General Delivery: Shinnecock Hills

Written By: Sally Walsh

Our car crept along Sunrise Highway as we drove east. “Are we there yet?”

The year was 1958 when driving to the Hamptons from the city was a real trek. Not talking about weekend traffic or the old two-lane Sunrise Highway or our stick-shift Ford. The journey was a far cry from my citified experience of sidewalk-hopscotch, stoop-ball, chain-link fenced playground near our Bronx 4th floor walk-up. I was almost 10 when my parents decided to embrace “the country.” Why would they do that to me?

Because my Grand Aunt Madeline discovered Nirvana. Or “the Hamptons” as she called it. What is a ‘hampton’ anyway? To me it was the end of the earth …with trees.

My dad bought a 1/3 acre corner lot on a wooded hill, on a dirt road, in Shinnecock when his Aunt Madeline -the family matriarch- advised him. When Aunt Madeline “advised,” Dad listened. The lot cost $500. Dad had an unfinished shell built for $6,000. Looking back, it was probably my Father’s entire year’s salary if not more. But being a preteen, all I knew was that from then on, our weekends and summers were devoted to completing my parent’s dream. A small summer home.

But, but… all my friends and my dreams were tied to the city.

Being an only-child, I was lost without my friends. There were no other kids on the hill. No TV either, except for one fuzzy channel from Connecticut. So I sat and read and “recharged my battery” …as Dad would say. Inevitably, I complained that “there’s nothing to do!”

One day my Grand Uncle Henry took me for a walk and introduced me to the train tracks. We sauntered down a dirt path from our dirt road to the railroad tracks. Gravel and rocks and… “Wait! Is there a third rail?” He assured me there wasn’t as he bent down and put his ear on the track. He was listening for the train. Then he pulled a penny from his pocket and placed it on the rail. We stepped back and waited. After the train roared by, we searched and found the flattened penny. “Be careful. Don’t want that happenin’ to you!“ he warned. Message received.

As I became more familiar with the area, I began to explore on my own. Mom and Dad didn’t mind if I wandered off as long as I was home for dinner. Those were innocent times when poison ivy, blueberries and an occasional rabbit were the only wild things I encountered. But instead of hiking through the brambles, I preferred walking on the tracks and balancing on the rail.

One day while on a railroad hike, I saw a wooden structure off in the distance. It had a round castle-like turret on top and was practically sitting on the tracks. Being at the limit of my adventurousness, I retreated. That night, at dinner, I told my family about my discovery.

Aunt Madeline knew the building. It was the Shinnecock Hills Post Office where she received her mail during the summer. I offered to fetch her mail and begged my parents to take me.

Hills Station Road off Montauk Highway.

We turned up a small inclined road. There was the structure I had seen in the distance. Sure enough, there was an American flag flying outside like an actual Post Office. With my parents nearby, I was brave enough to jump out of the car and run ahead. I clomped up three steps onto the wood-planked porch. I peered through the screen. The inside looked like a pioneer’s log cabin. A black potbelly stove in the middle of a big room was surrounded by old furniture. I noticed two white-haired women sitting at a card table working on a jigsaw puzzle.

One women waved me in. She got up from her chair and disappeared through a doorway. She reappeared behind a barred-window teller cage.

I opened the screen door and walked in. A bank of numbered mailboxes framed the right side of the window and tons of interesting gadgets lined the shelves behind her. The older frail woman abandoned her seat at the table and slowly moved to a lounge chair by a window. At her feet sat a big black and white dog that looked like an over-sized Dalmatian.

I cautiously approached the window and announced I was there to get my Aunt Madeline’s mail. She smiled, picked up a stack of letters and sorted thru them. Like magic, she handed me an envelope with my Aunt’s name. I was amazed. How does a letter know how to find my Aunt way out here at the end of the earth? And what is ‘general delivery?’

I don’t recall our conversation, but I liked her immediately. She treated me like an adult. And I could see she loved dogs and jigsaw puzzles. I did too. She invited me back to help her with the puzzle any time. Oh boy, a friend! Something to do while my parents worked on the house.

In the visits that followed, I helped work on jigsaw puzzles and learned that Jodi Jordan was the Shinnecock Hills Postmaster. She lived in the building with her Mother, Mrs. Terwilliger and Hamlet, their Harlequin Great Dane. The postmastership had been in the Terwilliger family since 1905 and the building was originally a train depot. Beyond the teller cage (which had been the ticket window) were private quarters for a station manager which included a kitchen. The area I first walked into was actually a waiting room for passengers who traveled to and from the city via the train. After the LIRR ceased picking up passenger at the Shinnecock Hills Station in 1932, the building was taken over by the US Postal Service. It became the seasonal country post office for Shinnecock Hill residents.

There were only a few people who resided in the area then, so it was a special event when someone stopped in. Jodi knew most everyone and offered conversation along with stamps, postcards or packages. She was well read and enjoyed additional information that her visitors offered. Some simply came to say “hello” and check-in for local news. I noticed that Post Office visitors were different from the city people I knew. They appeared happy to be away from the hubbub of the city. This concept baffled me.

Of course the area offered things to do, like swimming, fishing and picking blueberries. But, for me, nothing beat time the old Post Office. I’d walk Hamlet and talk with Jodi and Mrs. Terwilliger about what happened while I wasn’t there. We’d work on the jigsaw puzzle du jour in anticipation of the day’s main attraction.

The Mail Delivery.

Jody knew the train schedule. Wasn’t hard to remember. The mail train came out from the city once a day. As the time drew close, Jody exited the teller cage with a burlap bag. I’d follow. She went outside, climbed a few rungs of a ladder on the mail crane and hung the bag on a hook. Now, we waited. First I’d hear the train in the distance. Then I’d see it. The tracks were mere feet from the Post Office porch, so when it passed, the noise was deafening and the building rattled. A man leaned out of the train with a hooked pole. He grabbed the mail pouch and simultaneously tossed out a satchel. The bag landed on the ground with a thud. I wanted to retrieve it but Jody took her job seriously. This was US Mail and she was the Postmaster. Ok. Understood. There are rules.

This ritual occupied my weekends and summers for a couple of years. Eventually my parents finished the house. As I got a little older I started to appreciate coming to the Hamptons especially when I could bring friends with me to visit the Post Office, Jody and Hamlet.

At some point I became aware that the Post Office was in danger of being shut down. So I wrote letters addressed to myself at General Delivery: Shinnecock Hills. I mailed them from the city and collected them when out in the Hamptons. I upped my attempt to save the Post Office by writing post cards, buying stamps and sending letters to my city friends from the Shinnecock Hills Post Office. But in the end, my efforts failed.

The last mail bag was thrown June of 1965 and ended General Delivery: Shinnecock Hills. Progress, time and tide…

Eventually, I married and had two children. I lost touch with Jodi and her Mom. My parents are gone, and now I’m the custodian of the house my dad built. Like so many others, I love the Hamptons for the same reasons Aunt Madeline and my parents did. But yet, to this day, as I drive out from the city to ‘recharge my battery’ in the place I once felt was ‘the end of the earth’ I still find myself lamenting ‘are we there yet?’