Rural Free Delivery
Across The Fence
The United States Post Office Department was created in 1775, by decree of the Second Continental Congress, with Benjamin Franklin being named the first Postmaster General. However, it was not until 1896 that Rural Free Delivery was begun as standard delivery to non-city dwellers by the U.S. Postal Service. The idea of a free delivery to rural areas had been debated for a long time and experimentation with the concept was begun in 1891 amid a firestorm of opposition.
The strongest argument against the implementation of Rural Free Delivery was the cost. Manpower, vehicles, feed and care of horses would be an expense that would incur unrecoverable costs resulting in operating losses. Although autos replaced buggies and gasoline replaced feed, the costs of operations, even with taxpayer subsidies, always exceeded the income generated from postage paid.
The other major opposition came from shop owners, in the local towns, who complained that RFD would keep the rural folks from making their weekly shopping trips into town and sales revenue would suffer. In fact their fears we well founded though not because of less frequent trips to town but rather due to the ease of mail order. Rural Free Delivery was a boon for Sears and Roebucks’ and Montgomery Wards’.
The final opposing argument came from the rural folks themselves. In order for the free delivery of rural mail to occur the Postal Service required that mailboxes should meet the specifications mandated by them. One of those requirements was that the mailbox must be made of steel. Many farmers argued that a handcrafted wooden box should be a sufficient depository for letters from Uncle George in Seattle. Perhaps, due to their fiercely independent nature, they were more opposed to being ‘dictated’ to by a branch of the U.S. Government than they were to the size and shape and structure of the mailbox. However, despite their early resistance, by 1902 the RFD program had been implemented throughout the continental United States and all recipients had the required, government approved, steel mailboxes.
Still, most rural residences continue to display their mailboxes in a wide assortment of creative and independent disguises. I’ve seen mailboxes hidden beneath old saddles, mounted on miniature windmills and oil derricks, transformed into John Deere tractors, Conestoga wagons, steam locomotives and Bucyrus Erie steam shovels. They have adorned the tongues of horse drawn corn planters, one row plows and steel wheeled dump rakes. I’ve seen them decorated to resemble old red barns, black and white Holstein cows and northbound Missouri mules with the south end facing the road. They’ve been mounted on old hand pumps, milk cans, steel-lugged tractor tires, welded log chains and Caterpillar tracks. No sir, you cannot say that rural America lacks innovation or creativity.
A number of years ago, when I was in Colorado, I helped a friend of mine clean out an old abandoned bunk house on a Nebraska Sandhills ranch. Amongst the trash, broken down furniture, scrap iron and junk that we hauled off was an old wood-burning stove. Most of the firebrick on the inside was gone, the bottom grate was broken and rust had taken its toll on the metal. But I hated to just throw it in the dump and so I decided to keep it. My first thought for repurposing the old relic was to clean it up, paint it in black and silver and set it up as a mailbox pedestal. Though not really all that original, I did think it a clever idea. I even thought of labeling the door of the firebox with a sign that read ‘Bills’.
However, the old stove sat in the tack room for nearly ten years before I finally got around to converting it to a mailbox pedestal. I poured a concrete base for the stove to sit on and even put in bolts to anchor it down. I sanded off all the rust and painted the main part of the stove in a flat black and all of the trim, that might have been chrome plated at one time, I painted in metallic silver. I bolted the stove down on the concrete pad and mounted the mailbox on the top then stood back to admire my clever handiwork. I was not surprised when several of the neighbors commented on my unique mailbox. To say the least, I was quite proud of it.
Less than a week later, in the 3 o’clock hour, I was awakened from a sound sleep by the squealing of tires, a boom and a thud. From the bedroom window I could see the lights of a car shining upward from out of the ditch. When I got to the end of the driveway I saw a fellow standing on the road looking somewhat bewildered by the awkward angle of his car in the ditch. Fortunately he was not hurt, but I was extremely disappointed that he had reduced my mailbox pedestal to a twisted, shattered hunk of junk. I replaced it with a reflective topped, green T-post and wired my crumpled mailbox off to one side.
But getting back to Rural Free Delivery. The first rural mail route was established on October 01, 1896 in West Virginia. My home state of Kansas was close behind with a route in Bonner Springs on October 26 and Nebraska followed with a route on November 07, in Tecumseh, a little ways east of Beatrice.
Back home, in northeastern Kansas, Mr. O’Trimble was our mail carrier on Rural Route #1. My sisters and I would often stand in the yard and wave as he stopped by our mailbox and delivered whatever might have come in our daily mail. After he had left we would run to the box to gather up the clutter of envelopes that he had delivered. We were always disappointed when he drove straight on by without even stopping. No mail on those days.
I can remember when Mom would use a spring-loaded clothespin to hold three pennies to the corner of a letter and have me take it to the mailbox. Somehow I felt quite important being responsible for taking that letter to the mailbox and raising the flag so Mr. O’Trimble would know to stop. I knew that our letter was important because, if the flag was up, he would stop even if he had no mail for us.
When our school district finally purchased buses, the bus would stop for us at the end of our lane, right in front of the mailbox. In the wintertime, Mom would try to make me wear a stocking cap to keep my ears warm. I much preferred my hat, but Mom wouldn’t allow me to wear it to school. I hated that stocking cap and thought it looked pretty stupid on me. So, every morning, as I went around the front of the bus I’d take off that silly looking stocking cap and stick it in the mailbox. Then at night, when I got off the bus, I’d pull it out of the mailbox and put it on. I don’t know if my Mom ever knew about my little deception but I know Mr. O’Trimble did.
Our address was always, R.R. #1 Nortonville, Ks.. But, I remember that after the 9-1-1 program went into effect the address changed to some seemingly irrelevant number on a street named Haskell. It is not a street, just a long stretch of dirt road that wanders off to nowhere. I was living in Colorado when the change was made and had sent a letter to Mr. and Mrs. M. H. Nolting, R.R. #1, Nortionville, Ks., it came back marked ‘address unknown return to sender’. I thought, whaddya mean, unknown? We’d had the same postmaster since dirt and Dad and Mom had not moved. Before this, I remember sending a letter addressed to, Grandma Zeek, Nortonville, Ks., it got there.
My wife Deb grew up in northern Sheridan County, Nebraska. Their route was called The North Star Route. I like that even better than Rural Route #1. North Star Route has a bit of an adventurous tone, perhaps even a bit of a romantic flare. Deb also remembers their mail carrier, Paul. She and her siblings would sometimes hide in the ditch until he had gone by or would stand by the roadside and wave. She remembers once when they picked sunflowers and spelled out ‘HI PAUL’ with sunflower blossoms across the road.
In many rural communities the local mail carrier was an informal link among neighbors separated by miles rather than city blocks. The mail carrier was a friend of the family, a neighbor, and a certain constant in a changing world. Their comings and goings marked days and months and seasons. They delivered good news and bad, they were the bringers of tomorrow’s surprise.
But, there is a change in the wind and it is a certainty that tomorrow’s postal service will be different than todays. The ‘experiment’ begun in 1891 continues and in truth, there never was Rural ‘Free’ Delivery.
M. Timothy Noting is an award winning Nebraska columnist, freelance writer, poet and entertainer. To contact Tim, email; [email protected]