By Nancy S. Grant (From the December 1994 issue of Kentucky Living.)
What better way to bring a smile to a friend’s face than a holiday greeting mailed directly from Bethlehem? Bethlehem, Kentucky, that is. From mid-November through December 25th, postmaster Cecil Peyton shifts into high gear as his old-fashioned post office in rural Henry County becomes the center of a long-standing and increasingly popular holiday tradition.
Normally serving fifteen to twenty walk-in customers a day (plus 74 box holders scattered along 25 miles of roads winding through beef, tobacco and dairy farms), postmaster Peyton — in just five hectic weeks — will handle 25,000 pieces of mail from around the world.
“During the holidays,” Peyton said, “the number of customers at the counter can run as high as 55 or 60 people each day. A lot of people make it a holiday tradition to drive over here. I have regular customers who come back year after year, driving in from Dry Ridge, Lexington, Louisville, even Cincinnati, Ohio and Jeffersonville, Indiana.”
But even more of Peyton’s customers have never met him. Instead, they bundle up their holiday cards and letters, place them inside a larger envelope or box, then address the whole package to “Postmaster, Bethlehem, KY 40007.” It’s not unusual for the daily U.S. Postal Service truck to arrive on a December morning and deliver 100 packages of mail.
“Some have only three or four cards in them,” Peyton explained, “but others will have 150 to 200! Most folks will already have put stamps on them, but there’s always 15 or 20 who enclose a check for the postage and ask me to put the stamps on myself.”
Peyton, whose personal stamp collection centers on Civil War themes, happily obliges stamp clubs and individual collectors by coming to work on Christmas Day. “Every year, Vaccarino Giuseppe sends me a card from Milan, Italy, asking me to send his cards with a December 25th postmark. I usually spend at least an hour on Christmas morning taking care of requests from stamp clubs.”
Peyton said he doesn’t mind the extra work, and suggestions that automated equipment might be needed are met with a firm “I hope not!” and a hearty laugh. A wet sponge and a limber elbow are all Peyton needs.
“It’s all in the rythym you set up, just like dancing or anything else,” he explained. Peyton’s eyes twinkled as he recalled the year a “big shot” from Louisville came to “help.” “I put stamps on 500 cards and put both cancellations on them while he’d only done 100!”
“Besides,” Peyton continued with a laugh, “If anybody tries to help you, it irritates you sometimes. You’re under pressure anyway! But it’s nothing for me to have three, four even five trays of mail going out each day, and each tray has 600 to 800 cards in it.”
Each envelope will bear two postmarks. The normal circular rubber stamp impression with the date and the name “Bethlehem” goes over the stamp to “cancel” it. Then, just to the left of the stamps, Peyton thumps again — a crisp red design featuring the Wise Men on camels.
The stamps and years change, but the postmark design doesn’t vary. Peyton noted that his mother Anna Laura Peyton, postmaster in Bethlehem for 45 years until her retirement in 1981, created the camel design early in her career. “I grew up with it,” Peyton recalled, “and I’m 57 years old!”