in the mid-1930s and continuing well into the ‘50s, Fritch must have had some
of the most mannerly, patient postal patrons in the country.|
Not that folks
in this Panhandle town between
Amarillo and Borger
didn’t occasionally get annoyed by slow mail delivery, a damaged parcel or misdirected
letters, but customers must have been very careful about expressing any displeasure
when Mrs. Cleo Lee was postmistress.
Folks said she’d been a vaudeville
performer in her salad days. Petite, good looking and well dressed, she sang,
played a piano and chain-smoked Camels. At the height of her career, she’d first
come to the Panhandle on tour
with her act in a fancy new flivver. When she later returned during the Depression,
the story goes, she and a new husband arrived dead broke. She had lost her looks
and gained weight. And not all of her baggage was the kind a person could pack
in a suitcase. In other words, she’d had a hard life.
The woman who took
charge of Fritch’s post office in 1934 may have had something of a mysterious
past, but one thing about her was an open book: Her attitude.
from cigarettes to Headliner cigars, Mrs. Lee had a reputation for “going postal”
long before that term entered the vernacular. She never went berserk and gunned
down her customers, but she could cuss the proverbial blue streak when something
happened that she didn’t like. Unruly children particularly got her goat.
Hutchinson County map|
Courtesy Texas General Land Oflfice
many Texas towns, Fritch owed its existence to
the railroad. In 1926 the Rock
Island Railroad began working on a spur line between Amarillo
and Liberal, Kan. By July 1, 1927 the tracks had reached a point 36 miles northeast
of Amarillo near the Moore-Hutchinson
County line. The company named the depot in honor of H.C. (Fred) Fritch, a Rock
Island big wheel. |
Workers kept laying track beyond Fritch and by Oct.
1, 1929 the new route across the Panhandle
had been completed. Though the stock market crashed later that month, the railroad
wanted to develop a town site adjacent to its depot and bought for that purpose.
Survey stakes marking streets and lots went down in 1933.
was H.P. Newport, a major player in the earlier development of Ponca City, OK.
Newport also served as Fritch’s first postmaster. But selling real estate appealed
to Newport more than selling stamps. Several others held the position briefly
before Joe Lee, Newport’s son-in-law got the appointment. Lee and his wife Cleo
had recently arrived from Kansas.
Oil had been discovered in Hutchinson
County in 1926 and the new town of Borger,
13 miles from Fritch, had
sprung up as fast as tarpaper could be nailed on wood. While Borger
got most of the benefit of the oil boom, Fritch
was closer to the natural gas drilling camps.
The Texoma Natural Gas Co.,
headquartered in Chicago, sent its payroll in cash to Fritch
every two weeks. One week, postmaster Lee made a special delivery of the gas company’s
payroll to himself and departed Fritch
for elsewhere. Arrested the next day in Amarillo,
he ended up going back to Kansas – this time to the federal prison at Fort Leavenworth.
Cleo, who had no complicity in her husband’s mail theft, was appointed postmistress
to replace her husband. The fact that her uncle was U.S. Postmaster General may
have had something to do with her getting the job.
While Mrs. Lee could
be crankier than a tool pusher with a hangover headache, people who entered the
post office when she was in the back sorting mail often heard her singing in a
beautiful voice seemingly unaffected by her heavy smoking. The melody mingled
in the air with cigar smoke inside the corrugated metal post office.
her husband and other predecessors in the job, Mrs. Lee ran the Fritch
post office for 21 years, from 1934 to her death in 1955.
She left behind
20 cats and 4 or 5 dogs, supposedly stipulating in her will that all her animals
be shot after her death. Whether that actually happened is not known, but it adds
to detail to the portrait of her character.
In 1959, with construction
soon to begin on Sanford Dam, the structure across the Canadian
River that created Lake Meredith,
Fritch incorporated as a
general law city with a mayor-council government. And it got a larger post office
to handle the growth spurt that came with the new federally-operated recreational
Not many people are still around who remember Fritch’s
colorful former postmaster, but a lot of people have laughed at the stories told
by the most famous son of Fritch
-- comedian Ron White of Blue Collar Comedy Tour fame. Born in Fritch
in 1956, White sometimes riffs on his youthful experiences in the Panhandle.
He’s probably never heard of Mrs. Lee, but he sure has one thing in common
with her: An appreciation of a good cigar.
May 13, 2010 column
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