffee pot ready to perk in case guests come.
“For a number of years, people would wait for their mail and have coffee and visit,” Brenda said. “Some people would come every day, but now there are fewer people and many have passed on.”
Those informal community meetings were important to Farwell residents.
“When people still came regularly, one man showed up early on Saturday and brought his son to have coffee,” Brenda said. “He was really disappointed when I said we don’t serve coffee Saturday. Now I put the grounds in the pot but don’t make coffee unless somebody shows up.”
Nobody came for coffee the day we talked, but people do drop in occasionally. Brenda says mail is down because people pay their bills on-line and Post Office revenue is down because people buy postage on-line.
The good news is that the 2020 census showed an increase in Farwell’s population for the first time in 90 years, and a number of buildings in town have been restored.