Local post is alive and well on a small Lake Erie Island
by Nora Bryson
Planning your visit to the Great American Stamp Show in Cleveland? Make time to visit the main stage at 3 PM on August 11 if you want to witness philatelic history. Postmaster General Dave Gill and artist Beth Gregerson will unveil the designs for the 2023 issue of the Rattlesnake Island Local Post, and you don’t want to miss it.
Rattlesnake Island is a tiny island off the coast of Ohio with a fascinating postal history – for much of the last 60 years, it’s been the home of the only local post service in the U.S. In 1966, after years of petitioning the U.S. Post Office Department to deliver mail to Rattlesnake Island, Dr. James Frackelton took matters into his own hands and created Rattlesnake Island Local Post (RILP). This private enterprise was responsible for carrying mail to and from the Port Clinton, Ohio post office. Year-round inhabitants of the island and Island Airlines (a flying service that already ferried packages, passengers, and mail around the Lake Erie islands) assisted Frackelton with the post.
Dr. James Frackelton, founder of RILP and organizer of its first revitalization in 2005.
RILP’s inception caused quite a stir, among philatelists and at the Justice Department, which challenged the service. Eventually, however, they ruled that because the USPOD would not deliver mail to Rattlesnake Island, RILP was within its rights to continue service, with a few conditions. One such condition was RILP’s trademark triangular stamps, meant to be easily distinguishable from U.S. stamps. The mandated design change caused a scramble to adjust the original rectangular stamps and continue service, but it was also a philatelic gift. In forcing differentiation, the USPOD opened the door to a beautiful geometry typically unseen in U.S. stamps, attracting collectors worldwide. From the hexagonal patterns in the sheets to a trapezoidal grouping of three (canceled with the classic diamond stamp) to a single equilateral triangle, RILP stamps are eye-catching in every form.
The first issue of RILP stamps (top) was rectangular, sending USPOD into a tizzy because of their similarity to U.S. stamps. Subsequently, RILP stamps were issued in the shape of equilateral triangles (bottom), allowing easier differentiation. Mail from the “stampless” era of late 1966 to early 1967 was hand-franked.
Originally in service from 1966 to 1989, again briefly from 2005 to 2010 under Frackelton’s direction, and now again under PMG Dave Gill, RILP continues to enthrall because it is a rarity when local posts are all but extinct. Gill tells me that many collectors he meets seem to think that local posts are extinct or that RILP is in the business of producing Cinderellas – quite the contrary. As of 2022, RILP is officially back in business.
A life-long resident of Port Clinton, now retired from a career in marine construction, Gill is largely responsible for bringing about RILP’s second renaissance. Strangely enough, though, Gill was not even aware of RILP until 2000 – even though he attended elementary school down the street from Island Airlines. He often heard the flying service’s famous Ford Trimotor, the Tin Goose, going on its rounds.
“You couldn’t help but hear those three loud engines taking off,” he says. “After a while, you didn’t think much about it. So ironic that the planes were flying by over my head full of RILP mail, and I never knew about it!”
While searching eBay for U.S. stamps, Gill instead came across RILP issues and discovered his local post . Intrigued, he tracked down The History & Local Post of Rattlesnake Island, Lake Erie by John Wells and then found Bob Fritz (who was the son of the Port Clinton Postmaster during the early days of RILP, and also a classmate of Gill’s stepmother). Gill’s interest grew over the years, He became an avid collector and historian, acquiring every sheet issued, interviewing Frackelton in 2007 during the first revitalization of RILP and purchasing two of the most extensive RILP collections – those of Fritz and Wells.
“At this point, I started considering what it would take to restart RILP?” Gill says. “Being retired with plenty of time available, I dove headfirst down the rabbit hole in 2022, pursuing all leads as to who owned the rights to RILP.”
Thomas Griffing III (pilot and president of Griffing Flying Service, which now holds RILP's delivery contract), Dave Gill (Postmaster General, RILP), Beth Gregerson (artist & designer, Beth Lynne Designs), and Keith Folk (Postmaster/General Manager, RILP/Rattlesnake Island Club) pose on the first day of renewed service, November 10, 2022.
Unfortunately for Gill, there were many trials on the horizon. Finding information on how to get started, let alone the materials and machinery to do so, was nearly impossible. Gill had almost given up hope on the project when he met Beth Gregerson, an artist who had worked with Frackelton on the 2007-2010 issues. Gregerson had plenty of insights to share and eagerly agreed to design the 2022 issue with the theme of “Lake Erie Island Ferries.” A personal tragedy – the passing of Gill’s father, Ken, in June – led to an expanded theme: “Commercial Vessels Serving Rattlesnake Island.” The issue now featured two ferries and the Ken Gill Construction crane, barge, and push boat, a tribute to Ken Gill’s life and the construction company he founded and his son ran for many years.
