Down in Tatlayoko Valley, about 35 km south of Tatla Lake, a tiny shake-covered building sits inauspiciously at the side of the road. Next to it are five green, old-style cluster mail boxes that require external padlocks for each personal mailbox. Mounted on the front of the building is the official red, white and blue insignia of Canada Post, letting you know you have arrived at the quaint but official Tatlayoko Lake, V0L 1W0 post office.
Postmaster Joanna Knight laughs. Her ten-by-twelve-foot building is the second smallest freestanding post office in British Columbia.
When she got permission to relocate the post office here from the home of Harry and Fran Haynes nearly 20 years ago, most rural post offices of that nature were inside private residences.
“Our driveway is quite steep leading down to our house,” Joanna explains. “We were worried this could be dangerous in winter.”
At the top of her driveway the public road has been widened slightly to provide parking next to the little building, and the set of external mailboxes was brought in so post office customers could help themselves to their mail after hours. Previously at the Haynes residence customers would knock on their door at all hours of the day and night to get their mail.
“People often head to town (Williams Lake or beyond) early in the morning, so they would often wake Harry and Fran at ungodly hours to get their mail before they left,” Joanna reflects. “My husband Leonard and I weren’t too eager to have this constant interruption.”
Community members donated building materials to help make the new little post office a reality, Joanna says, and Len Knight did the carpentry work. Then they installed a phone and a little electric heater to keep it warm on cold days, and they were off to the races.
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“We thought we were the smallest post office in the province, until our Pacific Zone supervisor started a contest inviting the postmasters in her region to send in their pictures and descriptions of their post offices. She found out there was one post office a foot smaller than ours.”
The Tatlayoko post office has a history of transience and a fight for survival.
Since it was first established in the home of KB (Kennon Beverly) Moore on the north end of Tatlayoko Lake in the 1920s, it has bounced around the valley from household to household. In the early days mail was brought into the valley once every two weeks by Tommy Hodgson who had a mail contract for the Chilcotin.
As you can imagine, mail day was a big occasion. Some people rode horseback for more than 30 km, crossing treacherous rivers to post letters and pick up their mail.
Canada Post quickly became the lifeblood of the community. The Timothy Eaton mail order catalogue allowed people to purchase items not readily available in the backwoods of the nation. So mail day every two weeks became a significant social gathering that often spanned several days.
Along with mail deliveries, Tommy Hodgson and his sons, brought other supplies to the remote Chilcotin in their freight trucks from Williams Lake.
In 1929 Del Naomi Haynes arrived in the valley with her four youngest sons to take over the postmaster duties at KB Moore’s Circle X Ranch. She was hired by KB who had more than enough to do maintaining his ranch and livestock.
A year or two later Del Naomi got her own place further up the valley and the post office followed her there. She was postmaster for a decade or more as her children grew up and left home, then Del Naomi passed the torch to the Bellamy family on Crazy Creek.
When the Bellamys left the country, the post office moved five km down the valley to Ed and Muriel Kennedy’s place. When they sold their ranch to George Rettberg in 1951, he inherited the post office as well.
Rettberg went back to Florida for a while, so his neighbours Ken and Mary Haynes took over postmaster duties and moved the post office to their place a few kilometres further down the valley. When Ken and Mary sold their ranch to Walt Murray in the early 1970s, he got the post office as well.
When Murray’s house burned down in 1977, Tim Pettit became postmaster and the post office moved back up the valley to Crazy Creek where Pettit and Len Knight were living in the old Combs Place.
They converted an old chicken house into the post office and that’s where Tim and Len sorted the mail.
By that time the frequency of mail service to Tatlayoko had increased to once a week and Tim and Len would drive to Tatla Lake every Wednesday to pick it up.
When Tim Pettit decided to resign as postmaster in 1984, Tatlayoko Valley almost lost its post office for good. Canada Post was in the process of downsizing and eliminating a number of the smaller country post offices in favour of larger, more centralized locations.
Once the postal supervisor in Williams Lake got wind that Tim was leaving, he immediately sent out a notice that Tatlayoko Post Office would shut down permanently the following Wednesday.
The citizens of Tatlayoko got together immediately and wrote letters of protest and signed a petition which Alf and Gerry Bracewell delivered personally to the post office supervisor in Williams Lake.
“I have my orders,” the supervisor told them. “The post office will close next Wednesday.”
Undaunted, the Bracewells took the letters and petition to Member of Parliament Lorne Greenaway, and miraculously the order to close the post office was revoked.
That’s when Harry and Fran Haynes became the new postmasters and built an addition on the back of their house to accommodate the post office, 10 km down the valley from the Combs Place.
Harry and Fran’s household quickly became the social centre of Tatlayoko Valley.
In the mid-1980s the only telephone service in the valley was a public payphone on the side of the road outside the Haynes residence.
Harry arranged for the telephone company to put an extension of the phone into their house. When the phone rang they would answer it and take messages.
Households in the valley were connected by CB (Citizen Band) radios. It soon became the practice that Harry and Fran would take messages received from the payphone and relay them to their neighbours over the CB radio. People would then drive to the phone booth to make their calls.
To sweeten the pot, Fran was constantly baking cookies, and they quickly established the reputation that their door was always open, the coffee pot always on, and the cookie jar always full.
Quite appropriately Harry and Fran’s CB handle or call sign, was “Coffee House”.
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Over the decade and a half that Harry and Fran ran the post office, they also fell into another role as surrogate grandparents for a number of children growing up in the valley. That was the case for Len and Joanna Knight and their daughter Alisha.
“We became very close,” Joanna says.
If things needed fixing or jobs needed doing around the Haynes household, Len was always there. So was Joanna if Fran needed help in the post office.
When Fran’s health deteriorated and she was forced to retire in 2000, Joanna took over as postmaster and ran the post office from the Haynes household until her tiny building was completed just up the road.
“It’s got some of the original mail boxes from the chicken coop at the Combs Place,” Joanna chuckles. “Along with the newer ones built at Harry and Fran’s place.”
And there’s more.
When Harry and Fran left the valley for the last time in 2002 to go into a care facility in the Fraser Valley, their property had been sold to the Nature Conservancy.
In an effort to preserve the Haynes legacy, their old log home was jacked up and moved down the valley to the Millsite Recreation Park created by the community years earlier.
Plans were to convert the house into a community centre, but that never happened.
Eventually Len and Joanna Knight got the brilliant idea to move the Haynes house to their property and renovate it into a guest cottage.
And that’s where it sits today, a work in progress, within eyeshot of the second smallest freestanding post office in Western Canada.
Len added a second story and got the roof on last year, but the log-work and dovetail joints still carry the legacy and memory of two very special people: Harry and Fran Haynes.