Rattlesnake Island Local Post by John R. Grow M.D.

At the western end of Lake Erie lies a small archipelago known as the Lake Erie Islands. Three of the larger islands lie in a north-south alignment: North, Middle, and South Bass Islands, the latter being the best-known due to the town of Put-In-Bay, a popular tourist mecca in the summer months. Lying approximately 2-miles to the west of Middle Bass Island and 11-12 miles north-northeast of Port Clinton, Ohio, is an 85 acre island known as Rattlesnake Island, little-known until 1966, when it become the location of the only airmail local post in the United States.

Historically, the area was first home to the Erie Indians, then the Ottawa and Huron's, and later the Iroquois. It is thought the island received it's name from these Native Americans due to distinctive rock formations on the island; while others say it was due to timber rattlesnakes which were prevalent on the island at that time. It wasn't until the United States' second war with England, the War of 1812, that the area was finally taken over by settlers. The former native inhabitants were translocated to reservations in Kansas, and, later, Oklahoma.

During the War of 1812, the area first received prominence. The invading British had been using the bay at South Bass Island as a base of operations, calling it Pudding Bay. On September 10th, 1812, that changed when Lt. Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie, and uttered the immortal line "We have met the enemy and they are ours….." Subsequently, Pudding Bay became Put-In-Bay.

Legally, since colonial times, the Lake Erie Islands were part of the Firelands Section of the Connecticut Land Company's western reserve. In 1854, Abigail Dunning of Hartford, Connecticut, sold Rattlesnake Island to Horace Kelley of Cleveland, Ohio. Soon thereafter, post offices were established on South Bass Island (1860), North Bass Island (1864), and Middle Bass Island (1864). Rattlesnake Island was largely uninhabited at the time.

The modern history of Rattlesnake Island began with the purchase of the island about 1929 by Herbert Bennett, the owner of the Toledo Scale Company, who developed the island by putting in a lodge, harbor, and east-west landing strip. A second north-south landing strip was added in the 1950's by a Catholic order. In 1959, the island was sold to James P. Frackelton, M.D., a Cleveland surgeon and owner of the Cleveland Stamp and Coin Company, and Robert C. Schull, a stockbroker. Subsequently, Dr. Frackelton applied to the U. S. Post Office Department under Title 18 for the establishment of a local post for the island, as repeated requests for regular mail service had been denied.

The history of local posts (private mail-carrying entities) in the United States goes back to colonial times. Their popularity peaked in the first half of the 19th century. By the early 1860's, the expanding Post Office Department had made them largely obsolete. Arguably, the most famous of them all was the Pony Express, which existed from April, 1861, to October, 1862, replaced by the telegraph. The story of modern local posts began with the success of Herman "Pat" Hearst's Shrub Oak Local Post, Shrub Oak, New York, in 1953. Since then, there have been at least 127 others documented, including Rattlesnake Island Local Post.

In the early days, mail was delivered to the island by boat in the summer, and horse-drawn sleigh in the winter. Many a harrowing story was associated with these methods. By 1959, Ralph Dietrick, a veteran World War II pilot, and owner of Island Airways, was providing mail service to North, Middle, and South Bass Islands utilizing the famous Ford Trimotor, or "Tin Goose," as it was affectionately known. This service was enlisted by Rattlesnake Island Local Post upon it's inception, adding not a little bit of philatelic and aeronautical romance to the story. So much so, in fact, that the 1966, 1967, and later the 20th Anniversary stamps all pictured the Ford Trimotor on them, as well as one of the rubber handstamps applied to most mail.

Approval from the Post Office Department was finally obtained in 1966, and the first stamps, rectangular in shape, were issued on August 27th in three denominations: .05¢ for postcards, .10¢ for letters, and .25¢ for bulk postage - all three in perforate and imperforate form, a practice which was to continue with each years' issue (fig.1). The .05¢ stamp (black and light gray with red text) depicted a map of the island; the .10¢ stamp (pale green with black text) depicted the Ford Trimotor approaching the island; and the .25¢ stamp (pale blue with black text) depicted a boat at the island's dock. Dr. Frackelton, the designer of the stamps, thought the colors, particularly on the .10¢ and .25¢ stamps, were too light. A second printing was ordered with darker colors, and these appeared in September, 1966. Of course, additional U. S. postage had to be applied to each item in order to effect entrance into the U. S. postal system at Port Clinton, Ohio (the 1st class letter rate was then .05¢).

