RELIANCE, Tenn. -- Echoes of a time long past, of trading with the Cherokees and mail carried by horseback and rail, live on in a tiny post office nestled in the steep, mountainous terrain of western Polk County.
The office hasn't operated for eight years now, but the old U.S. post office sign still hangs outside where the postmaster had shared space with Webb Bros. Texaco and General Store since 1936.
But for most of the 124 years that Reliance had a post office, a member of the Vaughn-Webb family stood behind the counter, dutifully sorting mail and lending an ear or a hand when needed.
Sandra Webb Hyder, the fourth generation of the family to serve as Reliance postmaster, turned out to be the last.
Her retirement marks a watershed moment in the history of this community.
The post office isn't coming back -- that's certain now -- and with its passing goes one fewer reason for rural folks here to come together, one fewer thing that gave them a sense of community.
It was a way of life, Hyder says.
From the beginning, Reliance's post office housed inside the old store was a gathering place, a spot to trade goods, tales and gossip.
"It's just the hub of the community," she said.
Hyder was born in the Webb-Vaughn House nearby and grew up in the living quarters the Webb family built into the back of the store when it was moved in the 1950s from its original site a couple of hundred feet away.
Hyder and her siblings helped carry the stones that made the old building a stalwart fixture on the Hiwassee River's southern bank. The family lived in back, where they rose and dressed in the mornings and walked 30 feet to work in the store or the post office.
"A lot of people equate this to 'Little House [on the Prairie],' and think it's like some story, but we actually lived this life," she said.
Hyder became postmaster in Reliance in 1977. In doing so, she took up a mantle worn by family members since her great-grandmother, Sarah Reed Vaughn, named the community and manned its first post office in 1880 from the Vaughn-Webb House on a hillside just down the road from the store.
The first postmaster sorted mail in a chest of drawers the family still owns.
MAIL BAG OF HISTORY
Sandra Webb Hyder was the last postmaster in Reliance, Tenn. Her retirement ended four generations of postmasters in the Vaughn-Webb family. Some undocumented postmasters also served briefly, interspersed between the earliest Vaughn-Webb family members, but their names and dates of service are unknown.
• Sarah Reed Vaughn became Reliance's first postmaster in 1880. Specific dates of service are unknown.
• William Atlee Vaughn was postmaster and a member of the Reliance Bridge building committee. Specific dates of service are unknown.
• Joseph Thomas Vaughn was a postmaster who also served as a local teacher. Specific dates of service are unknown.
• Oliver Vaughn Webb served as Reliance postmaster from 1936 until 1977. He opened Webb Bros. General Store with his brother, Harold, in 1936.
• Sandra Webb Hyder served as the last postmaster from 1977 until 2011.
Source: Webb-Vaughn family members and records
"When you live somewhere with roots going back five generations -- it's like a member of the family," Hyder said of the post office that was the center of most of her life. "The land and everything; there's such a physical and emotional attachment."
The post office operation in Reliance was suspended in 2003. Hyder was transferred to the post office in Farner, Tenn., to finish her career. But she retained her title as Reliance postmaster until she hung up her mail pouch for good last fall at 69, bringing the Webb and Vaughn families' lineage behind the counter to an end.
The U.S. post office housed inside Webb Brothers' store is and always has been a crossroads of local history, Hyder said.
Like the store building, almost all the furnishings and work spaces for the post office were hand-built from wood harvested from the family farm that lines three miles of state Highway 30. Three large millstones from the family's gristmill stand outside as seating for weary or waiting river paddlers.
Until shortly before the 1996 Olympic Games brought travelers from all over the world to Polk County, "there was still a lot of isolation in this area," she said. "People don't realize that it's been that recently that people actually lived rural lives like this, and they're still living it in a lot of the places."
After the post office's operations were suspended in 2003, Hyder hoped for a return, she said.
"I really just kind of kept working, hoping that we would be able get it back, but then they started all these mass closings," Hyder said.
"I think it is terrible, more so for the rural post offices than it is for the city post offices, because of our isolation," she said. "Out here, a lot of people don't even have cars. It's isolated. I think it's just terrible across the United States."
Years passed, and as river sports grew in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, so did the store and a blooming float and rafting business alongside the post office, according to Hyder.
In the post office's earliest days, the mail was carried on horseback from Cog Hill, Tenn., to Reliance, with the carrier crossing the Hiwassee River at Crawford's Ford to deliver the post before a bridge was built there in 1912.
Years later, Hyder's uncle, Oliver Vaughn Webb, constructed a small wooden cart he used to push across the bridge twice a day to transfer incoming and outgoing mail to the train, according to Hyder.
Hyder said that when she was a child, family members sat around the store's potbellied stove recalling Civil War stories and tales of Cherokee people who often canoed through Reliance to trade goods and for celebrations farther downstream.
"They told about taking their animals up the creeks and hiding them from the raiders during the Civil War, and if the cows started to moo they would have to muzzle their mouths so they wouldn't make a noise and be found," she said.
That storytelling was the evening entertainment in the 1950s, she said.
