Updated January 10, 2008    
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Holding on to our past:
It's up to the branch
Preserving branch history—Duluth, Minnesota and Canton, Ohio
What to save
How to save branch records
A continuing legacy
In the late August heat of 1889, 60 letter carriers banded together in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to form the National Association of Letter Carriers. Ever since that day, the NALC has constantly struggled to promote better working and living conditions for letter carriers and ensure that American citizens receive the best mail delivery in the world.

1889 Badge for Founding Meeting of the National Association of Letter Carriers
All members should take pride in this heritage. But much of NALC's history might have been lost if yesterday's leaders had not saved key documents and artifacts. And much will be lost to future generations if today's branch leaders don't take steps to save, collect and preserve the records of their branches and to communicate the unfolding story they reveal to active members.

Branch records, whether they are very old or were created yesterday, are branch property. Branch officers, in fact, are obligated by labor law and by the NALC Constitution to keep and preserve branch documents. Each officer, when installed, takes a pledge to "guard all property placed in my charge and at the expiation of my term of office turn the material over to my successor."

To properly discharge this task, branch leaders must develop a specific plan to preserve both everyday and historic records. Optimally, this plan should designate an officer to take responsibility for saving and passing branch records, photographs, and other historic memorabilia along to future branch officers. It also should include branch guidelines about what to save, how to save, and where records and historic memorabilia will be saved.

Aware of the importance of saving the union's history, a number of NALC branches—including Duluth, Minnesota Branch 114 and Canton, Ohio Branch 238—have become active in preserving branch history. Their efforts demonstrate how branch commitment to keeping records and memorabilia can enhance the branch's sense of its own identity, demonstrate its connection with sister NALC branches, and strengthen pride among all NALC members.
Preserving branch history
  Leaders of Duluth, Minnesota Branch 114 have recognized that maintaining an historical record of NALC activities involves the preservation of past records, the incorporation of current materials into the branch's history and a conscious effort to make members aware of the branch's past.

By custom, responsibility for preserving Branch 114's history falls to the office of the president. The president is charged with maintaining written and photographic documents, incorporating new material into these files, and making sure historic materials are displayed at suitable branch occasions.

Minutes from the first meeting of the letter carriers of Binghamton, NY for the purpose of organizing and joining the National Association of Letter Carriers
"The material in our branch archives includes meeting minutes, old photos, medals from past conventions, old issues of The Postal Record and branch records," notes former branch president Arden Stabe."Perhaps our most valued possessions are well-preserved ledgers containing minutes from branch meetings held before the turn of the century."

Stabs further relates that aside from merely keeping its materials, Branch 114 is also committed to exposing members to its records as often as possible.

"We display the material at various branch functions, most recently at our retirees banquet," Stabs explains. "Next year, on the 50th anniversary of Branch 114's dinner for retired members," he continues, "we are planning a major display of branch papers and memorabilia. This material always generates a good deal of discussion and many members take the time to look over what we have."

Photographs are quite revealing because they provide a visual record of change. Older carriers, for instance, tend to be especially interested in seeing old photos—searching for themselves and coworkers, revisiting long forgotten branch functions, and remembering the way they used to work.

"We have photos from the early part of the century of horse-drawn carts delivering relays," Stabe adds. "And we even have an old picture showing a carriers on his route pulling a sled filled with mail through the snow."

Historic records and objects also can be an important means of "telling the union story" and improving the commitment of branch members. "In reading through some of the records, I've developed a better sense of the problems facing active unionists in earlier days," Stabs relates.

"I would have to say that for the majority of active carriers the most interesting period of NALC history is the 1970 strike and the events that led up to it," Stabs explains. The branch has run articles on the subject in the Zenith, Branch 114's paper.

Letter carrier delivering mail  around the turn of the century
But branch history is not only preserved in photographs and written documents—much is stored in the memories of retired carriers who are more than willing to teach today's carriers about the "not-so-good old days." Promoting NALC history through oral tradition helps younger members understand that they are part of an ongoing, living organization which has continually struggled over the years to improve the lot of all letter carriers.

"At retiree dinners, older members talked about their pay being so low during the 1950s and 1960s that some did everything they could to avoid becoming a regular," Stabs states. "They explain that a part-time flexible in Duluth would frequently be able to work 75 to 100 hours a week! While that was all at straight-time pay, it was still preferable to the plight of a regular who could not get more than 40 hours of work because the Postal Service wanted to avoid paying anyone time-and-a-half."

