With her Christ­mas ca­chet, a teenager made tiny Caro­line County post of­fice fa­mous

Kent County News - - SOCIAL SCENE - By CONNIE CON­NOLLY [email protected]­pub.com

BETH­LE­HEM — When Pre­ston High School ju­nior Mar­jorie Ann Cham­bers first stamped the fa­mous Beth­le­hem ca­chet on a batch of col­lectible Christ­mas en­velopes, she left an in­deli­ble mark that has en­dured for 80 years.

The ca­chet de­sign has changed about three times since 1938, but the three wise men on camel­back fo­cused on the star above the bi­b­li­cal town of Beth­le­hem are still stamped by pa­trons of the post of­fice in Beth­le­hem, the ru­ral vil­lage in Caro­line County.

“I’ve been here ev­ery year ever since I was a lit­tle girl,” said Deb­bie Mills of East New Mar­ket. “It’s a tra­di­tion. It’s some­thing my mother started. She still does it, and she’s 85.”

Chuck Beale­feld, orig­i­nally from Cor­dova and now a res­i­dent of Re­hoboth Beach, Del., drove more than an hour to mail the nearly 50 cards his wife ad­dressed at home.

“It’s just some­thing I started do­ing years and years ago,” he said.

Beale­feld thumped the Wise Men stamp onto a red-inked stamp pad, one of four in the tiny lobby. Then he care­fully po­si­tioned it over the left-hand side of each en­ve­lope, im­print­ing them with the his­toric ca­chet.

Other cus­tomers like a cou­ple from Fel­ton, Del., spread out their cards on a ta­ble or counter cov­ered with fes­tive red and green vinyl table­cloths topped with Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions.

When 15-year-old Mar­jorie Ann con­ceived the idea as a De­pres­sion-era fundraiser, her fa­ther Max was the long­time ed­i­tor of the Pre­ston-based

News and Farmer news­pa­per, and James R. Christo­pher was the post­mas­ter in the nearby vil­lage of Beth­le­hem, or as lo­cals pro­nounce it, “Beth­lum.”

“She thought we ought to have some­thing spe­cial to cel­e­brate our lit­tle town of Beth­le­hem,” said Beth­le­hem na­tive June Hop­kins Wag­ner, who was the vil­lage’s post­mas­ter from 1985 to 2001.

“So (Mar­jorie and Max) de­signed the en­velopes with a Christ­masy de­sign and in­side was a lit­tle leaflet with a Na­tiv­ity pic­ture, and it told about Beth­le­hem in Is­rael and also told about our lit­tle town of Beth­le­hem,” Wag­ner said. “Peo­ple would mail in and get (an en­ve­lope) sent back to them for a few cents, and some of her teenage friends would help her, and they would mail them out and have them post­marked in Beth­le­hem.”

Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal leg­end, the tiny cross­roads com­mu­nity for­merly known as Bran­nock’s Cross­roads was re­named Beth­le­hem by Methodist Bishop Fran­cis As­bury near the turn of the 19th cen­tury. The post of­fice was es­tab­lished in 1866, ac­cord­ing to one ac­count. To­day, driv­ers pass through town un­der a lighted star sus­pended over the in­ter­sec­tion.

Mar­jorie Ann wanted to draw at­ten­tion to the town’s unique name by en­tic­ing stamp col­lec­tors to pur­chase the post­mark for a few ex­tra cents and re­ceive a ca­chet, or dis­tin­guish­ing mark, on the en­ve­lope along with the stamp can­celled “Beth­le­hem, Md.” For the first few years, the can­cel­la­tion date was Dec. 25. En­closed in the en­ve­lope was a leaflet sum­ma­riz­ing both the bi­b­li­cal and Mary­land Beth­le­hem sto­ries.

A copy of the orig­i­nal en­ve­lope with the ca­chet is posted in Dickie Christo­pher’s scrap­book.

“She worked with my grand­fa­ther on this,” Christo­pher said. He is vice pres­i­dent and ac­qui­si­tions chair­man of the Pre­ston His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety. He said he will be­queath his scrap­book to the so­ci­ety’s mu­seum.

James R. Christo­pher ran the post of­fice out of his home, as most small town post of­fices were back then.

“I was about that high and a big pest hang­ing around,” Dickie Christo­pher said, hold­ing his hand at knee height and laugh­ing of­ten as he rem­i­nisced. The house no longer stands, but it was lo­cated on the east side of Dover Road at the south­ern end of the vil­lage.

“Peo­ple would send him pack­ages of Christ­mas cards, and they’d want them all stamped and sent out from there,” Christo­pher said. “That kept them rolling.”

A Dec. 24, 1938, news­pa­per ar­ti­cle re­ported that “a steady stream of phi­lat­e­lists’ mail ar­rived to­day ... from New Zealand, the Philip­pine Is­lands, Ber­muda, Wales and New­found­land.” The ar­ti­cle went on to say that the ca­chet “bear­ing the in­scrip­tion ‘Peace on earth, greet­ings from the lit­tle town of Beth­le­hem, Mary­land, Christ­mas Day, 1938,’ has at­tracted sev­eral hun­dred sub­scribers.”

J.R. Christo­pher con­tin­ued the prac­tice un­til he be­came too ill to con­tinue. The ca­chet was not stamped in 1945, ac­cord­ing to one news­pa­per ac­count.

