SUPERIOR — There’s something Rockwellian about the scene:
The rural mail carrier, in her car, churning steadily through a dreary winter landscape, pulling up to mailbox after mailbox to deliver the goods.
Watch Frances Higgs in action for awhile and it becomes something akin to Herculean.
By “mailbox after mailbox” we mean the more than 200 boxes Higgs opens and shuts each day, six days a week along some 54 miles of icy, iffy roads around this Mineral County town.
“Today was terrible,” Higgs reported Friday when she got home after 4 p.m. “It was a whiteout over on the west end, and I’m telling you the roads were slick. But you just get used to it. I’ve always said, it all stays the same.”
Last Tuesday, as usual, Higgs drove the roads she knows so well — West Mullan, Diamond, Cedar Creek, Trout Creek, and west on the Southside Road to the Warnken ranch. Only when she finished some six hours later did she sit down to celebrate her 80th birthday.
“A friend of mine had a party down at her house,” Higgs said. “I suppose there was about 15 or 18 people there. She just put out a nice spread, like little sandwiches, little treats and stuff. It was very nice.”
Next September would have marked her 40th year as a rural contract carrier if Higgs didn't already decide to call it a career in June. It will be a major change on the Mineral County landscape, after such a record of uncommon dedication.
“I’ve broken in 12 postmasters,” Higgs said with a chuckle.
She embodies the unofficial credo of the U.S. Post Office: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
And she couldn't forget it if she tried.
"Oh, yeah. People tell it to me all the time," said Higgs.
She’s unusual in that she has always delivered the mail from the driver’s side, pulling onto the shoulder of the oncoming lane. That’s why her own left shoulder is giving her fits. Her knees, she says, are terrible.
So what was Higgs doing the other day, climbing out of her Ford Explorer on snowy Cedar Creek Road to hand Katie Cahoon her mail on the doorstep?
“Katie and I have been friends for a long time,” Higgs explained. “She just had a hip replacement, but she’s doing pretty good. I won’t have to hand deliver her mail too long.”
Back down on Diamond Road, she pulled up to Lois Mohr’s yard.
“She stops pretty much every day and has a cup of coffee,” said Mohr, who at 87½ lives alone and has a kindred soul in Higgs.
“We kind of keep each other going,” she said. “I get out and shovel my walk every day, make sure it’s cleaned and deiced so she doesn’t fall. We’re always kind of warning each other, don’t fall, don’t fall.”
It was Mohr who, in September 1978, turned Higgs onto the job with the post office shortly after Higgs and her husband Bud moved to Superior. Mohr said her mother mentioned that Mr. Wilkinson was retiring at about the same time Higgs said she was looking for a job.
For the first six years, Higgs covered the entire Superior district “until all these people started moving in here,” she said. “Then I just couldn’t do it all.”
She subcontracts with others to handle the slightly longer East Mullan route north of the Clark Fork River from Superior to Quartz and Tarkio.
Perhaps most amazing: Higgs has never had a serious accident while delivering the mail, and only one that wasn’t so serious.
It was just this summer. She’d just finished one mailbox on West Mullan and started up the street to the next one.
“Three deer jumped right out in front of me,” Higgs said. “I kind of moved over and got a little too close to the edge.
“Thank God I had a good car. It started to tip and I thought, if I don’t do something I’m going to tip over. So I just drove right down to the bottom of the ravine and drove out.”
The only damage was a little fender scratch.
“Better that than me,” she said, a twinkle in her eye. “That’s the worst one I can tell you about. Sometimes it’s been a little scary out there, but you just learn to do it, I guess.”
Liz Asay is the 12th postmaster Higgs has worked with, and in her eyes “a great, great one. Probably the best I’ve had.”
The respect is mutual, Asay said. As a contract carrier, Higgs is not an employee of the U.S. Postal Service, but the two have worked together for the past 10 years, packaging and sorting each morning.
“I asked her one time: Franny, why don’t you just retire and enjoy life?” Asay said. “She said, ‘Having to come in here to work every day is what’s keeping me young. It gets me up and keeps me active.’ She just really enjoys it.”
“I just love it," Higgs agreed, "and the people I deliver to are all very nice. They’re just great people up here.”
Her route takes Higgs through town, to the hospital and a few mailboxes on the east end. She always passes her own modest gray house on Fourth Street. In the front yard, partially covered by snow this week, is a sign with the picture of a young woman. “In Memory of Vicki J. Foster” the inscription reads.
It’s a reminder of perhaps the lowest point in Higgs' career, if not her life.
Foster was 18 months old when Frances and Bud moved to Superior. Their only child, she grew up there, played basketball for the Lady Bobcats, went to nursing school at Montana State University, and eventually became a nurse in Palm Springs, California. There she assisted with open-heart surgery.
“She was a smart little cookie,” her mother said.
One day the police brought to the hospital a transient who'd been found sick in the desert. The nursing staff immediately prepared the man for surgery.
“Vicki was in there and the other girl that administered I don’t know what, but she had a needle in her hand,” said Higgs, who lost her husband 25 years ago. “She gave this man a shot, brought it out and it stuck Vicki in the arm. It took "Vicki 18 years to die, but she had hepatitis C.
“When she got sick, well, she drove herself clear from California up here to me.”
On Feb. 11, 2011, seven months after she returned home, Foster died there. The following year, Frances signed a contract to deliver the mail for six more years.
There’ve been plenty of changes in Superior over the past four decades, and a mail carrier sees them all.
“People have just moved in here like you wouldn’t believe,” Higgs said. “There’s somebody new every time I turn around. I just got a new one yesterday.”
The closure of the Diamond International mill in 1994 “kind of put the kibosh to everything,” she said.
Now many of the new arrivals are retirees who "just kind of fit right in, it seems like.”
Especially in the summer, a lot of them will come out to meet the mail lady and chat for a minute.
By then she has already spent a couple of hours at the post office, arriving at 8:15 a.m. to separate the mail, band the envelopes together and gather the packages.
On Thursday Higgs placed her deliveries into three plastic trays and loaded them onto a rolling cart. She shoved open the door to push it through to the snowy parking lot and slowly but nimbly placed each of the heavy loads into her Ford. She pushed the cart back inside while the car warmed up, brushed the snow off the windows when she got back, and placed a flashing amber light on the dashboard.
It was after 10 a.m. when she pulled out of the parking lot and headed down to the bridge, turning left on the other side.
“I try to be back by 3,” Higgs said earlier. “Lately I haven't been able to, but yesterday I was. I was pretty proud of my little self.”
“It's a rural thing," Mohr said. "A lot of people shop online or by catalog, so Franny has a lot of packages, and she takes them right up to the house. In the winter time, believe me, that’s a treasure to have someone bring your mail and packages in.”
Such personal mail delivery is not something people expect everywhere, let alone from an octogenarian carrier. On Friday, Mohr had a piece of apple pie waiting to go along with the coffee.
“I’m alone now, and so it’s just very kind of her," she said. "I appreciate it ever so much to have that little bit of daily attention.”
This story was updated Jan. 2 to correct the spelling of Lois Mohr's last name.