CADDO, Texas (AP) - This is a one-post-office town.
Forget about filling up with gas, grabbing a burger, buying a loaf of bread or getting a reliable cellphone signal.
In these parts, neighbors aren't necessarily next door; they might be five, 10 or more miles down the road. Everything else - from schools to groceries to law enforcement - is at least 15 miles away in Breckenridge.
When the Caddo Mercantile closed a few years ago, the town's little brick post office turned into the community gathering place.
As this year's wildfires raged around the Stephens County community of about 160 people spread across 30 square miles, Postmaster Mike Kunkel doubled as the town crier, residents say.
"This is where everybody meets. This is where you get the news," said Rick Kirkeby, a truck driver and part-time ranch hand. "This is town."
On a road map, Caddo is a tiny dot 75 miles west of Fort Worth. But locals fear even that little speck will disappear if the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service closes the post office.
"Losing the post office would take us off the map. It will kill this town," Kirkeby said at the post office recently as he and a dozen other locals aired their concerns about losing their "hub."
Recently, Caddo residents got at least a five-month reprieve when the Postal Service announced that it will delay until May 15 the closure or consolidation of 252 mail-processing centers and 3,700 local post offices, including 222 in Texas. In a news release, the service said it hopes the delay will "help facilitate comprehensive postal legislation."
The service is not unsympathetic to residents of Caddo and other towns.
"We understand their concerns. But we have to do what is necessary to regroup and restructure to accommodate the reality that electronic communications have changed our business," said Sam Bolen, a service spokesman in Texas.
'We'll just be gone'
Mike Fields, a retired teacher who runs 300 cows on his ranch, started fearing the worst when, in early October at the local Baptist church, postal officials held a meeting about closures.
"We thought it was a conversation about saving our post office. But at the end of the meeting, we knew they were saying our post office was going to be closed," he said.
Fields has written to Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer seeking help, but he's not optimistic about Caddo's postal prospects.
"I don't think we can save it. It's like big old Goliath and little David, except we're smaller than David," he said.
Bolen said that post offices aren't intended to provide community identity but that the distance to the next nearest office will be considered.
"The decisions haven't been made. We look at each situation," he said.
The town was settled in 1860 near a Caddo Indian campsite and got its post office in 1877. Residents proudly note its oil boom heyday in the early 1920s when the population swelled to 1,000 and the town boasted banks, a hotel and an auto dealership.
"We had the whole nine yards back then," Kirkeby said.
But Caddo withered after World War II, and the last class of the Caddo Cougars graduated in 1945.
Shuttering the post office could close the curtain on Caddo, Fields said.
"The way I see it, if we lose the post office, it will be every man for himself. We won't have any unity. We'll just be gone. There won't be a hub place to go to. I know that isn't the purpose of a post office, but ours serves us that way.
"You wouldn't think a post office is so important until you get to a place like this."
But Caddo isn't alone, said Steve Hutkins, a literature professor who teaches a New York University class called A Sense of Place, which examines how things like country stores and cafes or rural post offices become essential threads in the fabric of life.
Hutkins lives in Rhinecliff, N.Y., a small town in the Hudson River Valley where the post office was once rumored to be closing. It's staying open, but that scare prompted Hutkins to take time off from his job to create the Save the Post Office website, a clearinghouse of news about closures and people trying to preserve their local offices.
"Post offices are historic gathering places in America. In many of these towns, the town was born when it got its post office in 1850 or something. If they close the post office, it will be like, 'Born 1850, died 2011,'" Hutkins said.
"For many people, the post office is the one place where they are in the presence of the federal government - it's like the face of the government. Closing the post office is like the federal government saying goodbye. It's leaving people with a lot of bad feelings."
Hutkins illustrates his point with a quote from Jennings Randolph, a former U.S. senator from West Virginia who fought postal closures in the 1980s: "When the post office is closed, the flag comes down. When the human side of government closes its doors, we're all in trouble."
Daron Campbell, chief of Caddo's Volunteer Fire Department and owner of a pest control business, says he'll be in big trouble if the post office closes.
"We need our post office. We depend on it. It's the lifeline of our little town. I have three P.O. boxes here. My business depends on it," he said, adding that a daily 30-mile round trip to Breckenridge would burn time and money. "I'll need a second job to afford the gas."
Losing the post office would be daunting for elderly people, said Mary Truesdale, 83.
"I haven't driven in a long time; my neighbors are my chauffeurs. It's a lot to ask someone to drive you 30 miles," Truesdale said.
Rancher Phil Pitzer, who picked up a double handful of mail and an armful of packages while he was at the post office, could face a 50-mile round trip for his mail.
"It'll be a mess. Most of us come here five days a week," he said. "We're paying the price because we are rural. We are being penalized."
Jeff Nichols, who manages the store at Possum Kingdom State Park, 17 miles north of Caddo, would be looking at a 60-mile postal run.
"I would just have to switch all my business to UPS," he said.
He noted that postal officials said they would replace the post office with an outdoor "cluster box," but he said it wouldn't be big enough for all his packages.
Bolen said rural carriers will be able to provide most postal services, but locals say they never know when the carrier will make it their way.
Locals say they would gladly pay more for postage, offer volunteer help or do whatever else it would take to keep the lights on in their post office.
"Why don't they raise the damn post office rates enough to do business? The way they are operating is bad business," Pitzer said.
With the nearest cop, ambulance and grocery store 15 miles away, people here are accustomed to fending for themselves.
Never leave home without a list, because there's no simple solution to running out of sugar or coffee, Pitzer said.
Stay supplied by using multiple refrigerators and freezers and a gas storage tank, Campbell said.
Kirkeby and his wife, Joy, do their shopping by the truckload. "We look like the Beverly Hillbillies when we're coming back from the store. If the world ends, come to my house for toilet paper," he said.
People here look out for one another and watch their own streets, Kirkeby said.
"We handle our own problems, but this is one we can't handle.
"We need our post office. We need to stay on the map."