By Marion L. Cornett
Editor and Compiler of The Fowlerville Chronicles
“Before 1896, there was no rural delivery system. Farmers’ organizations, especially the National Grange, were active in getting Congress to provide money for free delivery of mail to rural areas. In 1896, the first rural deliveries were made in West Virginia. The system was called Rural Free Delivery (R.F.D.). The number of delivery routes increased during the early 1900s. In 1917, the service was extended to most rural areas.” This short synopsis, from the World Book Encyclopedia, only gives a glimpse of the whole story behind the formation of the rural free delivery service offered to farmers and outlying residents across the country.
To begin, let’s put a few things into perspective. In 1890, over 41 million people lived outside of villages and cities; approximately 65 percent of the population having to trek into town on a regular basis. That is, if they were interested in what mail might be waiting for them at the centralized post office in their area.
It was this thinking that U.S. Postmaster General John Wanamaker, a merchant himself, logically rationalized that it made more sense to have one person deliver mail than to have 50 people ride into town to collect their mail. He also cited how businesses could expand their markets through more timely advertisements and information, and possibly help the younger generations to feel not quite so isolated on their farmsteads.
Fowlerville was, and still is, an agricultural community and may well be representative of what it was like across the country with the advent of this new service. In the year 1900, rural free delivery service began in the area surrounding this mid-Michigan village, initially with one route. Finally, a farmer and his family did not have to wait until someone could get to the post office in the village – possibly only on a once-a-week basis and probably less in the winter months – to send and receive packages, letters, newspapers, money orders, or any slew of items sent through the mail service.
In the spring of 1900, G.L. Adams of the The Fowlerville Review announced, “The prospects for the free mail delivery route in Conway are very good. Mr. Rambo has completed all his work, the petition is endorsed by congressman Sam. W. Smith and is now up to the government for a final decision. A special agent will inspect the route in a few days and upon his recommendation it will probably soon be established. In a letter to this office last week, congressman Smith says he is anxious to furnish his district with the free rural delivery, and in another column in this issue we publish the conditions under which it may be secured.”
The southern part of Conway Township would be the inaugural route for the outlying areas around the village. It was at this time that the government inspector and Fowlerville’s Postmaster Cooper created the route, rode it a few times before giving approval, and then decided it was one of the best beginning routes created for the area.
Two short months later, another article showed up in the local newspaper announcing the appointed carrier, F.N. Parsons, as well as the established route. The article and a map of the southern portion of Conway Township (Fig. 1) follows: “A new free mail delivery route has been established in Conway, the necessary requirements of the government post office department having been complied with. F.N. Parsons of this place, has been appointed carrier, and the new service will go into operation June 4, 1900. Following is the route affected by the service: Starting from the post office at this place, the route will go north to Benjamin school house, east to church, north to J.B. Fuller’s, west to Jerome Pettey’s, north to end of road, west to Hoag’s corners, north to Cole school house, west to Dawley’s corners, south to Tunis Sherwood’s, west to Brown school house, south to David Burrier’s, east to H. Benjamin’s corners, south to E. Grant’s, east to Grant school house, south to Jos. Allen’s, west to E.A. Sawyer’s, south to Henry Trouten’s, east to end of road, south to J.M. Potts’, and will terminate at this place.”
But the “free” part of the “rural free delivery” was a bit of a misnomer. Yes, individuals would receive their mail and could leave mail to be sent out, but each customer was responsible, as in modern-times, to provide at their own expense, a secure box alongside the road, large enough to hold a myriad of items and close enough to the thoroughfare so the carrier did not have to dismount his buggy in order to drop off and pick up mail. But, what a small price to pay for the new convenience of daily delivery.
On the flip side, it would appear the mail carriers paid a larger price. They were reimbursed for their work, usually about $500 per year, but had to provide a buggy and two horses (Fig. 2), would deliver the mail through all sorts of weather, and soon became more than a carrier. They would also provide a service of selling stamps and postal cards, had the ability to authorize registered letters, and sold money orders. The mail carriers even became weathermen when arrangements were made to daily display large weather signal signs attached to the sides of their wagons so the farmers could read them from a considerable distance. And, no doubt, they also became a friend and confidante to many isolated on farms.
Like any program in its early development, it was not without its problems, though. Numerous articles found in old issues of The Fowlerville Review, would give a blow-by-blow of some of those growing pains.
In June of 1900, it was reported, “Already complaints have come to this office that some persons are showing their curiosity by investigating the contents of some of the boxes along the new free mail delivery route. It may be timely to call their attention to the fact that meddling with the mail boxes along a rural free delivery route is a crime punishable by fifty dollars fine or six-month’s imprisonment. Even raising the lid, without disturbing the contents of the box comes within the ban of the law.” And, “A great many people, including the editor, labored under the delusion that a one-cent stamp was all that was required along the new rural free mail delivery route to bring a letter to anyone living in this village, and that the same amount of postage would carry a letter mailed at the Fowlerville office to any person along the line of the delivery, but such is not the case. All such letters require a two-cent stamp.” A sampling of stamps, an early 4-cent stamp and a commemorative 32-cent stamp (Figs. 3 and 4) represent what farmers and other mail recipients would anxiously wait to see coming their way down the road.
