You might get lucky. Somebody might tell you of a secret location in the Blue Ridge Mountains where you can hike up to a natural stone waterslide and careen 10
You might get lucky. Somebody might tell you of a secret location in the Blue Ridge Mountains where you can hike up to a natural stone waterslide and careen 10 feet down into the icy Chattooga River. And then you might find yourself on a pilgrimage to this sliding rock near Cashiers, ambling down a lonely road in the shadow of Whiteside Mountain. Not far from that imposing granite peak, you’ll see a trout pond — and next to the pond, for no apparent reason, a little wooden shack.
You might think that this shack looks small from the outside — and if you step inside it, you’ll discover that your first impression was completely correct. It was once a post office, although the dimensions — 8 by 6 feet, plus a three-foot porch — seem closer to those of a postage stamp. Before it was decommissioned in 1953, the Grimshawes Post Office was known as the smallest post office in the United States. Now, it’s home to a battered wooden chair, two beat-up brooms, an empty can of supermarket-brand root beer (“Thick & Flavorful”), a small pile of books free for the taking, and a tattered American flag whose red stripes have turned gray and whose white ones have mostly disintegrated. The only sounds you will hear are the wind and some faraway chickens.
The Grimshawes Post Office is propped up on four wooden stumps, as if somebody might want to come pick up the whole building one day and put it in their pocket. In fact, the shack has been relocated several times since it was built in 1878. Soon after it was decommissioned, it was moved to the top of Whiteside Mountain and served as a parking-lot ticket booth, where the attendant also sold postcards to folks who came up to hike around the area.
In the earlier part of the 20th century, however, the little shack was an essential link between the outside world and the sparsely populated Cashiers Valley. Telephone and telegraph services both came late to Jackson County — and the local Western Union office didn’t hire a messenger boy, so people had to swing by on their own initiative to see if any telegrams had arrived. Some families didn’t even own radios. But mail arrived twice a day at this little local post office.
In 1934, Jeanne Wright was 13 years old — young enough to love dolls and believe in Santa Claus, but old enough to ride the bus to school every day on the unpaved roads that snaked through the mountains. When the bus let her off after school, she would stop by the post office to pick up her family’s mail. Sometimes, there were letters containing news from outside Jackson County; once in a while, a delivery would change her life.
Sitting in an overstuffed armchair in her living room in Cashiers, Wright, now 99, recalls one particular day when she was carrying a box home. “I had my book satchel and my books,” she says, “and I shifted the package.” When the box turned over, she heard the plaintive mechanized cry of a doll inside. It was a revelation, courtesy of her local post office: “That was how I found out about Santa Claus.”
• • •
Cashiers Valley was originally Cherokee land; the Cherokee Nation surrendered it after an 1819 treaty. Thomas Grimshawe and his family arrived in 1874, seeking less extreme weather than they had known living in Canada. Grimshawe originally came from Great Britain, where he was an English country gentleman, honored in the county of Lancashire with the initials M.F.H., for Master of the Fox Hunt. He bought swaths of land around Cashiers, gradually accumulating about 4,000 acres, and built a stately home, the Chattooga House, named for the nearby river with numerous waterfalls and that sliding rock. Since the house was capacious and local streams were filled with speckled brook trout, the Grimshawes turned their home into a resort, renting out rooms to anglers in the summer. Grimshawe built the rough-hewn post office himself. It was both eensy and weensy, but he only needed it to serve the needs of his fishermen guests. He called it the Whiteside Cover Post Office when he opened it for business in 1878; its first postmaster was his wife, Elizabeth Grimshawe.
The tiny post office, surrounded by apple trees and located about 60 yards from the house, was renamed Grimshawes in 1909, reflecting the common usage. By then, the Grimshawes had sold the property, including the post office, to Warren Alexander, who had grown up in the valley. “I had spent several years of my young manhood in the ‘cowboy country’ of the West,” Alexander wrote, “and had been so successful that I was able to come back to my native mountains and purchase the Grimshawes homestead.” He married Lena Pickelsimer, who had grown up working at the Grimshawes’ house and now found herself its hostess — and, eventually, the postmaster.
By about 1925, the post office served 15 farming families within a five-mile radius, plus the mostly seasonal guests. Annual receipts ranged from $150 to $175. “We really enjoy excellent mail facilities,” Alexander wrote, noting that the post office received deliveries twice a day on horseback. “For example, a gentleman who resides here all the year gets his N.Y. Times and the Columbia (S.C.) newspaper at three o’clock on the day after publication — not bad, that, for a cove in the heart of the mountains.”
Although the post office touted itself as the smallest in the nation, no official record was kept, and it appears that one in Bills Place, Pennsylvania, was even tinier. Some sources started shaving the truth of the Grimshawes’ dimensions, reporting it as 30 square feet rather than the actual 48. Regardless of its ranking, Alexander noted, “Its diminutive size attracts and interests all visitors.”
