Long live the Queen
Longtime Big Sky Post Office Station Manager Jean Palmer readies for retirement
Behind the scenes on a relatively-calm offseason afternoon at the Big Sky Community Post Office, Jean Palmer was busy sorting through a stack of change of address forms. Not her favorite task, she admitted, but an important one nonetheless.
Palmer has been with the post office for more than three decades, but like all good things, there must be an end. Once she finds the right staff to ensure her post is filled, Palmer will be heading for the hills, so to speak.
With retirement in sight, Palmer was happy to sit down to chat about her long postal career and love for Big Sky. It all started back in 1974, when Big Sky Resort first welcomed skiers to the slopes of Lone Mountain and word began to spread. Palmer took the passenger train from Saint Paul, Minn., to Bozeman to see what the talk was all about.
“It was my first mountain experience, and it was good,” said Palmer, happy to chat about mountain days long gone. “I mean, Mr. K, it was called Killifer at the time, just went on and on and on. And that was when they had the gondolas. It was so much fun. That hooked me.”
Lone Mountain Trail was a dirt road when Palmer made Big Sky her new home.
“You had one car to go skiing, the beater of beaters, and you had one car to go to town,” she explained.
Dates come easily when Palmer’s asked how long she’s officially been in Big Sky—she came here from Minnesota in 1976, which makes 42 years in the ever-growing ski town.
“Which is really fun,” she said with a chuckle. But she wasn’t always the face of the post office. Palmer’s first job was for Triple Creek Realty as a maid, living in a log cabin in the Canyon with eight of her co-workers. She eventually purchased the cabin.
She married her Saint Paul sweetheart, John Palmer, in ’77.
“He couldn’t live without me, so he followed me out,” Palmer said. “I knew I was going to stay here. I knew it was something that was in my blood.”
She did suffer from homesickness, but it was a bigger pull to remain in Big Sky than to return to the midwest.
While she may not have guessed she’d eventually begin a long-term career with the Postal Service, that’s ultimately where Palmer found her calling.
The early Big Sky Post Office was located in a corner of the Country Market, when 300 postal boxes were enough to serve the community. Palmer was employed at the market then, and when Christmas rolled around she lent a hand at the post office. Since then, the post office has remained in the Meadow Village, but has lived in five different spots within that small zone.
Nineteen years ago, the Big Sky Community Post Office, with its 1,661 post office boxes, found its current home under Gallatin Partners. That’s when Palmer took on the role of station manager, amping up from her previous postal roles as part-time, fill-in and vacation helper.
Skiing still remains a passion for Palmer—in fact, that’s how she got her nickname, “Queen Jean.”
Back in 1999, you could say she was, as fellow Minnesotan Prince had described, “partying like it was 1999.” That was the year she skied so much she was crowned “Dirtbag Queen,” a title which holds serious weight in the Big Sky Resort ski community.
“It was the best year of my life, I have to say,” said the former Dirtbag Queen. “I skied more days than I worked.”
Along with her “Queen Jean” moniker, Palmer’s well aware of her other, postal-related nickname and reputation: “Mean Jean.” She said she understands some people might see her as a meanie at the post office, but she faces a unique challenge when it comes to mail in Big Sky, in monitoring who actually lives here year-round.
“Our biggest problem is the people that come in believing, demanding they have a PO box because they bought a condo here, and they think that means they get a free PO box,” Palmer explained. “But that’s not it at all. We have over 25,000 houses, condos in this area, so there’s never going to be that many PO boxes. It’s not that we’re being righteous.”
The solution, said Palmer, is for people to utilize general delivery at the post office.
“We like general delivery because we get to see the people,” she said. “Once someone moves to a box, we never see them until they get a yellow package slip.”
Frustrations aside, Palmer said she does truly enjoy her job, and “I love the people. I love my customers, especially the old-timers, the legends, they are the best of the best,” she said, tearing up at the thought. “There are so many that are selling and moving away, so that’s been hard for me. I want to welcome the new people, and cheer and be happy for them, but when my old customers leave, it’s so hard to close out their boxes that have been here for so many years.”
While she wishes she had a specific date in mind for her last day at the post office, Palmer—who just celebrated her 66th birthday—said she won’t leave her post until she’s got the right staff to run the office.
“I’m very tired. It’s hard to work six days a week here,” she said, noting that she’ll likely take on fewer shifts this winter until retirement really comes.
And when it does, Palmer doesn’t plan to head too far from home.
“I’m going to Three Forks,” she said. “To the headwaters of the Missouri. And I’m going to sleep for a long time. Oh, and ski.”