February is a special month in the town of Hartville, Wyoming. It’s the month where hundreds of letters from around the world arrive at the tiny town’s post office for a special commemorative stamp that’s been a tradition going on 30 years.
The commemorative stamp was Hartville’s creative solution to a common problem — tiny towns that don’t get enough mail to pass through them are subject to closure.
“When the mines closed up in Sunrise years ago, it definitely impacted our economics in this area,” longtime Hartville resident Daniel Offe told Cowboy State Daily. “So, we had 75 people at the (post office) meeting, and they were telling us at the time that we were going to end up with an aluminum, anodized mailbox frame down here at the intersection.”
Offe had seen one of those in Farson, Wyoming, and he and other town folk knew that a metal box in place of an actual post office wasn’t what they wanted for their town.
“It’s just a turn stop off the edge of the highway out in the middle of nowhere,” Offe said. “(With that) you’re not going to be able to buy any stamps, you’re not going to have any face-to-face, you’re not going to be able to send out any packages. You’ll have to go somewhere else to do that.”
Red Tape And Cupid’s Bow
Offe was part of a group of eight people who developed Hartville’s first commemorative stamp in 1996.
It was a great idea, but that first year their plan to bring Cupid’s Bow into the community and help save their post office got tangled up in a bit of red tape.
“We didn’t know the parameters of the requirements for the Postal Service’s approval,” Offe recalled. “So, they turned down our request to do it because our stamp didn’t have the right verbiage and it didn’t have the right size set for it.”
The Postal Service did allow the town to keep the stamp in the lobby so that people could hand stamp their own Valentines.
“But as far as the U.S. postal employees stamping it, it had to be an approved stamp,” Offe said.
The next year, armed with better information about what the USPS required of the hand stamp, the group modified the design.
“So (1997 was) the first year they approved the use of the stamp, and that particular design went on until 2000,” Offe said. “We used the same design. We just changed the dates on it for, like, three years in a row.”
Reborn Like The Phoenix
In 2003, Hartville quit doing the hand stamp altogether for a brief period.
Then, a Wheatland artist named Gertrude helped Hartville breathe new life into the commemorative stamp program.
“She’s a very good artist, and she was really detail-oriented,” Offe said. “And she did a lot of her artwork with a magnifying glass at that age, because her eyesight wasn’t that good.”
Gertrude did a new design every year, Offe said. They always focused on something special about Hartville, bringing a history element to the stamp. At the same time, she had another little quirk that probably helped make the Hartville stamp a favorite with collectors.
“All of her artwork, every bit of it, has a bird in it,” Offe said. “And sometimes it’s just a little V flying off the skyline in the very background. But no matter what, if you find any of her designs, you’ll find a bird in it.”
Part of the fun of getting one of Gertrude’s stamps each year was finding those hidden birds.
Before she died in 2016, Gertrude gave the Friends of Hartville six more designs with hidden birds in them, helping the commemorative stamp fly into another decade.
Offe has since taken over design of the stamp. He, too, tries to make the stamp special each year, and often focuses on something unique to the town or, in some cases, something that’s particularly topical.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, one of Offe’s stamps had a mask on it with a heart, which urged everyone to “have a heart and do your part.”
The slogan was not meant to be political, though perhaps later it could be perceived so. Offe grew up not long after the 1918 Spanish flu, and at the time he designed the stamp, he was remembering how many were lost as a result of that pandemic.
More usually, Offe looks at town history for inspiration, like the year he did one of a train with heart wheels, pulling a wagon of flat cars behind it that had hearts on it.
“All of us kids around here would always try to run down and catch the train before it crossed the tracks down here in the main part of town,” Offe said. “So sometimes it’s things related to the (Sunrise) mine.”
The trains came in so often to carry out iron ore from the Sunrise mine.
This year’s Hartville stamp design plays off a motif on a new gate installed at the cemetery, but with ideas that make it a unique presentation.
Collectors From All Over The World Want The Stamp
The uniqueness of the commemorative Hartville stamp each year has attracted the notice of collectors from all over the world.
“We’ve had letters from China, Thailand, New Zealand, Australia, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark, England and Sweden, Norway and Germany,” Offe told Cowboy State Daily. “I don’t think we’ve had any Russian ones yet. We did have some go to Ukraine here years ago, not recently though, or anything like that.”