“The leaflets were put out by the church (who) got aboard. I don’t think that had any­thing to do with the ‘catch-its,’” said Christo­pher, es­chew­ing the French pro­nun­ci­a­tion. “Mar­jorie was the lit­tle girl who put ev­ery­thing into it and got it go­ing. But it was her idea, and Pop just helped her along with it.”

Mar­jorie Ann’s pro­ject quickly gar­nered na­tional at­ten­tion. News­pa­pers from Alaska to Hawaii to Florida picked up on the story. News­pa­pers at first, and later tele­vi­sion sta­tions, picked up wire sto­ries or trekked to Beth­le­hem to cap­ture the romance of the tiny vil­lage’s ca­chet through the years.

Even af­ter her grad­u­a­tion from Pre­ston High School, Mar­jorie Ann and her friends sent out leaflets and stamped the ca­chet dur­ing Christ­mas break in col­lege. Christ­mas card senders and stamp col­lec­tors from all over the world still send their pack­ets of Christ­mas cards to be stamped with the ca­chet and post­marked from Beth­le­hem.

Even­tu­ally, the post of­fice moved into the pic­turesque coun­try store that oc­cu­pied the same cor­ner lot as the present post of­fice and ad­join­ing con­sign­ment shop.

Wag­ner still lives nearby. She worked for the post of­fice for 30 years be­gin­ning in 1971, and as post­mas­ter from 1985 to 2001. She, too, has a col­lec­tion of ar­ti­cles about the Christ­mas ca­chet and the post of­fice.

“We used to get a lot of me­dia at­ten­tion (es­pe­cially) in the old coun­try store.” Wag­ner said. “A girl go­ing out the door one day said, ‘Just like ‘Lit­tle House on the Prairie.’”

The post of­fice oc­cu­pied “about a 7-by-9-foot lit­tle sec­tion be­hind the counter,” Wag­ner said. “It used to be the store owner was the post­mas­ter, and we had these lit­tle pi­geon holes you put the mail in. We used to ex­pand into the store dur­ing the Christ­mas sea­son — we’d have to use part of the store, the back room, and just spread out. Peo­ple com­ing in and stamp­ing their cards and spread­ing them out on the ice cream cab­i­net or what­ever to stamp them.”

Peo­ple used to send pack­ets of cards from out of town to be stamped by postal em­ploy­ees, but “there’s not as much of that as there used to be,” Wag­ner said. She said that ris­ing stamp prices and elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tion has di­min­ished the vol­ume of Christ­mas cards go­ing through the post of­fice.

“We used to be re­ally swamped,” she said. “They used to say we did about 85,000 cards a year. It was very hec­tic. And then we used to hand-stamp all of them. When I started, the em­ploy­ees used to do all the hand-stamp­ing. We stamped the wise men and we put the post­mark — all done by hand. But af­ter I be­came post­mas­ter, I ini­ti­ated hav­ing peo­ple stamp their own.”

Tammy Hay­man Coul­bourne, a di­rec­tor of the Pre­ston His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety whose great-grand­par­ents lived next door to the post of­fice, said she’s “emo­tion­ally at­tached” to it. She’s afraid the U.S. Postal Ser­vice will even­tu­ally close it. Five years ago, the post of­fice was as­signed re­duced hours.

Although Mar­jorie Ann Cham­bers Lake of Seaford, Del., passed away in late 1993, just three months be­fore her hus­band Ge­orge, her legacy lives on.

“I think re­ceiv­ing a card in the mail this time of year, es­pe­cially with this tech­nol­ogy world we live in is a spe­cial thing,” Mills said. “Even for a per­son to get a get well card or a happy birth­day card in­stead of a Face­book or text mes­sage.”

On Thurs­day, Dec. 6, Kerri Brandow, post­mas­ter of Beth­le­hem and Pre­ston post of­fices, donned vinyl gloves and flipped the switch on a blue, suit­case-sized ma­chine. It whirred loudly while Brandow fed batches of about a dozen cards up­side-down through a slot. The ma­chine is­sued a sharp slap on each en­ve­lope that can­cels the postage and adds the lo­cal post­mark.

Wag­ner said postal pa­trons went out of their way to seek out the Beth­le­hem ca­chet and post­mark.

“They re­ally seemed to en­joy it,” she said. “It’s re­ally some­thing ex­tra, some­thing spe­cial, and the peo­ple that re­ceived them — I think they looked for­ward to it. They ex­pected it year af­ter year.

“Ac­tu­ally, it keeps the spir­i­tual mean­ing be­cause it seems like there’s not so much of that any­more,” Wag­ner said. “Je­sus is the rea­son for the sea­son, which is very true. There wouldn’t be Christ­mas with­out the birth of Je­sus.”

COUR­TESY OF DICKIE CHRISTO­PHER

This news­pa­per clip­ping shows 15-year-old Mar­jorie Ann Cham­bers of Pre­ston in 1939 af­ter her Beth­le­hem, Md., ca­chet cap­tured na­tional at­ten­tion.

PHOTO BY CONNIE CON­NOLLY

Even Santa Claus mailed his Christ­mas cards on Dec. 2 from Beth­le­hem, Md.

PHOTO BY CONNIE CON­NOLLY

Cur­rent postal cus­tomers stamp their own cards with the “ca­chet” of the an­cient wise men jour­ney­ing to­wards the star of Beth­le­hem.

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