Getting to Know... a postal museum director
Sunday, August 07, 2011 8:01 PM
DELPHOS - For Gary Levitt, beginning a museum dedicated to the history of mail delivery in the United States did not seem like an obvious career choice.
(Times Bulletin/Ed Gebert)
"Talk about getting bitten by a bug," he laughed, "I never collected anything in my life until this started and was not a history buff. Now it's all kind of steamrolled."
Levitt, a former Delphos postmaster, is now the director of the Museum of Postal History on Main St. in Delphos. The project began after a 60th anniversary celebration of that city's post office building back in 1993. A makeshift series of displays was assembled in the 2,200 sq. ft. lower level of the post office. He remembered, "We didn't have any money. We took some two-by-fours, routed out a little edge and found some old storm windows, and that became the display case!"
The idea to begin a more traditional museum soon followed, and after two years of negotiations, Levitt got the approval to do it. After nine months of work, the original version of the Museum of Postal History opened in 1995. However, putting together displays quickly on an almost non-existent budget took its toll.
"In 1999, we closed because everything looked so tired. We had tried things within our budget and they didn't hold up as they should have," Levitt admitted.
But the museum was not history. After two more years of renovations, the museum reopened in 2001 and remained open until Levitt was given the position of postmaster in Dublin, Ohio, and moved away. Without Levitt, the museum displays were mothballed until 2008 when he returned to Delphos as postmaster.
By that time, it was obvious that the collections and displays were too numerous for the post office basement. A historic building on Main St. was purchased. The structure had previously housed a horse livery built to service the Miami-Erie Canal. Later a recreation center, an implement dealership, a bar, a steakhouse, and a dance club all used the space. But when Levitt was looking to buy, there was a glaring problem.
He stated, "The one element missing the most when we purchased the building in 2008 was the west wall, which was not here! The previous owner had been required by the state to tear off the last 12 feet of the building. He wasn't required to cover it, so it was open to the elements!"
Building a wall to replace the missing one was simple enough, but with the building open to the elements for a time, almost everything inside needed to be replaced -- wiring, duct work, water, sewer pipe and fixtures. However, soon the work was done, the displays were set up and the doors were opened the next year.
Levitt is a native New Yorker, coming to Ohio first as a student at Dennison University. He went back home, starting a teaching career at his former junior high school as a substitute music teacher, but at that time school systems were laying off teachers rather than hiring. So Levitt and his wife sought out someplace new to live. Ironically, it turned out to be the Buckeye State.
"In 1976, I was hired over the phone to take over the reserve center in Lima at the corner of Shawnee and Reed Rd., right next to Apollo Vocational School," he recalled. "We settled in Spencerville, and it was quite a culture shock, especially for my wife who had never traveled out of New York!"
Soon the coupled settled in Lima to raise a family. Two years later, Levitt took a job as a flexible part-time clerk on third shift at the Lima Post Office. In 1980, he moved into management and never looked back.
Today, the Museum of Postal History is housed in a 11,112 sq. ft. building, offering plenty of room for displays and improvements. Levitt freely says that there is much work to do still, but already there is much to see. There are stamps, of course, but the museum looks at how delivering the mail helped establish and expand this country.
"One of missions is to get people to understand what role the mail service played in the development of the United States," he noted.
Several postal vehicles are part of the museum collection, including a 1906 Harrington Rural Coach which was pulled by horses for rural deliver. The same is true of the tin sleigh dating back to 1910. A red, white and blue Schwinn bicycle, and a 1959 Eshelman three-wheeler also show the varieties of postal vehicles. A replica of a postal train car is a part of the museum.
The walls are being covered by murals of Delphos, painted by members of the Delphos Area Art Guild in exchange for the use of the second story of the building. One room is devoted to the Delphos Post Office itself. According to Levitt, the museum often surprises visitors with what is found inside.
He described, "They come and they have no idea. They think they're going to look at a few stamps for 10 or 15 minutes and move on. If you were to stop and just read what we have up, and 90 percent of it isn't even up yet, you'd be longer. So they come in and their mouths drop open."
Even among area residents, few realize what lies behind the doors of that bright yellow building downtown.
"We have been in existence in Delphos since 1995 in one form or another. There are 7,500 people in Delphos and of those 7,500, I'd be shocked at the number who don't even know we exist," Levitt said. "That's part of our mission is to let people know. We tell people they have to tell someone about the museum, sign our book so we know where they're coming from, and next time they come back to bring somebody with them. It's word of mouth that's gotten a lot of the artifacts, and the money to operate."
The artifacts often come, appropriately enough, through the mail. Levitt estimated that 200 days of each year, the museum will receive a package containing some sort of postal memorabilia found at a sale or flea market. This year alone, four large stamp collections were donated to the museum that Levitt estimates contain 350,000 - 400,000 United States stamps.
As with any museum, funding is tight. The museum has no admission charge, so to help raise the $32,000 in basic expenses for each year, Levitt takes off his museum director hat and puts on a travel agent cap, hosting motorcoach trips that offer special entertainment and information from one or more of Levitt's many friends and acquaintances.
The fit for the museum and the city of Delphos is a good one. "I've tried to give back to Delphos as much as I can," Levitt shared. "We've been fortunate. The town has supported me, and all the projects I've gotten involved with... This was done due to the tons of in-kind donations, contractors who donated their time and materials. This museum exists, not because of me, but because of the people of Delphos. They really love their history, and I was looking for something to get the post office involved with the town, and the town is just so crazy about its history, I thought we could see where we fit in with this history."
The museum's hours are limited, open Thursday afternoons from 1-3 p.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. The hours correspond with those of the Delphos Canal Museum to offer a pair of historical experiences. Levitt does all the tours, but does have 20 people trained as docents. He is obviously proud of what has been accomplished by himself and the many donors and volunteers, but is also looking to make the Museum of Postal History more complete and educational.
"It is a very gratifying job, but it's a very frustrating job because money is the biggest inhibitor," Levitt pointed out. "The only thing I've done is I've surrounded myself with people who really know what they are doing, and they are willing to follow somebody who thinks he knows what he's doing and acts that way. Maybe I deserve an Oscar!"