O Little Town...

Bethlehem Post Office
spreads joy during holiday season

Staff enjoys the busy days each December

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

BETHLEHEM, Ky. (December 2008) – While you may not find a “star in the East” hovering above Bethlehem, Ky., you will find that the post office has hand-stamped letters since 1947 depicting this familiar scene of Wise Men seeking the Messiah.
Many view Christmas as a season of making memories to last a lifetime so, “What’s more meaningful than visiting ‘Bethlehem’ at this wonderful time of the year, and sending everyone on your mailing list a keepsake to let them know you were thinking of them?” asked Bethlehem Postmaster Susan E. Leopold.

Susan Leopold

Photo by Helen E. McKinney

Bethlehem Postmaster Susan Leopold
says mail comes from around the
world for the special holiday stamp.

In this tiny town, Leopold says taking in 100 pieces of mail a day is “a good day” at any other time of year. In contrast, the post office handles between 5,000 to 7,000 on the busiest days in December.
“It’s very rewarding that my customers look to me to put the finishing touches on the cards they are sending their friends and family,” she said.
The fame of the Bethlehem Post Office during the holiday season can be credited to Anna Laura Peyton, who became Postmistress in 1935. When she realized customers where coming from out of town to get the “Bethlehem” postmark, she devised an idea to add a red cachet of the Three Wise Men following the star to Bethlehem to accompany the postmark.
The idea had immediate appeal. Peyton never charged for the service, asking only that customers purchase their stamps at the Post Office in exchange for her services, said Leopold.
“So many people plan events to celebrate Christmas, and in one day their event and their guests come and go,” Leopold said. “For me, it’s more like a month of celebrations.”
People travel from all over the United States to visit Bethlehem. For those who can’t physically make the trip, they send their cards and postage payment to the postmaster to take care of their holiday mail. Collectors also frequently request the postmark and cachet.
“It is not uncommon,” said Leopold, “to see cards and requests come from all over the states and even other countries – Italy, France, Germany and Canada – seem to have many collectors.”
Sheila Downey, who was the Bethlehem postmaster from 2001 to 2005, said a large portion of cards came from France. “They could have gotten the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania postmark,” she said, but the Kentucky postmark is special because of the combination stamp and postmark.

Open House
• An open house will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Dec. 6 at the post office, 3946 Bethlehem Rd., Bethlehem, Ky. Customers can enjoy refreshments as they watch employees stamp their holiday mail. For information, call (502) 845-0207.

“More holiday business is from out-of-county than in county,” said Downey. Meeting a variety of different people is what Downey, now postmaster at the Pleasureville Post Office, said she liked best about the holiday season. “So many people came in. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Peyton had no idea how popular her idea would become. The current post office is in the house that was once Peyton’s home. Her front parlor housed the post office business.
“At that time, everything was located in a home,” said Zelma Winchester, Peyton’s daughter. A retired fifth-grade teacher, Winchester worked part time at the post office as a substitute clerk for 36 years.
Winchester now leases the building to the government to use as a post office. “People came from everywhere,” she said. “They wanted to make it a trip.”
One couple from Cincinnati would come every year to have their cards stamped.
There was also a man from Paris, Ky who came faithfully every year to have his mail stamped, recalled Winchester. Another regular was a wealthy gentleman from nearby Shelbyville who even sent a piece of mail to the Queen of England with the Bethlehem postmark.
“Mother corresponded with lots of countries,” said Winchester. She said the family even worked at night to get all of the holiday mail sent out.
When Peyton retired her son, Cecil, a clerk at the post office, became postmaster. His sister, Zelma, then took over his position. “Together they continued the tradition their mother had started,” said Leopold. “The Peyton family served the Bethlehem Post Office and community for a total of 66 years.”
Leopold became Bethlehem’s 31st postmaster in 2005, having worked at the post office since 2001. She added the phrase “from Bethlehem since 1947” to the bottom of the cachet so its creation could always be traced back to the Peyton family.
Downey said that even after he had retired, Cecil would come back to the post office to demonstrate to the employees how to stamp the mail correctly. “He would take the time to do every one he stamped just right,” said Downey.
There was speculation at one time that the tiny post office might close. The people of the community worked hard to keep it open, said Winchester. State Rep. Tom Riner always supported us, she said.
“This office is based on stamp sales. Our revenue keeps it going.” For that reason, she encourages people to bring their Christmas cards and letters to Bethlehem to be mailed.
Normally, there is only one person working in the Post Office during the week, with two people scheduled a day during December. Leopold recalled times when she had to borrow employees from neighboring Post Offices to help with the huge volume of holiday mail.
Each Christmas season brings with it special memories, and for Leopold, the 2003 season was no exception.” We were visited by a real live couple named Mary and Joseph who made the trip to Bethlehem for the postmark,” she said. They traveled from Tennessee the day after Thanksgiving to get their mail postmarked.
There are many repeat customers who visit the Bethlehem Post Office each year. The thing Leopold likes best about the holiday season is that “in Bethlehem you can escape the craziness of the holiday.”

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