A little ZIP of our own

Back in 1963 our little farm town of Kamrar located about halfway between Ames and Fort Dodge didn’t get much respect. I was 15 at the time and of all the towns we had lived in, Kamrar was the smallest.

Fifteen years earlier, in 1948, the Kamrar Komettes had earned the town a great deal of respect and notoriety by winning the Iowa girls’ high school basketball championship. That same spring the Komettes beat the Texas state champs in a “national” championship game. The proof massive trophies and a near life size portrait of the championship team was proudly displayed in a prominent spot in the local school.

The town had lost its high school, however, after the Class of 1961 was graduated. The Class of 1962 had only two students.

Kamrar wouldn’t even have a fire department for a few more years. One afternoon sometime in the early ’60s, the fire siren sounded and several local men responded by hand-pulling a hose cart to douse a grass fire behind the local grain elevator.

In my grandfather’s day Kamrar had a busy main street but by 1963 the business district had dwindled to just a handful of businesses. Most traffic on the county roads running through Kamrar was just passing through.

Then in the spring of 1963 there came an announcement which would give our little burg a bit of respect. On April 30, 1963, U.S. Postmaster General John A. Gronouski announced that on July 1 that year the postal service would implement the ZIP Code program. That summer we went from simple Kamrar, Iowa, to Kamrar IA 50132. It may have seemed inconsequential to residents of larger communities, but I saw it as something positive. Kamrar now had its very own ZIP Code.

Before long “50132” appeared on the window of our post office, which was housed in Elton Brill’s seed store and where Elton himself was the postmaster.

Kamrar has had its ups and downs over the years but, doggone it, it’s still Kamrar IA 50132.

I remember the advent of the ZIP Code program quite well. Obviously, there wasn’t much else going on in my life in 1963 to muddle my memory.

As the 50th anniversary of the ZIP Code program approached, however, I became curious about how the ZIP Code system came about.

When our nation’s postal system was begun its largest volume of mail was social correspondence. By the early 1960s, business mail constituted 80 percent of total volume.

Mechanization helped handle increasing volumes of mail but more help was needed. In June 1962 the Advisory Board of the Post Office Department recommended the development of a coding system to enhance the efficiency of mail delivery. Over the years, several potential coding programs had been studied and abandoned. You may recall the city zone program established in larger cities in 1943. Remember “Chicago, 3, Illinois?”

The Post Office Department finally settled on the Zoning Improvement Plan (ZIP) Code. Transportation centers were set up in 85 of the nation’s larger cities and a core of 552 sectional centers, each serving between 40 and 150 surrounding post offices, was established.

By July 1963, a five-digit code had been assigned to every address throughout the country. The first digit designated a broad geographical area of the U.S., ranging from zero in the Northeast to nine for the far West. This was followed by two digits which more closely pinpointed population concentrations and the sectional centers. The final two digits designated small post offices or postal zones in larger cities.

Though the ZIP Code system was established in 1963, the Post Office didn’t make its use mandatory until 1967 when it required mailers of second and third-class mail to presort by ZIP Code.

Today there are 41,810 total U.S. ZIP Codes. California has the most ZIP Codes 2,602. Tiny Rhode Island has the fewest only 90.

So now you know how Kamrar, Iowa, became Kamrar IA 50132 and how your post office got its ZIP Code. It happened 50 years ago.