Figure 1 - Inaugural 1966 Rectangular Stamps, 1st Printing

However, on December 9th, 1966, Dr. Frackelton received a telephone call from the Post Office Department, followed by a letter on December 12th, indicating that Rattlesnake Island Local Post was in violation of Section 475 of Title 18 of the U. S. Postal Code, and was ordered to cease operations. Subsequent investigation revealed that the rectangular stamps were too similar to then current U. S. postage. This was remedied by the resourceful Dr. Frackelton by using the same designs in a triangular form, which won approval. On January 23rd, 1967, the first Rattlesnake Island triangular stamps were issued (fig. 2).

Figure 2 - 1967 First Triangular Stamps

The period between December 9th, 1966, and January 22nd, 1967, would become known as "the stampless period." All mail during this time was simply franked in handwritten script "Fee Paid." These items are highly sought after by collectors (fig.3).

Figure 3 - Cover from "Stampless Period"

With the pattern of 3 triangular stamps, perforate and imperforate, issued each year, Rattlesnake Island Local Post became well-known to collectors worldwide. Each sheet consisted of 20 stamps, and, starting with the first triangular issues of 1967, each sheet bore a plate number. Plate blocks of the triangular issues of 6-stamps with appropriate selvage. FDC's consist of two types: those postally used (fig.4), and CTO's, all bearing the Rattlesnake Island and Port Clinton, Ohio, postmarks. These attractive stamps were designed by Dr. Frackelton (1966-72), Bernice Kochan (1973-77), Trisha Marcum (1978), and Robert Eisenbarth (1979-89).

Figure 4 - FDC of First Triangular Stamps Signed By James P. Frackelton, M. D.

In 1986, on the 20th anniversary of Rattlesnake Island Local Post, in addition to the standard 3-new designs for the year, a 20th Anniversary Folder was produced by designer Robert Eisenbarth. A special 20th Anniversary stamp, perforate and imperforate, was produced solely for this folder. The stamp design depicted a map of the island with the Ford Trimotor flying over it against a blue background (fig.5).

Figure 5 - The Inside of the 20th Anniversary Folder (Reduced copy).

Unfortunately, there were a total of 3-postal rate increases over the span of the 24 years that Rattlesnake Island Local Post existed. The final rate increase occurred in 1981, and, by that time, the postcard rate had increased to $1.00, the letter rate to $1.50 (the U.S. 1st class letter rate was .25¢ at the time), and the bulk rate to $2.00. When one considers that a full set of 3-stamps, perforate and imperforate, had jumped from .80¢ in 1966 to $9.00 in 1989, and a full set of sheets from $16.00 to $180.00, it was inevitable that economic concerns seriously began to affect the market. As a result, the stamps from the 1980's are the more difficult to find today and are avidly sought after by collectors. These economic concerns, coupled with the sale of the island in 1989, brought to a close this colorful chapter of philatelic history. In 1998-99, Dr. Frackelton and 65 other investors repurchased the island, but, as of yet, there has been no revival of Rattlesnake Island Local Post.

In 2003, Rattlesnake Island philately was "put on the map," so to speak, with the publication of The History and Local Post of Rattlesnake Island Lake Erie, a book by John Wells, who not only gave a detailed history of the subject, but also provided the first full-colored catalog of the stamps. Prior to that, the only cataloging of the stamps was a 7-8 page loose-leaf, unpublished, handout, "The Schultz Catalog," which was generously provided by William R. Schultz of West Chester, Pennsylvania, to other interested collectors.

My most cherished Rattlesnake Island pieces are 3-oversized covers addressed to Dr. Emily Brown, a retired dentist from Elgin, Illinois. They are FDC's of the 1966 stamps, 1st printing, imperforate, in full sheets (fig.6). They are reportedly unique in that she was the only individual to order full sheets on cover at that time.

Figure 6 - The 25¢ Dr. Emily Brown Oversized Cover (Cropped and Reduced to Fit Page)

Wells, John, The History and Local Post of Rattlesnake Island Lake Erie, Able Publishing, 2003

Fritz, Bob, "The Local Post Stamps of Rattlesnake Island," Ohio Postal History Society Journal, March, 1998; Scott Stamp Monthly, September, 1998.

Schultz, William R., "Rattlesnake Island Local Post, Rattlesnake Island, Ohio," Unpublished Manuscript, 4th Edition, 1985.

Senkus, William M., website at L is for Local Stamps , 2004

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Posted November 9, 2004 RR