The store has changed little over the years aside from rearranging the familiar furnishings inside. The pine-paneled walls match most of the handmade shelving interspersed between relatively modern coolers.
Outside, the old pavement in the parking lot is a testament to time, with shiny pop-top rings from the 1970s and before embedded in the asphalt. The stone steps that lead to the public restrooms outside on the basement level are scooped from decades of passing feet under the shadow of a large, round Texaco sign.
Hyder's immediate predecessor, Oliver Vaughn Webb, was one of the more colorful characters to man the post in recent decades. His familiar appearance -- a mountain man sitting in an old office chair at the front of the store with an enormous, waist-length beard over his bare chest -- defined the post office and the store through much of the last century.
He was the subject of some of the local lore himself, Hyder said.
"We had a holdup here in 1955 or '56; I was a junior in high school," Hyder said as she pondered points of history to discuss.
It was wintertime and Hyder, her mother and sister were studying their Sunday school lessons in the living quarters at the back of the store while her father, Harold Webb, was taking a shower.
Oliver Webb had closed the post office and was manning the store counter when two young men entered while a car waited outside, engine running.
"Uncle Oliver told him that's like $8 and something in picnic stuff they'd gotten and the kid said, 'I'll take your money, too,'" she recalled, gesturing to that same counter.
Turning to the cash register, the bearded postmaster reached with one hand to open the register while the other drew a .45-caliber revolver. He faced the 17-year-old who held a .22-caliber pistol in his hand.
"He was tough; I mean he was going to take that risk over $8," she said of her uncle with a laugh. "He had to tell the kid three times. He says, 'Drop it or I'll shoot.'"
Outgunned, the teen laid his weapon down and the old postmaster held the teen and his 25-year-old partner at gunpoint while he yelled for his brother, Harold Webb, to "get the rest of them out of the car," Hyder recalled.
"Daddy figured it had to be a holdup, but he didn't know how Uncle Oliver had the gun on them," Hyder said.
Jumping wet from the shower, Harold Webb donned his overalls and shoes and slipped out the side door, creeping around the store behind the waiting getaway car, a shotgun leveled at its driver who was fumbling around inside.
The driver got suspicious and tried to flee but started spinning on the icy road as Harold Webb pulled the trigger, blasting the rear tires flat and bringing the fleeing vehicle to a stop.
The car backed up for what Harold Webb thought might become a shootout, but the Webbs were shocked to discover that the driver was a 15-year-old girl, Hyder said.
"Her dad actually worked for the post office in Chattanooga," she said.
The Webbs had no telephone, so Hyder and her mother drove to a neighbor's house to report the attempted robbery, she said.
"That was written up in Detective magazine," she said.
FIRE AND ICE
Reliance, even before it was named, was a mail route littered with tales of the post and mountain lives of the people who lived there, according to Polk County historian Marian Bailey Presswood.
Presswood, a native of Polk County's seat of Benton, said that despite their proximity on the map, Reliance seemed remote and distant when she was young.
"Reliance, 15 miles away and around a winding river road, was like another world to me and my family," Presswood said.
But stories that trickled down from the mountains described a hard-scrabble life filled with drama and adventure, according to the historian.
One tale is that of a mail carrier named Thomas Jenkins, who was said to have "froze to death" on his mail route just before Sarah Reed Vaughn opened the first post office in her home. According to Presswood's account, Jenkins was en route from the Greasy Creek post office, established in 1848, to Ducktown across an old American Indian trail running over Little Frog Mountain.
Jenkins vanished as snow began to fall. His frozen body was found in a high gap on Little Frog Mountain now known as Jenkins Grave Gap, she said. His grave is marked by a crude native stone at the spot his body was found.
Nearby is the site of another death in the mountain community's earliest days where young Viola Morgan, daughter of Griffin and Sarah Morgan, met her fate in the same mountain pass, Presswood said.
Viola's "dress caught fire while burning off leaves to be able to see the chestnuts she and her family were gathering," she said. Her crudely carved gravestone stands near Jenkins', she said.
"They rest side by side," Presswood said. "One died from the cold; the other from fire."
Presswood's account mirrors the lives and times of the Southern Appalachian burg that desperately clings to its past like a late winter snow.
Now, the old bridge is gone. "Uncle Oliver," blind and ailing in January 1992, listened heartbroken from his chair at the store as a wrecking ball obliterated another of Reliance's icons, the old bridge he had pushed a two-wheeled cart across to get the mail from trains. He died just two weeks later.
The old post office slowly is becoming more of a keepsakes box filled with memories spanning generations, centuries and lives Hyder remembers with vivid clarity.
"I played post office as a child," she recalled. "I would reach up and pull myself up on the ledge at the service window and hang there saying, 'Any mail, any mail, any mail,' until Uncle Oliver would hand me out some scrap paper, which I would then go sort into bottle cases at my 'post office.'"
And now, Reliance's U.S. Post Office will drift into history, too, like the river that flows past it. Hyder says she hopes people understand how important it was in the lives of the people who called the Hiwassee River gorge home.