Catching up with the “Mailbox Lady” – Denise Stoughton on her Uniquely Bainbridge Project

Denise StoughtonLast June we published an article on a new Facebook Group called Uniquely Bainbridge/Fabulous Mailboxes and Other Interesting Totems, which was created by interior designer, artist and writer, Denise Stoughton.

A little background on Denise’s fascination with mailboxes: Denise frequently noticed and admired several creative mailboxes on her daily walks with her dogs, “I’d look at an unusual box and think wow, someone put a ton of effort into creating that, why? Who would do that?” she told me. “Plus, there are just so many, I wondered, is it a ‘thing’ on the island?”

When it comes to creativity, Denise is an obsessive observationalist and the mailboxes had captured her attention and imagination. In April 2022 she decided to start a project revolving around the mailboxes and the people and stories that brought them to life. In addition to the Facebook page, Denise is working on a book, which is tentatively titled “The Fabulous Mailboxes of Bainbridge Island”. Strom Family Packard MailboxesTo get her project started, she posted a query about the unique mailboxes on Bainbridge Islanders Facebook page, asking for leads—and she got them, lots and lots of them. Now, more than six months later, Denise has written more than 50 mailbox essays, telling their stories with accompanying pictures, which she’s published on her Uniquely Bainbridge Facebook page. But it hasn’t stopped there…

Getting the book started…Since she didn’t know anything about publishing a book, she relied on the advice of others, consulting Maureen McQuerry, a local writer, who she’d taken a writing class from at Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network (BARN). “I loved her practical approach to writing and tapped her for anything she could tell me – I’m glad I did! Among many great suggestions, Maureen also suggested I self-publish as this is a local interest gift book and so I am.,” Denise said. However, as a self-funded project, she quickly realized she would need additional financial support, and decided to create a Announcing Lee Eisman image courtesy of Denise StoughtonGoFundMe to assist in the publication costs. It was a good decision, and as she noted, “every donation is meaningful!”

Denise also recruited Lee Eiseman, who is a color specialist and executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, and a former Bainbridge Islander, to write the foreword for the new book.

On “almost” getting arrested…In order to find all these mailboxes, Denise spends a lot of time driving slowly and methodically around the island in search of creative mailboxes, and in our June article she jokingly said, “I want everyone to know I’m in a white VW Beetle, don’t call 911.” However, as she Denise and BIPD Officer Bill Shields image courtesy of Denise Stoughtonnoted, it really was just a matter of time before someone did call them. On a sunny September day, she found herself on Arrow Point Road surrounded by two of the four patrol cars that were out looking for her.

“Even though I anticipated this when it actually happened, my heart was racing and I can attest Officer Bill Shields can be very imposing when he wants to be, after all mail theft is a federal offense!” she recalled. Once she explained the situation, Denise and the officers had a good laugh about it, with one officer exclaiming, “This is so Bainbridge! This is the most Bainbridge thing to happen to me on duty in months!”

After collecting herself, she asked if she could get a selfie with the officers, then rushed home and wrote the whole experience up for an article in the Bainbridge Review (she’s a contributing writer for them). Since then, whenever she’s out searching for mailboxes, people will stop and ask if she’s the “Mailbox Lady” (which she just loves!).

Photographs and Illustrations…Denise had initially planned on using a professional photographer for the book, but after discussing the plan with a few local photographers she was told her iPhone pictures were as good as any they’d take, so why bother with the expense—and as an avid follower of her Shelley Wallace YlstFacebook page, I’d have to agree. But why stop there? “Over time the mailboxes seemed to come alive with personality not unlike characters out of a book,” she said. “Regarding them in this animated way I felt they naturally lent themselves to being artistically rendered.”

She started researching local illustrators, but quickly realized their work was so recognizable that it might detract from the uniqueness she wanted to convey.  Scouring her Instagram connections, she came across Shelley Wallace Ylst, an artist living in Utah, who’d actually visited Bainbridge years ago. Denise loved the gentle watercolor images that Shelley created and felt Shelley’s talents would be the perfect addition to the book. “She (Shelley) said yes citing excitement for the project because it’s so different than anything else she’s done,” Denise recalled, “and because she simply thought it would be interesting and fun.” In the five months they’ve worked together, Shelley has already completed seven mailbox illustrations, five of which are already being sold on gift products on Denise’s newly created (more on the gift shop later).

Kindred Spirit Mailbox Bird Island, North Caroline image courtesy of Denise StoughtonKindred Spirit Mailbox…Recently, an east coast friend casually asked Denise, “Have you heard of the famous Kindred Spirit mailbox?” After a bit of research, she discovered that the Kindred Spirit Mailbox, located along a 1.5 mile stretch of beach on Bird Island, North Carolina, contains a continuous supply of journals, where people can write down their thoughts, dreams, prayers, heartaches and even confessions. The journals are left in the mailbox and people have been baring their souls in them for decades. Today the “filled” journals are archived at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, but there’s always a current journal in the mail box, awaiting the next visitor.

“I saw a parallel between the Fabulous Mailboxes of Bainbridge Island stories I’ve been collecting and so carefully scribing for inclusion in the book and the collection of stories in the Kindred Spirit Mailbox journals and how interesting that while distinctly different entities, a mailbox, storytelling, human connection and shared humanity are the common denominators,” she said.

