SUTTON ISLAND, Maine - This offshore island, one of five islands that make up the town of Cranberry Isles, has no year-round residents.
It doesn’ t even have any roads to speak of, which is one reason it has had a peculiar seasonal mail delivery system to serve the occupants of 25 or so seasonal homes.
Residents say that since at least the 1950s, and perhaps longer, mail has been delivered to the island by a private passenger ferry service, leaving packages, postcards, letters, bills, and whatever else had enough postage in a specially marked trash can on the float at the end of the island’ s lone municipal dock.
Any island residents expecting anything in the mail would simply stroll down some paths to the dock, remove the lid on the aluminum trash can, and fish out anything that had his or her name on it.
But no more.
Though permitted by a succession of postmasters in Northeast Harbor, where the ferry service comes and goes from the island, the practice has been put to a sudden stop by the U.S. Postal Service. Now, to get their mail, island residents will have to make the two-mile ocean journey to Northeast Harbor to pick it up themselves.
“That can mean a three-hour trip out of your day just to get the mail,” said resident Shea Howell, who lives in Detroit, Mich., during the winter. “It’ s not an insignificant part of people’ s lives to get mail.”
According to U.S. Postal Service spokesman Tom Rizzo, the practice came to the attention of senior postal officials a few months ago when someone on the island called the new postmaster in Northeast Harbor and complained that the outgoing mail she had placed in the trash can was not being picked up quickly enough.
The postmaster, Heidi MacGregor, called her superiors to tell them of the situation, Rizzo said Friday, and all agreed that the practice of delivering mail to the trash can would have to cease immediately.
“It really never should have been allowed,” Rizzo said. “There’ s no security to that mail whatsoever.”
MacGregor directed questions about the decision to Rizzo.
According to Howell, having mail service to Sutton provided some residents with a sense of security, even though it was placed in an unguarded trash can. It allowed older residents who stay several months on the island at a time to pay bills, to stay in touch with family and friends, and even to receive needed medications, she said.
“We’ re not going to give this up easily,” Howell said. “We’ re going to find some scheme that will work for us.”
John Nevius, an attorney from New York City who has summered on Sutton Island for 40 years, said Friday that there should be some sort of compromise.
“This is an unfortunate development,” he said. “On the one hand, property owners pay taxes and are entitled to postal service. On the other hand, I understand some of the Postal Service’ s concerns. It seems to me there should be a cooperative way to work this out.”
Nevius suggested that island residents should have the right to make arrangements for the ferry service to pick up their mail, similar to having a friend or relative pick it up.
“Whatever arrangement a community organization makes with a private ferry service is nobody else’ s business,” Nevius said.
But according to Rizzo, the U.S. Postal Service has a mandate to deliver mail to secure mailboxes, in part to prevent crimes such as theft, tampering and even identity theft.
Beal & Bunker, the ferry service that delivered mail to Sutton and still does to other nearby islands, may be approved for transporting mail to Islesford and Great Cranberry Island, he said, but that is because those islands have post offices and postmasters who can receive and sort the deliveries. Because Sutton Island has no such system, it would not matter that Beal & Bunker is an approved USPS contractor, he said.
For the Postal Service, it is the trash can system that is unacceptable.
“Personally, I was horrified [to learn about it] because it is so far outside of normal procedure,” Rizzo said. “The [Northeast Harbor] postmaster really didn’ t have a choice.”
For some island residents, the issue is more about tradition and the island’ s uncommon rustic character than it is about a needed service. Some recalled Friday how, when people relied more on “snail mail” than they do now, islanders would meet at the morning boat that delivered the mail and sometimes carry other people’ s mail to their homes, sparing them a walk to the dock.
Robert Fernald, president of the Association for the Preservation of Sutton Island, said the group held its annual meeting Thursday and spent a few minutes discussing the issue of mail delivery.
Fernald, who lives in Cleveland, said Friday that most island residents are not up in arms about not getting mail delivery at the island anymore. Many already go to Northeast Harbor to get their mail, he said, so building a post office on the island — assuming the Postal Service would approve and fund such a plan — is something that most island residents likely wouldn’ t want.
“People like the trash can,” he said. “They’ ve always liked it. We’ re going to explore if there’ s another solution that satisfies the Postal Service.”
The unusual mail delivery system is not the only aspect of traditional life on the island that has been debated in recent years.
When the island association held its annual meeting in 2007, a question of whether to permit golf carts on the island was hotly debated, according to some residents. Eventually, an arrangement was reached that allowed one resident to use a golf cart on the island’ s narrow paths, they said.
But, according to several islanders interviewed Friday, maintaining Sutton’ s rustic and remote character is appealing only to a certain point. In fact, some residents now get high-speed wireless Internet service beamed to their homes from a transmitter that also serves nearby, more developed communities on other islands.
Andy Potter, who owns a cottage on the island’ s north shore, said the trash can still functions as a meeting spot, albeit a lesser one now that there are no more Postal Service deliveries. He said UPS and FedEx deliver packages to the can, which helps to maintain its quirky purpose.
On Friday, Potter said he sent e-mails to several fellow island residents this week to get responses about what the trash-can delivery system has meant to those who summer on Sutton.
“I always enjoyed telling the uninitiated about the mail service to give them a better sense of the Sutton Island experience,” Potter read from one e-mail as he was interviewed by phone from his home in Evergreen, Colo.
Potter, too, held out hope that the Postal Service might approve a different, but similar, arrangement. Perhaps a locked box that only islanders could open would be an appropriate receptacle, he said.
Potter would like to keep using the same old trash can to get his mail, but he acknowledged that not every tradition lasts forever.
“We’ re sad to see it go,” Potter said. “It’ s sort of like lighthouses. In reality, they’ re not that useful anymore.”