By Catherine C. Brooks
First Post Offices in Mathews County
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these carriers from swift completion of their appointed rounds.”(General Post Office, New York City, 8th Avenue and 33rd Street)
Mathews County’s earliest records reveal that the county had no official post office until nine years and four months after it seceded from Gloucester County. However, Polly Cary Mason recorded in her book Colonial Records of Gloucester County, Vol. II that in 1794 both James and Henry VanBibber received mail at the tavern of Henry Rispess (later spelt Respress) in Mathews Court House. They paid the mail carrier $1 each for their bundles, making one believe each received a large amount of letters and newspapers, or some suppose the transport was a very lucrative business. A dollar was a good sum in 1794. Perhaps the tavern had been a drop off place for mail since Rispess opened its doors.
In 1798, when John Adams was president, twenty-four leading citizens of Mathews signed a subscription paper, assuring delivery of mail to and from the county. Mr. Richard Billups received $35 a year to carry and fetch letters and newspapers to and from the Henry Rispess Tavern, which sat on Main Street in the area that Hudgins Pharmacy occupies today. Research from the United States Postal Service National Archives in Washington D.C. reveals Matthews Court House Post Office was established September 1, 1800, and Henry Rispess served as the first postmaster.
Mathews Court House, or “Westville” as it had been known earlier, was located on a little creek putting in from East River, now known as Put-In Creek. The three original brick buildings, dating back to the early 1790s, and including the courthouse, old clerk’s office and jail, stand on the court green today. Mathews Court House referred to both the county seat and principal business district of the county. In the 1800-era the village boasted 30 houses, four mercantile stores, one tan yard, three boot and shoe factories, one tailor, two blacksmiths, one saddler, one carriage maker and one tavern. The Court House also included the Court Building, clerk’s office and two jails—one for criminals and the other for debtors. The population of the immediate town totaled 150, including three physicians. (The physicians treated both folks in the village and those in outlying areas.)
We assume that Rispess performed his tasks much as postmasters did a century later. When the latest batch of mail had been sorted, Rispess called the names of the recipients that appeared on the envelopes and bundles. Thus “mail call” became a daily practice. Each man, waiting for mail, stepped forward to receive his letters and newspapers upon hearing his name. Remaining mail went into hidden alphabetical slots with a solid front, containing a cutout for passing the mail. During these early “mail calls” in Mathews, any correspondence brought eager anticipation to the receiver.
POST OFFICE MAKES MANY MOVES
“Friendship is always a sweet responsibility, never an opportunity.” (Kahlil Gibran)
During the Civil War and a bit afterward, Matthews Post Office moved south to the site occupied today at the entrance to Riverside Convalescent Center. Joseph W. Owen took over the office in April 1870. During his term the post office moved back into the village and sat where Bay Cultural School operates today. It moved again with no record of a date to the corner of Main and Church Streets, where the building originally owned by Edgar and Wilbur Foster (Foster Brothers) sits. Their store served as a department store, and today Mathews Visitor’s Center occupies one front corner on the first floor.
The records from the National Archives tell us that in April 1870, the spelling of Matthews had been corrected to “Mathews Court House Post office.” However they didn’t change the name to “Mathews Post Office” until May 1893 when Grover Cleveland sat in the White House. Henry Sibley became postmaster, moving the post office to the family owned store, Sibley’s Brothers General Store. The business continued to operate under its original name as a general merchandise store until November 2003, outliving all general merchandise stores of its type in the county though the post office continued moving. Most residents have heard Henry Sibley’s motto: “If we don’t have it at Sibley’s, it isn’t made.” Locals tell that in early days of toilet tissue being sold in the area, a customer asked for toilet paper. The late Henry Sibley innocently replied, “I don’t have toilet paper, but I can give you some mighty fine sandpaper.” Whether truth or tale, the reader can make his own decision, but my grandparents declared it true.
Griffith S. Marchant first became postmaster May 1897 and served until July 1914. During his tenancy, patrons grew in number with greater demands, and the United States Postal Service (USPS) demanded more from larger post offices. Therefore Mathews Post Office could no longer sit in the corner of a store but demanded its own building.
An article that the Mathews Journal published on October 2, 1913 states: “Work on the post-office is being rushed and it will be ready for occupancy sometime this week. Mr. Marchant declares that when complete the office will be the finest of its kind in this section of Virginia, being equipped with combination boxes and every convenience.”
Wilber Shield accepted appointment in 1914, followed by Joseph E. Healy in 1916, while Marchant collected rent for the post office and conducted other business. He owned a dry goods store about this time, according to my mother, Grace R. Callis, who worked as a sales clerk a short time during Marchant’s second stint as postmaster. He was appointed acting postmaster again October 1921, accepting the office as postmaster in March 1922. He served until December 1933.
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