At one time, Australia had many small post offices, most of which have been closed over the decades largely due to economic challenges. Leaving aside the financial aspect, these places were, and still are, important community hubs for socialising and networking, and efforts are being made to save those that are currently at risk.
Some have hung on, against the odds. In the Northern Rivers, there has been an element of rivalry between the districts of Rock Valley and Empire Vale, both located within an hour’s drive of each other, as to which has Australia’s smallest post office. The third contender of a similar size is at Montacute, in the Adelaide Hills. Australia Post gave the award to Rock Valley in a 1995 article in the Australasian Post magazine.
Then, in 2012 Rock Valley’s much-loved post office suddenly burned down, and was rebuilt following a community fundraising effort, with help from the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW. Today, if Rock Valley’s generous three-sided verandah is taken into account, Empire Vale is now arguably the smallest of the three. Unlike Rock Valley, which operates under a contract to deliver mail, Empire Vale is a licensed post office.
To reach Empire Vale involves taking the ferry across the Richmond that links West Ballina to South Ballina, or alternatively heading north from the Pacific Highway near Wardell. Following this second route, the road hugs the eastern side of the Richmond River, and at times the river view is wide and unobstructed by vegetation. On the right are views across the cane and soya field towards the Pacific Ocean about three kilometres away. Heading along this quiet scenic backwater, it is strange to think that it once used to be the main highway until 1964, when the Wardell Bridge was opened.
The post office appears on the left, a building about the size of a small garden shed set back a few metres from the road. Compared to the new Rock Valley PO, with its generous parking area, this feels much more sleepy.
Outside the door is a small noticeboard, and a mini solar panel is attached to the edge of the verandah facing north. An Australia Post basket has some small sweet potatoes that are being given away, and I take a few. Opposite is Empire Vale Public School.
The district of Empire Vale has gone through a few different names, originally being known as Pimlico South as a counterpart to the village of North Pimlico (today Pimlico) on the west side of the Richmond. In 1895, the name changed to German Creek as a reflection of the number of Germans who had settled there. During World War I, anti-German feeling led to such place names across Australia being changed, and in 1914 it became Empire Vale. Curiously, two early news reports refer to it as ‘Empireville.’
Because I visited on a Sunday, I missed meeting up with the postmaster Gary Carr, who has been doing the job for decades. In a recent interview for the Blackwall Bugle, he stated that he has around a hundred regular customers. Over the phone, he mentioned that business hours are 9am-11am, and 3pm-5pm. Gary also runs the Keith Hall Community Postal Agency from his home three kilometres up the road, an outlet that appears to be even more of a backwater than Empire Vale, judging from the fact that it only opens for seven hours per week.