It is amazing how looking down the barrel of a gun will focus one’s attention. On the southwest corner of Lewis and Box Tree Roads, in East Quogue, just south of the LIRR railroad tracks, stands a worn and weathered stone obelisk, exactly three feet tall. I’d driven past it countless times without taking any notice, until one day a pair of cannons appeared, flanking the miniature monument. They look like replicas of nine-pounder naval ordnance from the 18th century, seated on wooden gun carriages. For the first time I noticed a wooden plaque behind the monument, which reads simply: “1787 BOXTREE—SITE OF THE FIRST LETTER BOX IN THE U.S.” The marker itself has an inscription on its north face, so faint that I had to trace the lettering with a lead pencil to reveal these words: “HERE GREW THE BOX TREE UNTIL JULY 4 1893.”
I quickly went online, seeking confirmation of this rather startling factoid. Digging deeper, I found a lot of info; some conflicting, some confusing, some intriguing, some amusing. But it is pretty clear that Fourth Neck, (established 1673), renamed Atlanticville (1852), and more recently dubbed East Quogue (1891) is indeed the home of a sacred site in the annals of mail delivery.
During the Colonial Era, before the US Postal Service was created (1775), and long before railroads were built, post riders on horseback picked up and dropped off mail at certain stones or bushes located along the trails and post roads they traveled. Colonial America had a relatively high literacy rate, but sending mail was prohibitively expensive, and done primarily for business and government correspondence. The average colonist received about one letter per year. This was for the best, since many of the letters probably ended up as mulch, or lining the nests and dens of various woodland creatures. The post riders carried a two-section mailbag called a portmanteau, usually of heavy canvas and leather, waterproofed in various ways. These bags were passed along from courier to courier along the routes.
The Box Tree monument marks the spot where a very large white oak tree (Quercus alba) once stood, close to the intersection of Old Country Road, running east to west, and Lewis Road, which leads north to Riverhead. Details are sketchy; various accounts say it was naturally hollowed out, or had a hole hacked into with an axe. When Long Island post riders began regular service from NYC to Greenport in 1765, the Box Tree became a drop-off and pick-up point for the mail. At some point a box was placed inside, thus becoming the first known letterbox in North America. One historian maintains the box was nailed to the tree; I would venture to say that over the hundred-plus years the Box Tree was in use these discrepancies could all be reconciled. However it came about, it was a huge improvement over stashing the mail beneath random rocks and shrubbery. Although the USPS Rural Free Delivery Service was not instituted officially until 1891, the Box Tree was essentially the first RFD post box as well.
Following the Revolution, in 1787, twice weekly stage-coach service was established between Greenport and Brooklyn; the plaque standing behind the marker reflects this. It was a two-day trip each way, which should be of some solace to the weekend LIE crawlers of today. By 1835 stagecoach service to New York City ran through the Quogues from East Hampton as well. According to the May 17, 1902 edition of The Brooklyn Times, the mighty oak “was a favorite meeting place for the villagers, and many matters pertaining to the town were discussed at this spot.” It was also reported that “a light-fingered grocery clerk often hid a quantity of his loot in the hole in the tree until he could get it again at a later time.” This was no mere mailbox.
The Box Tree fell into disuse after the openings of Post Offices in Quogue (1828) and Atlanticville (1858); by the time the railroad arrived in 1871 it was basically a local curiosity. On July 4th, 1893 it was substantially damaged by a fire of uncertain origin. I found three scenarios; I leave it to you to pick the one you feel most probable.
1) Misguided young patriots, over-celebrating Independence Day, stuffed the Box Tree with firecrackers, setting it ablaze.
2) A curious East Quogue child pestered his mother about the origins of life until she said “babies came from the old Box Tree.” He and a friend then lit a fire to illuminate the interior, looking for evidence.
3) Enterprising junior exterminators attempted to burn out a nest of squirrels inside the Box Tree, but lost control of the process.
However it came about, this July 4th marked the 120th anniversary of the event. There is no handy term for the 120th of anything; Diamond Anniversaries mark 60-year milestones, so I propose commemorating the Double Diamond Jubilee of the Burning of The Old Box Tree.