Bainbridge Island Flower mailboxes image by Denise StoughtonAnd of course, another idea began to percolate. “I felt in my heart Bainbridge would embrace an idea like this and it seemed to me having a Kindred Spirit on both coasts is balanced – a perfect symmetry of kindred spirits,” she said. “I reached out to the Bainbridge Island Metro Parks and Recreation Department and they agreed so we are in the process of working together to (hopefully) find the perfect location on parks department property. It’s also been suggested that perhaps one of the Road Ends might work (city property). Just getting a green light from the parks department felt validating!”

Bainbridge Island Dog mailboxes images by Denise Stoughton“When Denise first made a presentation about the Kindred Spirit Mailbox to the Parks Board of Commissioners, I could feel her passion and joy around this project,” said Dawn Janow, BIMPRD Commissioner. “As I’ve learned more, it’s a project of love, connection, and the environment. How wonderful it would be to come upon a contemplative place to read others stories and share our own hopes, dreams and thoughts. It would be a privilege to provide a home, and mailbox, to such a space within our Park District. Stay tuned!”

Denise also reached out to Dick Strom, a metal sculptor and long-time islander and he agreed to be part of the project creating a unique stand for the new Kindred Spirit Mailbox. In addition, the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum has offered to archive any journals from the BI Kindred Spirit Mailbox when the time comes.

Another series of events made it possible for Denise to not only visit Bird Island and the Kindred Spirit Mailbox (where she added her own story to the journal), but it also allowed her to reconnect with her friend, who introduced her to the mailbox, and hosted Denise at her home during her visit.

Visiting the Kindred Spirit Journal Archives at the University of NC, Wilmington-William Madison Randall Library image courtesy of Denise StoughtonHer journey to North Carolina included a stop by the University’s Special Collection Archive at the William Madison Randall Library to view the archived Kindred Spirit journals. “There are so many that you must request them by year and month. The archivist recommended I look at 2020 as so many visited the mailbox during the pandemic and the entries were rife with emotion,” Denise explained. “While you’re not allowed to take photos of the journals, you can take notes which I did. I’d like to include some of these touching and inspirational entries in my book as I will be including a section on the Kindred Spirit.”

Uniquely Bainbridge logoLaunch of Uniquelybainbridge.comDenise launched the website to give Uniquely Bainbridge/Fabulous Mailboxes and Other Interesting Totems a permanent home outside of social media. In doing so, she was able to create Uniquely Bainbridge products with Shelley’s Uniquely Bainbridge store productsillustrations, such as notecards, mugs, magnets, Christmas and front door ornaments and coasters. The website includes stories, images, illustrations and offers a monthly newsletter (click here to sign up for the newsletter). “I spend thoughtful time and effort creating content for the newsletter – it’s fun, upbeat and informative and like to think it makes your inbox a little happier,” she said. “I write in depth about the Fabulous Mailboxes’ milestones, announcements and updates such as introducing the illustrator, announcing Lee Eiseman is writing the foreword, writing about the trip to the Kindred Spirit, sneak peaks at new products and more!”

She will also offer the Fabulous Mailboxes of Bainbridge Island book on the Uniquely Bainbridge website when it comes out at the end of this year.

Micah Strom mailbox image courtesy of Denise StoughtonMailbox stories and tips…Much to Denise’s delight, her mailbox quest has gone national, and she receives stories of mailboxes from far and wide. On a local level, Bainbridge residents have been sending her photos of mailboxes they’ve come across (I personally sent her a picture of Poulsbo Fire Department’s Medic Truck mailbox). “Months ago, someone sent me a photo of an amazing hand-painted vintage watering can mailbox in the Fletcher Bay neighborhood,” she recalled. “I followed up the next day and when I rang the bell it turned out to be the home of another member of the Strom family, Micah Strom and Janelle Hanrahan. I’d profiled two other Strom family mailboxes, the 1949 Packard and the Bob’s Big Boy. Janelle exclaimed, ‘How’d you know about our mailbox, it’s only been up for less than 48 hours!'”

She also noted that it was through the mailbox “lovers” community that she learned of the Mailbox Peak located in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and the Kindred Spirit in North Carolina, “but I also get many interesting photos and stories of mailboxes across the country and beyond. On Instagram, I’m followed by @mailboxes_of_newzealand and @mailboxpoetry which I believe is out of the UK.”

Lighthouse Mailbox pre and post storm images by Denise StoughtonOne of her favorite stories revolve around a text she recently received from Malia Kelly. “Malia and her husband Derek Gallichote own the Lighthouse Mailbox on Crystal Springs Road. The tongue-in-cheek text read, ‘Hi Denise! Derek and I feel that you need to be the first to hear the sad news. We lost our Lighthouse last night in the windstorm…it was so shocking to see it lying in the ditch this morning!! Stay tuned for Lighthouse Mailbox 2.0! WE have to replace the mailbox YOU made famous, after all!’”

Denise StoughtonDenise Is especially thankful for thegood vibes, enthusiastic support and community which has come my way since embarking on the Fabulous Mailboxes journey.” The mailbox families she encountered have become an extended family for her, “It feels good to drive around the island and feel more than a superficial connection when I pass a home where I’ve interviewed an owner about their mailbox because I always learn more about them than one might expect through the mailbox interviews. My heart is full.” 

“The journey of working on the Fabulous Mailboxes book has been its own reward. I’ve met people along the path who restored my faith that there might just be enough good left in this world to balance out the bad. I’ve been reminded of the heart-healing importance of human connection and lucky enough to have grown my Bainbridge Island tribe to include truly awesome people.” – Denise Stoughton

wl mailbox image courtesy of Denise StoughtonIf you’d like to donate, click here:

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To read our previous article: Uniquely Bainbridge – Our Curiously Creative Mailboxes | THE ISLAND WANDERER


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