Over 60 years ago, in 1956, the post office in Wiseman, Alaska was closed. The building still stands today, near the entrance to the community by road, with its logs rotting away into the ground year by year. Ducking underneath the shrunken door, one finds a jumbled mess inside. Dust covers everything, the counter, old mining tools, letters from the regional postmaster general and even the outdated FBI most wanted pictures plastered on the walls.
Since 1956, Wiseman has always been populated. The permanent population has ranged from its lows in the single digits to the mid 30s in the 90s. Post office or no post office, the residents have always received their mail. In a region with no stores, the mail takes on a higher importance than found in most other places throughout the 20th century and continuing to be of higher importance into the current time period. Mail order catalogs were the rural store of the past. Today, that role is filled by Amazon.
For most of that 60 year span, the mail would come by plane. Twice a month a plane would land at the Wiseman airstrip, drop off sacks of mail, pick up any outgoing and continue on its way. The mail would be gathered and distributed at Charlie Breck’s cabin, one of the few remaining old timers in the village. That is, with the exception of a bag that was left at the airstrip for Harry Leonard, another old timer, who didn’t particular care for Charlie. All was well, for Charlie didn’t care very much for Harry either.
The other residents would often gather at Charlie’s, exchanging stories and enjoying a few cold drinks. After a few of these visits, Charlie became annoyed at the empty cans left lying around. Outside his cabin, he erected a chain link fence that stood roughly 10 feet tall and tossed the cans inside. It was named “the white man’s totem pole” and still stands in Wiseman today, albeit in a different location.
In the mid 70s, the Haul Road was constructed and in 1981 a truck stop was built 11 miles down the valley at the old pipeline construction camp and former gold rush town of Coldfoot. By the early 90s, the days of mail by plane had ended. A contract post office was established next to the truck stop and Coldfoot and mail began to travel up by car once a week. Charlie had moved away, eventually passing on, leaving room for a new host to receive the mail, Jack Reakoff.
Every Monday morning at 11:00, residents walk over to Jack’s to receive and /or send any mail and exchange stories. Its known as the social hour in Wiseman. Outside of the 4th of July party, it is typically the only event that brings almost all of the residents together. Sitting with a cup of tea or blueberry, the mail is distributed and tales are told. The conversation and stories cover a broad spectrum from advanced technical discussion and analysis to politics to animal activity to local gossip. No matter how far afield the conversation drifts, it always seems to revert back to discussions about the country and the people in it. All the while, parts, library books, orders from Amazon and other loose odds and ends are passed out and sifted through. As morning drifts into early afternoon, residents began departing one by one, returning to work, school or some other personal project. The gathering is adjourned until the next Monday, and with it the next bout of mail and stories.