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Can a small post office in central Montana survive?

On a cold fall day in Moccasin, Pamela Von Bergen leans over the counter and explains why her post office might close. Von Bergen, 64, has hair turning from gray to white and skin weathered by decades of the dry air and strong winds of central Montana. Born in the Belt area, she moved to Moccasin with her husband, a "local boy" and farmer, in 1968. They bought their first house for $500 ($250 before harvest, $250 after). She began working for the United States Postal Service in 1978 and was appointed Moccasin's postmaster in 1987. Back then, she says, Moccasin was a different town: "Every house was filled and we had two farmers that actually lived in town, and they plowed the streets in the winter. Everybody took care of everybody else."

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Today, driving by on Highway 200, a few smoking chimneys and a car parked out front of the post office are the only way to tell Moccasin is really still a place. Of the buildings not leaning precipitously toward collapse, most are boarded up. The school, which has been abandoned for decades, is the tallest structure around save for the grain elevator across the highway, and it looms over the western edge of the community from a plot of unkempt bramble and tall, dry grass. When asked how many people now live in Moccasin, Von Bergen stands up straight, closes her eyes and points through the walls of the post office. She counts under her breath: 26.

As Von Bergen explains how her workload has diminished and why she thinks over-the-counter sales are down, a woman opens the lobby door and sticks her head through. She appears to be in her 60s but her youthful eyes and a floppy stocking cap make that uncertain. She's already laughing.

"Well, hello, Sally," Von Bergen says.

Sally's response is jumbled by a fit of giggling. Von Bergen asks her how she's doing, and Sally says she is just out for her daily "run through town." The exchange lasts a few minutes before Sally leaves. Von Bergen watches through the lobby window as Sally walks away. She explains that Sally stops in everyday and that her dementia is getting worse. "We all try and look out for her."

This summer, the United States Postal Service announced that it would begin reviewing nearly 3,700 USPS retail locations for possible closure. In a statement, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said, "Our customer's habits have made it clear that they no longer require a physical post office to conduct most of their postal business. The Postal Service of the future will be smaller, leaner and more competitive and it will continue to drive commerce, serve communities and deliver value."

Though Von Bergen says she understands why her post office is on the chopping block, she also feels there is a disconnect between policy makers in Washington and communities such as Moccasin: "They don't have a fix on what rural people endure. I can see why they think it's fluff to have a post office in every little town...but until you've lived in one, you can't understand the heart that a post office gives to a community."

In mid-December, Moccasin, along with hundreds of other post offices across the country (including 84 in Montana), will learn its fate. In Decker, Loma and Pompeys Pillar, Mont.; in Angora, Neb., Graham, Fla., and Acosta, Pa., residents of oft-forgotten places are facing the closure of what, in some cases, is the only lit storefront in town. According to Coleen Robinson, postmaster of Ingomar, Mont., the concern is nearly existential: "If our post office goes away, does our town go with it?"

Though no customers in any zip codes will be left without access to mail, Von Bergen believes some residents' lives will be significantly disrupted by the closure. Among her customers, she says, is an illiterate woman with diabetes who trusts Von Bergen to help her pay her bills, read her mail and call when her medication is in. Another customer, a 90-year-old woman, lives across the street in a house with a stack of wood and a red phone booth in the front yard (the booth was a gift from her son). Von Bergen says the woman was born in that house, has lived there all her life and has never driven a car. When Von Bergen told her that the office might close, she says, the woman shot back, "I have no intention of learning to drive."

Shortly before Von Bergen closes for the day, the lobby is suddenly crowded. There are three generations: grandmother and grandfather, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. When Von Bergen sees the girl, Kiyanah, who is 9, she coos and feigns shock at how big she has gotten. Kiyanah is bashful at first, watching her feet and keeping a shoulder firmly connected to her mother's hip. She lives in Portland, Ore. with her parents but comes to Moccasin a few times a year to visit her grandparents. And Von Bergen.

Kiyanah's grandmother tells Von Bergen that Kiyanah has brought her a present. Von Bergen raises her eyebrows and asks Kiyanah what she has brought. Kiyanah places a thin cardboard box with two cupcakes on the counter. Von Bergen makes a whooping sound and asks Kiyanah if she can eat them both right away.

Asked if she knows the Postmaster in Portland, Kiyanah smiles and blurts out a "No!" Her mother adds, "Whenever we go to the post office to send a package to Moccasin, the lady behind the counter always asks, 'Where the heck is Moccasin?'"

At this Von Bergen smiles and says, "I always tell people we're just right in the heart of the state—but don't blink, 'cause you'll miss us."

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