Ophir postmistress calling time on the job she has loved


- I love seeing everybody coming in — the locals come in, swap a bit of gossip, who’s in hospital . . .and how everybody’s going. And then others come in to find out what I know. - Sharing a slice of New Zealand history and connecting with people — there is no other way Val Butcher has wanted to spend her retirement.

For the past 22 years, Ms Butcher (83) has been the Ophir postmistress, managing New Zealand’s longest continuously running postal service, keeping her tiny town connected with the wider world.

The heritage post office — which was built in 1886 at the height of the gold rush era when Ophir was bustling with 1000 people — is under the care of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

When she ‘‘fell into the role’’, Ophir had a permanent population of 25 and computers and the internet were not yet part of the post office’s operation. The stone building had only one small fan heater for heating — no match for a staunch Ophir winter.

‘‘I kind of fell into the job because I was probably the only one in the right timeframe and the right age group at that time — not now.

‘‘Twenty-two years ago there was no computer. I didn’t even know how to use one, and they sent me an old one which blew up and I thought it was my fault because I didn’t know how to use it,’’ she said, laughing.

Reassured by her boss it was not her fault — it was an older, second-hand model — Ms Butcher settled in to the role.

Finding that ‘‘just doing the mail was not really drawing the crowds’’, Ms Butcher started out letting people frank their own mail — an official postage date stamp.

The birth of the Otago Central Rail Trail breathed life into the heritage site, with cyclists stopping in to visit.

Locals still used the post office for their mail and to collect deliveries, and tourists enjoyed seeing grocery items stored in mail cubby holes ready for residents to collect — the cabbage that was too big to fit caused many laughs for visitors, Ms Butcher said.

In the past two decades there have been a lot of changes to the mail service in the historic town. Fewer letters are sent and online shopping has grown. Many of the visitors from the rail trail are arriving on e-bikes.

But one thing still remains the same

— the sense of community.

‘‘[The post office is] a very community thing . . .and that’s what I love about it. It’s like an an oversized family, really,’’ Ms Butcher said.

‘‘I love seeing everybody coming in — the locals come in, swap a bit of gossip, who’s in hospital and . . .how everybody’s going. And then others come in to find out what I know.

‘‘I love the job. I love the fact that people are interested in what I’m showing them and the history of it — and I’m interested in it too. People that come in, some of the tourists actually know more than I do sometimes. And they tell me about some pieces and I wait until it’s verified by somebody before I push it out again. I enjoy showing people through,’’ she said.

After 22 years, retirement is beckoning, although Ms Butcher admits she keeps pushing it back.

She has dropped down to three days a week — ‘‘I can’t go cold turkey’’ — and a new postmistress is in training.

Ms Butcher’s time as postmistress is set to be immortalised in a new television series, Shepherdess, which launched last week.

The show celebrates women living in rural areas of New Zealand and features three women per episode.

Episode 2, which airs on Freeview Channel 15 and Sky Channel 4, features Ms Butcher, as well as women from Lauder and Omakau.