Duluth Branch 114 is a good example of a branch that understands the importance of preserving and promoting branch history. But what exactly is it that should be saved?
What to save
  A key decision the branch officer responsible for maintaining records must make is what to keep. Clearly, some records are more important than others. Branch leaders, of course, must keep their financial records, bylaws, membership rosters and grievance papers. You should also maintain the branch charter: minutes of meetings; old papers and correspondence which track significant branch events, illustrate the branch's interaction with famous Americans, or contain signatures of national, state and branch presidents; and first editions of branch publications.

NALC's 1905 Convention Badge
In addition, branch leaders may wish to save memorabilia such as photographs, programs, buttons, convention badges, posters or other souvenirs commemorating branch and union events. Or branches may want to save certain objects—such as mail satchels—which illustrate how letter carriers "got the job done."

By keeping items such as these, NALC branches across the country, both large and small, have paid attention over the years to storing up historical "evidence" of branch growth, branch activities, and their connection to the craft and to the national union.

The most important aid any branch and its leaders can provide to their "designated historian" is an interest and awareness of branch history and a well-worked-out policy of what to seek and what to save. For instance, the South Dakota state association has had an historian for over 40 years and its preservation plan provided a good example of which records, old and current, ought to be kept.

Norm Krickhem, of Plattsburgh, North Dakota Branch 488, who has served as state historian for eight years explains,"I have to keep each issue of the state paper Broadcast, records of all the main happenings that occur during the course of the year, and photos sent in by members throughout the state."

By developing a similar policy of what to save each year, branch leaders will be assured that they are fulfilling their duty to preserve branch records for future use.
How to Save Branch Records
  It is as important to know how to preserve documents as it is to decide what to save—for if branch records are allowed to deteriorate, branch history (as well as NALC history) literally turns to dust.

Ullysses Orrid with his postal truck in early 1920s
Recognizing that old papers, photographs and artifacts need to be carefully maintained in order to slow down deterioration from the forces of age, handling and environmental conditions, leaders from Canton, Ohio Branch 238 decided to place much of their historical material in a local archives.

An archives is an institution or agency which professionally preserves, files, and stores those past records of individuals, unions, governments, or other institutions and organizations which have lasting administrative, legal or historical value.

"In 1980 we made a permanent loan to Akron University in Akron, Ohio of most of our old records," notes Canton Branch 238 President William McDonald. "They are now professionally stored for posterity, yet remain available to branch members and the general public." These records include a large collection of old minutes, all issues of the monthly branch paper, and numerous photographs.

"As a result of the care we have given our historical documents, most remain in excellent shape," McDonald points out. "Even a number of pictures that date to 1890 are in very good to excellent condition.":

1923 pennant to NALC Convention in Providence, RI
By placing the material on permanent loan, rather than simply donating the records, Branch 238 retains the right to retrieve any or all of the matter as needed. Any branch considering donating material to an archives should follow Canton's lead in this respect. Be sure to obtain a written agreement from the archives about how the records will be housed, whether they can be temporarily retrieved, and who will have access to the materials.

Although there is no substitute for professional storage, not every branch has access to an archives in their community. There are, however, certain simple steps to take, which over the course of time will make an enormous difference.

It is most important to label all items as completely as possible and to make a detailed inventory of all historic documents and artifacts before they are put into a storage area. Listing items by subject category, obviously, will make it easy for any branch member to search the list for items of interest without having to go through every document in all the storage boxes.

Quirky old letter carrier lamp
A list will also help identify gaps in the branch's historic records, making it possible for officers to try to locate and retrieve missing items. This can be done by a general lookout call to the entire membership or by contacting specific members or retirees who may have saved records of branch events. Organizing, labeling and inventorying branch documents and artifacts takes time, but the payoff is immense.

Simpler, but yielding an equally large return, is picking a good storage location. Old records and memorabilia will stay in better condition if you can find a cool, dark, dry location in which to keep them. It is also important that all branch leaders know where the storage place is located—either in the branch office or in one of the member's homes—and that information on that location is passed along to future officers.
A continuing legacy
  It is often difficult for letter carriers today to understand the low wages, lack of protection, and backbreaking conditions under which earlier generations of letter carriers worked. But by consciously preserving NALC history, branch leaders can help members understand that it was the union—brothers and sisters working together for each other—that improved letter carriers' lot, and the union alone which can preserve and improve these gains in the future.

Once letter carriers realize that they are part of a continuing tradition which began nearly one hundred years ago, they will develop a better appreciation of the importance of the union for today and tomorrow. 

© National Association of Letter Carriers, AFL-CIO