(I’m no historian, but researching local oddities and events has taught me the historian’s dirty little secret: History is an accretion of consensus, an agreed-upon narrative that finesses contradictions, as much art as science. If finding solid, hard info about a relatively recent trifle like the Box Tree is well-nigh impossible, what does that tell us about received wisdom concerning crucial events from the rapidly-receding past?)
In 1894, the old tree was removed entirely, and a surviving fragment was brought to Quogue. William Post, one of Quogue’s most prominent citizens, took charge of the preservation, organizing a “special group known as the Box Tree Club, to look after the relic’s special interest.” A brass plaque was affixed to the remnant, which reads:
“IN PERPETUATION OF THE MEMORY OF THE BOX-TREE—A repository for the U.S. Mail more than 100 years ago, the only FREE POST OFFICE known was destroyed by fire July 4, 1893.
For centuries God’s happy birds
Found cover safe with me
A hundred years man’s written words
I guarded faithfully
Now life is over; naught remains
But one long peace for me
And in the grateful hearts of man
This honored memory”
The poem’s authorship is as confusing as other parts of this story. The attribution, per the Quogue Historical Society publication “Remembering Quogue,” reads as follows: “E. Walters, corrected to read Mrs. Fairfield.” Was E. Walters the maiden name of a Mrs. Fairfield? Was E. Walters incorrectly named as the author? An Edward Walters resided in East Quogue at the time, with his three children; Ethelyn, Eleanor and Edward Jr., anyone of whom may have penned the elegy. Or not.
Mr. Post and the Box Tree Club had the thing placed on the front porch of Henry D. Burton’s store on Quogue Street. Burton had just been appointed Village Postmaster, and the Box Tree remnant advertised his store as the official Post Office.
The Box Tree, such as it is, now rests comfortably in the basement of Quogue Historical Society’s Pond House Museum. I was allowed to view the relic, and sort through documents in their archives. I noted that the remnant has been sawn down to about a third of its original size, for ease of transport. I also found a few additional poems that had been submitted for the plaque, in the elegant cursive that has gone the way of so many other civilities.
Although the Box Tree remnant has abandoned East Quogue for a more genteel locale, the monument itself is in good hands, and not likely to wander off anytime soon. When the East Quogue Civic Association stopped tending to the site, the Mulvaney family stepped up. John and his wife Kristina, upon whose property the marker sits, built a mound behind it, planting perennials to set off the shrine. Their four-and-a half-year old daughter Kayden, with a little help from Dad, assembled the cannons that caught my eye, and triggered this Box Tree investigation. They should be commended.
But that was then—this is now. The USPS is in a slow death spiral, sure to disappear in the not-too-distant future. Email, text messaging, FedEx/UPS and bureaucratic bungling on a heroic scale are conspiring to bring it down. East Quogue has a perfectly serviceable little Post Office, across the street from the firehouse and I would hate to see it vanish completely. I am particularly fond of a neighbor, Ms. D., who works behind the counter. She sells me stamps and helps me navigate the more arcane USPS processes, always with good cheer and a playful twinkle in her Irish eyes. She deserves better than a gold watch and a goodbye.
East Quogue’s Box Tree was the first post box in North America; when the time comes why not designate the East Quogue Post Office’s mail box as the last one, preserve the Post Office as a museum, and keep folks like Ms. D. gainfully employed? A bittersweet tribute, if you will, to the glorious USPS and the workers that made it go (or go away). A right-hand drive PO Jeep could be kept on premises, for use in parades and celebrations, demonstrating how mail-persons made snail-mail deliveries. USPS re-enactors could don uniforms from various eras, and stride along a marked route, from the PO to the Box Tree site and back. Carrying leather satchels and empty Mace canisters, they could lug simulated mail appropriate for Christmas-time, Mother’s Day, and Valentine’s Day, which I imagine would be the most popular occasions for a trip down the USPS memory lane.
This Box Tree–USPS shrine would attract PO retirees, nostalgic seasoned citizens and parents wishing to show their over-stimulated, screen-addicted children there was once a simpler, gentler and more eco-friendly way of being. After all, what could be more grounded, locally sourced, artisanal and green, than a Box Tree?
P.S. In 1939, a prominent anthropologist by the name of William Neil Smith II asserted that Atlanticville was renamed East Quogue because “much of the village’s mail went to Atlantic City, NJ by mistake.” Plus ça change…