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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Fritch

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Starting 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.

Having switched 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 Texas 1940s map
1940s Hutchinson County map
Courtesy Texas General Land Oflfice
Like 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.

Fritch’s promoter 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.

Unlike 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 area.

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.


© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" May 13, 2010 column
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