One of the coolest requests Offe can recall is a valentine that came from someone living on an island off the coast of France or Spain.
That letter arrived with French instructions, so the Friends of Hartville had to find someone who could translate it.
“He sent 5 Euros over, and his letter said he was requesting the Hartville stamp on it, and that he also wanted us to buy the U.S. heart stamps that they come out with almost every year now,” Offe said. “Then he wanted it sent back to his girlfriend, who lived in the same building as he does (on an island) where he runs a multistory bed and breakfast.”
Collectors, meanwhile, are often much pickier about the commemorative stamp than lovebirds. Their letters arrive with instructions about exactly where and how they want the stamp on the letter.
“We’re not just talking local Wyoming people either,” Offe said. “The collectors are worldwide.”
Hartville began canceling all its Valentines Day mail with the commemorative stamp Feb. 7. That continues for up to two weeks for regular mail sent to the post office.
Collectors, meanwhile, can make a special request up to 30 days after the cycle is over, so up to March 21 or so, and still get the hand stamp for their collections.
Enter The Pony Express, Stage Left
Since the beginning of the Hartville commemorative stamp, other new traditions have sprung up around the effort, solidifying it as a signature event for the town.
The Pony Express has chosen a Valentines Day-themed Pony Express ride to Hartville to highlight its efforts to preserve this slice of Wyoming and American West history.
“Hartville usually rolls out the red carpet for us,” Pony Express rider Tony Goulart told Cowboy State Daily.
There are cinnamon rolls — made by Offe’s 90-year-old mother — as well as coffee and conversation to celebrate the Pony Express riders’ arrival with all the valentines they’ve collected from Guernsey and Platte County.
The Pony Express will hand stamp each of the letters collected with their own commemorative logo, identifying it as mail carried by the historic service. This year, about 13 riders brought 250 pieces of hand-stamped mail to Hartville, carried despite the rain, on the appointed Saturday.
“It’s actually gotten to be a really special thing that we do with Hartville,” Goulart said. “And the Hartville stamp is a collector’s item around the world because it’s so unique and one-of-a-kind, so it’s special on a few levels.”
Goulart’s wife, Stephanie, is the trail captain for the southeast division of the Pony Express. Goulart and Stepanie have been participating in the Hartville Pony Express ride for going on 12 years.
Goulart believes the tradition is easily 20 years old, if not older than that.
“This is a good excuse for us to get on our horses,” Goulart said. “And that’s always a good thing. And I think the payoff for us is the reaction we get from people when they realize that the Pony Express is still a thing, it still exists, and it is still going on.”
Children, in particular, make the effort worthwhile, Goulart added, because they get so excited and love being around the horses and petting them.
“So, we’re exposing the next generation to why this matters, and why we don’t forget about it,” he said.
That historical aspect is particularly near and dear to Stephanie.
“Kids these days, they don’t understand the value of it and the magic that was done and how important it is,” she said. “And I think it’s important for people to see because there’s a lack any more of just the simple things, the simplicity of life. So just to get back to that, just you and our animal out on the prairie reenacting history. There’s a real magic to that.”
About That old Postal Motto, The Pony Express Should Have Dibs
The motto most associated with the Postal Service is an old Persian quote that goes something like: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
The line is actually taken from “The Persian Wars” by Greek historian Herodotus way back in 500 to 449 BC. It became associated with the Post Office when James A. Farley had the words engraved on the front of his Post Office in New York City, which opened in 1914.
It is not the official motto, except by popular decree, but it could just as well have applied to Pony Express riders during their short existence.
Mark Twain wrote in one of his stories how he was in a stagecoach during a snowstorm not fit for man nor beast, riding over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Right then, he looked out his window and saw a Pony Express rider passing by the stagecoach, riding much faster than the stagecoach could go.
“It was these regular guys who did a very extraordinary thing, over some of the most unforgiving terrain and weather that we have on this continent,” Goulart said. “And I think those stories are worth telling because they’re extraordinary feats, things that we’re capable of doing when we put our minds to it.
“It’s that tradition, our tradition, of Americans. We just get it done, no matter the obstacle, and I think that’s something we enjoy sharing with kids. Obstacles can be overcome, because people, regular people have done it in the past under way worse circumstances than the ones we have now.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.