On October 1, 1896, five men on horseback set out to deliver mail along 10 miles of rugged rural terrain in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. What took place that day in the countryside outside of Charles Town, Halltown and Uvilla, West Virginia, was the beginning of Rural Free Delivery, opening the door to universal service for every American citizen. Within a year, 44 routes were being covered in 29 states.
Up to this point, American farmers had been extremely isolated from the outside world. And this was not an insignificant proportion of the population – in 1890, 65 percent of all Americans lived in rural areas. There were no radios, telephones or newspaper deliveries, and the nearest neighbors were often miles away. To get any news – or mail for that matter – folks had to travel into town by way of unstable roads, sometimes waiting weeks to make the trip when weather was poor. So when Rural Free Delivery came along, it dramatically changed the landscape of early American life.
The long and winding road
Indiana Grange President Milton Trusler may have been the first to demand an answer to why city dwellers received mail delivery to their homes when rural customers did not. Farm families — who paid the same postage rates as the rest of the nation — began to complain as well, and the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry came to their aid, advocating for rural mail delivery on their behalf.
But Congress was reluctant to act, fearing the United States was simply too large for free rural delivery to be anything but a financial disaster. Although today’s postal service operates as an independent business, at the time, tax dollars supported the Post Office Department. Private express carriers also protested, thinking free rural mail delivery would eliminate their business, and many town merchants worried the service would reduce farm families’ weekly visits to town to obtain goods and merchandise.
Rural residents found a long-standing ally in Postmaster General John Wanamaker, a merchant who according to the U.S. Postal Service “became one of the most innovative and energetic people ever to lead the Post Office Department.” He argued that it made more sense to have one person deliver the mail rather than making 50 ride into town and collect it, citing business logic as well as social philosophy.
While Wanamaker blazed a trail for Rural Free Delivery, his proposed mail system never came to pass under his watch. Instead, Congress appropriated $10,000 to experiment with what was called “village free delivery” in 1890, but farmers who lived farther away from town were still without service, and the test died.
In 1895, however, the tides finally began to turn under the leadership of a new postmaster general, William L. Wilson. Although he agreed with his predecessor, Wilson S. Bissell, that rural delivery was not practical, he was willing to attempt it if Congress made funds available. Finally, with $40,000, there was enough money for the Post Office Department to begin its Rural Free Delivery research.
Then, in 1902, following more than 10,000 petitions from postal customers asking that routes be established, Rural Free Delivery became a permanent service of the U.S. Post Office Department. At this time, there were about 8,500 rural carriers. They sold stamps and money orders, and were considered traveling post offices. Carriers also supplied their own transportation – usually horses and wagons until 1929, when the Post Office Department noted that improved roads had led to “almost a complete change in rural delivery from horse-drawn vehicles to motor cars.” Rural Free Delivery had finally met the modern age.
21st-century rural delivery
Today, nearly half of the nation’s 104,718 full- and part-time rural carriers still use their own vehicles to deliver the mail on 73,461 routes, serving more than 40 million customers. Rural carriers drive 3.5 million miles every delivery day in 50 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Rural routes range from 10 to 175 miles, and the average route has more than 400 stops and 550 boxes.
“Rural communities are a tight-knit group of people,” says Henryville, Indiana, rural carrier T.J. Murphy. “My customers are my family. And as is always the case with any family, you try to be there for support whether it’s a sickness or an unexpected death – you feel their grief and pain.”
The legacy of Rural Free Delivery is still apparent today. In 2006, rural letter carriers served almost 37 million homes and businesses, and that service continues to provide a link between urban mail centers and country homes. Those carriers have also been known to show off such things as rattlesnakes and bobcats as well as mailed packages.
Grit and CAPPER’s magazines, which share a legacy dating part of the way back through Rural Free Delivery, were reunited with this heritage while airing Tough Grit, The Rural America Challenge on RFD-TV. Check out our Tough Grit episodes.
The mail moment
In the early days of rural delivery, carriers often used horse-drawn sleighs to deliver mail during the winter months. And, in the not-so-distant past, rural carriers delivered mail by snowmobile in Minnesota and Alaska. These days, however, the more unusual deliveries are generally made by contract carriers.
One such unusual delivery method is made by a contract carrier out of Detroit, Michigan, who delivers mail to passing ships in the Detroit River. The boat has its own ZIP code, 48222.
In Alabama, there is dock-to-dock delivery on the Magnolia River. A 17-foot mail boat delivers to 180 dock-side mailboxes on a 29-mile stretch of the river.
More unusual yet is delivery by mule train in Arizona. Each mule carries about 130 pounds of mail, food, supplies and furniture, about 41,000 pounds per week, down the 8-mile trail to the Havasupai Indians at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Marilyn Jones has been a journalist and photographer for more than 30 years. She is the mother of three grown children, lives in east Texas, and, in addition to traveling and writing, enjoys gardening and scrapbooking.