Rural Free Delivery Brought Mail to Rural Communities

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Pulling a wagon mounted on sled runners

Every day (except Sundays and holidays), those of us who live in the country walk to the mailbox and collect our mail. The rural mail carrier delivers letters, packages, magazines, and picks up any mail we want to send, all free of charge to us. Postage fees are the same whether a piece of mail is delivered to a mailbox 20 miles from town, or picked up at the Post Office.

We accept the daily arrival of the mailman as a matter of course, even complaining when he (or just as often, now, she) is late. Very few people remember the days before Rural Free Delivery. One man who did, William Groves, wrote in the 1960s: “I was playing under the apple tree with my toys when I noticed a man in a buggy driving a team of horses along our rutted, dusty country road. The stranger stopped his team at the corner of our driveway, took some papers out of a sack, and deposited them in a tin box, which my father only that morning had nailed to a convenient post. I ran into the house and told my mother about the exciting occurrence. My mother informed me that the stranger in the buggy was the mailman. ‘From now on, he will bring our mail from town every morning,’ she explained. Thus rural free delivery was born in our community.”

Early American colonists who wished to send a letter between far-flung colonies had to hire an intrepid woodsman to carry their messages through the trackless wilderness between the settlements. Governor Winthrop of Connecticut pushed for the development of a Post Road between Boston and New York. In January of 1673, the first post rider took two weeks to travel the 250 miles from Manhattan Island to Boston with a packet of mail. This link was often cut due to troubles with the New York Dutch and raiding Indians.

Ben Franklin became postmaster general of the northern colonies in 1753 and things began to happen. He extended and improved post roads, put the post riders on a schedule, and started overnight service between New York and Philadelphia, while turning a profit for the Crown.

Letters and newspapers could now be regularly sent between cities, but weren’t delivered to homes. After the Revolution, the new U.S. Government set up a Post Office Department that was much the same as the pre-Revolutionary system. Mail was transported only between post offices, and people had to visit the office to get their mail. It was said that at some of the smaller post offices, the incoming mail-bags were dumped on tables and people rummaged through the stack looking for their letters.

In a few of the larger cities, letters could be delivered to a customer’s home for two cents per item during the early 1800s. Starting in July 1863, free city delivery began in 49 cities with the letter carriers walking their routes seven days a week, regardless of weather. City folks loved the new service, but rural dwellers began to grumble to their congressmen. These rural congressmen proposed free delivery in their areas, but cost and the opposition of small-town postmasters, who were political appointees of the party in power and thus had some clout, kept the proposals in limbo for many years. Farmers continued to receive their mail only when they went to town to pick it up.

The National Grange was a strong advocate for Rural Free Delivery, and lobbied hard in Washington. Congress finally voted funds for the experiment, and Grover Cleveland’s Postmaster General, William Wilson, started three routes on Oct. 1, 1896: one each from Halltown, Uvilla and Charles Town, W. Va. RFD was immediately popular, and rural congressmen were swamped with requests for new routes. The service had more than 2,500 routes by the end of 1900; 8,300 in 1902; and 43,445 by 1920.

The Salem, Ohio, newspaper of Nov. 30, 1905, ran a story that said: “There is a possibility that some of the patrons of R.F.D. route No. 2, from the Salem post office, running south, will be cut off from service this winter owing to the disinclination of the township road officials and taxpayers to keep their roads in good condition.”

That section of road must have been really bad, because I know rural mail carriers put up with atrocious roads back in the early days, and usually made it through. When I was a kid in western Pennsylvania, our mailman, George Louthan, bought a new Chevrolet sedan about every two years. The car wore tire chains, a thick coat of mud all winter and spring, and was covered with dust all summer.

In 1926, my aunt was young, just married, and living at home on the farm while her new husband was working in Philadelphia. She wrote him every day, but it was a rainy spring, the roads were terrible, and she was sure the mailman couldn’t get through to pick up her letters. She was right: the roads were impassable for cars, but George Louthan, knowing the lonely young wife would have a letter to send, walked about half a mile through the mud to get it. Now that was dedication.

In 1940, Minneapolis-Moline announced a tractor for rural mail carriers. It was a model “RT” with a 19 mph high gear, all-weather cab, wide front end with a high-clearance axle, and wide flat fenders with guardrails to carry mail bags and packages. It was to “give the mail carrier the performance to drive through deep mud and snow when ordinary machines would be bogged down. A comfortable cushioned seat and windows that roll all the way down make delivery of mail a pleasant and convenient task.” I wonder if any were sold. Most M-M collectors would kill to have one.

Bill Groves ends his essay with the following words. “Times have greatly changed since the mailman first stopped at our farm home. The mailman of the olden days led a rugged life. He battled the snow of winter and the well nigh impossible mud of spring. He was indeed a soldier. The modern mailman in his slick new car has a much easier time. His hours are not nearly as long nor unpleasant. But the mailman’s importance has not diminished. Be his stipend high or low, he is worthy of his hire.” FC

Ever since his days as a boy on a farm in western Pennsylvania, Sam Moore has been interested in tractors, trucks and machinery. Now a resident of Salem, Ohio, he collects antique tractors, implements and related items.

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