As a girl, Wright visited the Grimshawes Post Office with her father whenever he needed to conduct business with Alexander. “Most of the time,” she remembers, “it was early spring or late fall. The guests had not yet come to the boardinghouse, but that little post office was there. When you went someplace like that, they’d ask you in advance if you wanted to come to dinner.”
• • •
Wright has a shock of white hair and a gaze as sharp as a sewing needle. She’s sharing her memories of the little post office with her niece, 72-year-old Sherry Pell White. White’s mother was a postmaster herself, at the nearby Cashiers Post Office. The two women say they’re both night owls; they often find themselves chatting on the phone with each other as late as 2 or 3 a.m. Right now, they’re talking about the role that the local post office played in their lives decades ago.
“Mail-order days,” Wright says. “Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward and National Bellas Hess — when the catalog came, one child would have it, and another would snatch it away. We went through it page by page: mark what you want and show your mother.” She also got her shoes from Sears Roebuck. “In my family, we got two pairs of shoes per year: one that was nice for summertime and fall, and the other was for the wintertime.” For her part, White remembers letters she’d receive from a French pen pal that she had in her youth; her teacher had to help translate them, but White still remembers the beautiful Gallic penmanship.
“We got two pairs of shoes per year: one that was nice for summertime and fall, and the other was for the wintertime.”
When the Grimshawes Post Office closed and the building was moved to the top of Whiteside Mountain, much of the area was privately owned. On one side of the mountain, an entrepreneur offered Jeep rides to the summit for $2. On the other side, Dr. George E. Crouch IV and his father acquired a large parcel of land from a lumber company in 1956 and promptly ceased logging on it. After Crouch died in 1988, his widow, Martha Crouch Black, sold the land to the National Forest Service so that it would remain undeveloped.
Meanwhile, the tiny shack was falling apart — a process accelerated by hikers and campers who would peel boards off of it and use the wood for their campfires. So in 1976, the building was brought back down the mountain and returned to a spot near its original location, an effort spearheaded by engineer Craig Cranston. His daughter, Catherine Whitman, says that “it was typical of my father to see something that was part of Cashiers Valley history and make sure that it wouldn’t fall down.”
Cranston looked after the modest structure, and in 1999, he led a team that replaced its roof and moved it 200 feet down the road, getting it out of a blind spot on a curve in the road so that a car wouldn’t hit any gawking visitors. Duncan Wheale, who helped Cranston, says, “He was very concerned it would fall apart during the move, and he vowed to make me pay dearly if that happened.” Now, Wheale keeps an eye on the shack, spraying it for termites twice a year and annually hoisting up a new flag on the pole outside. The tattered one inside the building is the remnants of the first flag he ever flew outside the Grimshawes Post Office; he raised it the day after the attacks of September 11, in 2001.
An information sheet on the wall of the Grimshawes Post Office says that it closed when President Dwight Eisenhower shuttered all third-class post offices in 1953. (The class of a post office reflects the volume of mail that comes through it.) But the information on the sheet turns out not to be true; there was no such edict in any year, and third-class post offices are still around today. Many of the smaller ones did shut down, though, when Rural Free Delivery came to the communities they served, meaning that people no longer needed to go to the post office to pick up their mail.
• • •
As Wright and White continue trading stories about growing up in the mountains, many of the tales balance on the fulcrum of a small population, spread out over many miles. Wright recalls that growing up in the mountains had its pleasures — horseback riding, a dessert called apple fluff, square dances “that Mama didn’t know about” — but it also meant isolation from the rest of the world. The high school couldn’t field a football team. Getting to the nearest movie theater required a major pilgrimage, riding in the back of a truck to see a Tom Mix western. “If it was a flatbed truck,” Wright says, “you had to make sure that people wouldn’t slide off the sides.” Before the highways were paved, crews would spread snow-white sand on the dirt roads to improve traction.
“Couples would double-date a lot in whatever vehicle you had,” Wright says. “We’d go to the waterfalls, climb a mountain, and bring a picnic lunch. But it was very sparsely settled — we usually went someplace where we could all walk to it as a group.”
She grins as she tells these stories, entering the time machine of her mind, traveling back to an era when the post office wasn’t just a place to buy stamps and money orders, but also the nerve center of a community that otherwise had no daily spot to gather.
“We didn’t have nearly the amount of people living here then that we do now,” Wright says. “The last five years, a lot of people have moved in.” She laughs. Then she leans forward and confides, “It’s OK if you call me an old-timer.”
One of the more dramatic hikes near the Grimshawes Post Office is the two-mile loop trail atop the 750-foot rock cliffs of Whiteside Mountain. It offers spectacular views of the granite domes, rolling farmland, resorts, and golf courses in the Cashiers and Highlands area. For more information, call the Nantahala Ranger District office, or drive straight to the trail.
91-170 Deville Drive
Highlands, NC 28741