Mail routes become family tradition

In Eastern Oregon, rural routes can turn into an effort that spans generations

PENDLETON — It seems that delivering letters and packages is in some families' DNA.

Orem "Sonny" Sampson followed his father and grandfather into the mail business, and currently does motorized routes in Eastern Oregon's Pilot Rock area. His grandfather, Norm Sampson, carried mail in the 1930s and 1940s in a Model A Roadster.

"When the snow got too deep for his Model A, he hauled mail with a pack horse," said Sonny.

Sonny's father, Orem Sampson, Sr., bid on and won the contract in 1947, delivering two days a week to customers along McKay Creek. Instead of mailboxes, letters went into sacks provided by each customer.

"I remember going with my dad in an old Willys Jeep, picking up mail sacks and taking them to the post office to be filled with mail," Sonny said.

On his route, Orem hung the filled sacks on horseshoes attached to posts in front of each customer's home. As time went on, Sonny said, mailboxes replaced the sacks and horseshoes.

Sonny got the contract for his father's four routes after Orem died in 1991. He drives 120 miles, delivers mail to 155 mailboxes and is on the road six days a week. Gravel roads take their toll and Sampson carries two spares and an emergency donut tire. His record is three flats in one day.

He's privy to his customers' lives. They let him know when they're awaiting medicine or big checks for livestock sales. They give him cookies and veggies from their gardens.

"My customers are like family to me," Sampson said. "If people let their mail pile up, I get concerned."

The job requires plenty of gas. Instead of a Model A, Sampson drives one of two fuel-efficient Geo Metros that he owns. One has 300,000 miles on the odometer, the other has more than 200,000. If snow or ice makes the roads treacherous, he drives a four-wheel-drive pickup.

The McGill family has a similar story.

James McGill used his feet to deliver mail in Texas and then contracted for a motorized route in Pendleton. He worked until the day before a fatal heart attack took him two years ago.

His daughter, Dawnita Picard, has delivered the mail for 17 years as a contract carrier and now does the route her father once had. McGill's granddaughter, Bethany Hodgson, fills in for her mom as a frequent substitute on the 107-mile route.

Picard remembers hearing stories of her father's encounters with animals and ice storms both walking in Houston and driving in Pendleton. A favorite photo shows her as a toddler riding in her father's canvas mailbag.

Picard drives a 2005 Ford Focus with about 300,000 miles on the odometer. She stops frequently, of course, and has had to replace her brakes several times. Hodgson drives her Hyundai Sonata on the route as her mom's sub. She likes to sing along with a Christian radio station or listen to a book on tape as she drives. The young mother started subbing for her mother last year on a route that takes her to Helix, Holdman, Missouri and Despain Gulches and other places.

Contract mail carriers aren't employees of the U.S. Postal Service. They negotiate four-year contracts. Many have other jobs, as well. Norm Sampson broke horses. Orem was a cattle rancher who also drove a school bus and owned the Sampson Saloon. Sonny operated the saloon until it burned down in 2005. McGill doubled as an Assembly of God pastor at Pilot Rock, Weston and Pendleton churches. Picard delivered the East Oregonian for years.

They aren't required to wear uniforms and don't drive USPS vehicles, which have steering wheels on the right to make delivery easier.

The logistics of driving on the left side of the car and delivering mail on the right is tricky. Picard and Hodgson have placed floor mats over their center consoles so they can easily scoot over to the right-side window. Sampson, who is taller, sometimes sits in the passenger seat, holding the steering wheel with his left hand and using his left foot to control the gas and brakes.

Weather presents occasional challenges. All carry tire chains and have slid off icy roads and had to be pulled from snowbanks by some of their mail customers. Picard and Hodgson have a four-wheel drive pickup they use when the roads get treacherous. They team up on those days, going together.

All three expressed affection for their work and a certain amount of pride.

"I love my job," Picard said.

Sampson echoed the sentiment and said he takes pleasure in the unbroken string of generations delivering mail.

"A Sampson," he said, "has been delivering mail in this area for over 80 years."

Sadly, he said, the connection will likely be broken in a couple of years when he plans to retire.


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