Without question, though, success came quickly with Route No. 1 and by September of the first year of delivering mail north of Fowlerville, a second route was established. The local paper reported, “Free rural mail delivery No. 2 will be established Monday, Sept. 30, to start from the post office at this place. The route will be about 23 miles in length and will serve about 150 persons. Its course will be east to Fleming and then north, terminating at this place. C.D. Cogsdill will be carrier.” Unfortunately, progress such as this made some small town post offices obsolete, such as one in the very small four-corners burg of Nicholson, at the northern most end of Nicholson Road where it intersects with Lovejoy Road. It was closed in the winter of 1900. A couple of years later, the Fleming post office also was closed.
By early 1901, delivery to the rural areas was now considered common, with more routes being added to the areas surrounding other villages not far from Fowlerville. Interestingly, numerous articles then addressed more of the problems that would slow down what residents now expected every day. A blustery winter, with deep snow making some roads impassable, would compel the carriers to turn back, unable to deliver until another day. Or, “The rural carriers kindly request that their patrons buy stamps or stamped envelopes before mailing letters, and not require the carriers to pick the pennies out of the boxes. During the cold and stormy weather when the carriers are obliged to remove their gloves and wraps a dozen or more times during the trip to get pennies from the boxes, then come home not in the best of humor, with their fingers nearly frozen. Patrons can save much discomfort to the carriers if they will remember to stamp their own letters.”
Swindlers and fakirs would prey on unwitting and anxious farmers; those now willing to do most anything to make sure their mail was never delayed. One article in The Fowlerville Review showed what lengths some would go to in order to defraud the government and the residents with, “With the advent of the rural delivery, new fields are offered the swindlers who desire to ply their vocation in the country districts. Farmers should be on their guard for them. The sharpers go over a rural free delivery route, representing themselves as agents of the postal department to inspect mail boxes and collect the rental for the same. They usually state that the inspection is necessary, and examine the box, and if in good condition, they inform the farmer that no inspector will examine it again for one year. They then touch the farmer for from $3 to $5 for the ‘inspection.’ When such an inspector calls, use your gun or bull dog.”
It was hardly two years into this new delivery service around Fowlerville and statistics were starting to stack up. One carrier, C.D. Cogsdill, 60 years old, was commended for his perseverance in making 167 trips on Route No. 2 without skipping a day. His advanced age (for this time in history), bad weather conditions, nor any amount of sickness prevented him from his appointed rounds. N.F. Parsons, the first rural mail carrier, was also congratulated in the local newspaper for the following accomplishments: “N.F. Parsons, carrier on rural route No. 1, has just completed his first year and we take the following from his report, which will show something of the magnitude of his work: He traveled 8,138 miles, delivered 11,860 letters, 2,357 cards, 46,914 papers, 1,471 packages, 3,304 circulars and 14 registered letters, making a total of 65,940. He has collected 8,452 letters, 897 cards, 66 papers, 164 packages, 9 circulars, 6 registered letters, 160 money orders, making a total of 9,756 pieces and a grand total of pieces delivered and collected 75,696. These figures make interesting reading for any one that is at all interested in rural delivery.” Within six months, though, of working this daily job, Mr. Parsons retired from his duties and Wilber Cobley took over his route. Mr. Cobley brought a new dimension to his travels by rigging up a charcoal stove inside his mail wagon, helping to stave off some of the cold.
Shortly after Mr. Parsons retired from his route, Mr. Cogsdill followed suit and Frank Kent began delivering mail for Route No. 2. In December of 1901, the local paper reported, “Frank Kent, R.F.D. carrier on route No. 2, had a pretty lively time with his team on Christmas morning. He put runners on his mail wagon and put on both horses. The tongue proved too short and the runners striking the heels of the horses caused them to run at a pretty lively gait. Frank did not get rattled, but ran them around the village for a time and finally succeeded in stopping the team. One of his horses was cut pretty badly about the heels.”
Late the following year, owing to ill health, Mr. Kent resigned his position. The editor of The Fowlerville Review, a paper now being delivered right along with all the other mail, commented, “Mr. Kent has made many friends along his route by his courteous treatment of the patrons who will regret his being compelled to drop his work, but they will find Mr. Spencer as agreeable and painstaking and will accept the change.”
And so it goes.
The Rural Free Delivery system was well established around the Fowlerville area, with a third and a fourth route added within the next year. Farmers south, north, east, and west of the village were no longer as isolated as years earlier; able to receive news and letters on a more timely basis. Did this change the frequency of visits to the village? Or, did it just enhance their trips into town – with more time for visiting and socializing, shopping at the stores with the most interesting advertisements found in their local paper, and giving these outlying residents an overall good feeling of being “in the know?”
Like most programs put into operation, changes and improvements have continued through the years. With the advent of the 911 emergency system, the old rural route numbers, such as “RR5, Box 10,” disappeared in favor of house numbers and street addresses. Mailboxes at streetside are so popular now, to afford more deliveries made on a daily basis, it is not just the countryside that has rural free delivery but most villages and small towns operate in this same manner. It makes one wonder if it is only a matter of time that mailboxes attached to the house, by the front door, with a mailperson walking from door to door, will soon be a thing of the past and all mail delivery will be in the form set up in 1896 by U.S. Postmaster General John Wanamaker.
(This article was originally published in Life~~In the Sticks, Summer, 2011.)
1915 map found on www.conwaytownship.com website.
The World Book Encyclopedia, World Book, Inc., 1985.
www.usps.com on postal history.
Various articles from The Fowlerville Review, edited and published by G.L. Adams, 1900-1902.
The Fowlerville Observer, www.fowlerville.blogspot.com, owned and operated by Marion L. Cornett, 2009-2011.
The Fowlerville Chronicles, edited and compiled by Marion L. Cornett, Path Publishing, 2010.