Gill also wanted to honor his mother, Jayne, a philatelist in her own right who began collecting at age 75 and who passed away unexpectedly in January of 2022. He chose November 10, what would have been her 80th birthday, as the first day of issue for the 2022 stamps. Of all the work he’s done to bring back RILP, he says he’s most proud of being able to honor them both in the 2022 issue, making them a part of RILP’s history.
Collectors of RILP stamps and covers may know that the 2022 issue originally had roulette-esque perforations, nothing like earlier issues. It was a disaster for Gill, who set out to make new issues as similar to the early designs as possible.
“There was a miscommunication between the printing and finishing company,” he says. “I scrambled to find another print finishing company to apply perf 12 perforations properly, but I couldn’t find any in time. With the release date approaching, I had to stick with what I had.”
After the issue debuted, Gill found The Portland Stamp Company (co-owned by fellow RILP enthusiast Niko Courtelis); their old-style, foot-operated Rosback in-line perforating machine seemed to be what the stamps needed. Gill says that the stamps produced by the company turned out exactly right; hunch confirmed he tracked down his own Rosback, purchased it, and restored it. All future issues – including the 2023 issue – will feature bespoke perforations by Gill himself.
The original issue of the 2022 RILP stamps (left) featured less-than-perfect perforations. May 2023 saw the debut of the perf 12 version of the issue (right). All future issues will be similarly perforated.
And about that 2023 issue: at GASS 2023, the story of RILP will continue, and you can be a part of it. On Friday, August 11, at 3 PM, Gill and Gregerson will unveil the latest designs from RILP on the main stage in Cleveland. The 2023 issue of three stamps will commemorate the Battle of Lake Erie, which occurred just west of Rattlesnake Island in 1813. Frackelton had hoped to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the battle in 2013, but due to his failing health, plans were made but never finished.
“These designs have been on the drawing board for over ten years,” Gill says. “I wanted to honor Dr. Frackelton’s final wish in regard to RILP and get this issue finished with Beth. We’ll be quite proud to unveil the artwork in Cleveland.”
Before his passing, Frackelton asked for one of the stamps of the issue to feature the flag Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry flew from the Niagara during the battle (now enshrined at the Naval Academy in Annapolis). The flag, which reads “Dont [sic] Give Up the Ship,” has become a hallowed creed for both the Navy and Ohioans, who proudly fly reproductions all along the coast of Lake Erie. According to Gill, Gregerson has produced a design between the modern editions of the flag and the original to pay homage to both traditions.
To learn more about the other two designs, you’ll have to visit GASS on Friday for the grand unveiling. In honor of Frackelton’s vision, the first day of issue for the 2023 stamps will be on Rattlesnake Island on Sunday, September 10, 2023 – the 210th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie.
Gill and Gregerson will fly flag for RILP at GASS at Table 716. Drop by to add to your collection and talk about Rattlesnake Island with two of the RILP’s greatest modern champions. Be sure to ask Gill about his plans for future issues (like the 100th birthdays of both Frackelton and the Ford Trimotor) and the 2026 release of the third edition of Wells’ book, revised and updated by Gill, to coincide with the 60th anniversary of RILP.
Pilot Thomas Griffing III checks the mailbox on Rattlesnake Island.
A lot has changed for Rattlesnake Island Local Post since 1966, and likely those changes will keep coming. But as long as Gill can keep the pedal of the Rosback pumping and RILP enthusiasts continue to tell this inspiring story, local posts in the U.S. will live on.
How to purchase RILP stamps:
There are plenty of options for those looking to start or add to their RILP collection. Collectors can visit RILP.org to view and purchase original stamps from all three eras of the RILP (including the 2023 “Battle of Lake Erie” stamps), errors, current FDCs, and postcards. The same items (or an order form) can be requested by mail: RILP, PO Box 45, Gypsum, OH 43433.
For more information:
If you would like to learn more about the history of RILP, the APRL is a great place to start. The library holds several copies of John Wells' The History and Local Post of Rattlesnake Island, Lake Erie, which comes highly recommended by Dave Gill. This author can also personally recommend Rattlesnake Island, Ohio: Modern History and Local Post Cover Guide by Timothy J. Barbour, as well as the variety of papers on the subject held by the library and contributed by APS members. Members can visit the American Philatelic Center in Bellefonte to use the library or can request most items by mail.