America has long prided itself in creating a classless society, one without bars to participation. We fought a Civil War to end slavery, amended our Constitution to ensure women’s suffrage and abolished the poll tax. But few recall that in those same days we also fought to include our country’s biggest group of outsiders, and that the uniformed heroes of that fight were the postal carriers of Rural Free Delivery.
Before the Civil War, all Americans picked up their mail at the post office. Home delivery in cities began in 1863 and in midsize towns by 1890. A letter could go from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia door-to-door, but . . . between farms in Indiana County? Nope. Both parties had to travel over miles of dirt roads to the nearest P.O. or hire a courier to do it for them. And forget about speed – it took less time for mail to get from Chicago to Boston than from Covode to Boltz. Rural Americans thus became second-class citizens who had to “pay to play.”
The obvious solution had surprisingly little support. Expansion of mail service into the countryside was championed by the Grange, a farmer’s fraternity that began lobbying Congress in 1870. Fearing financial disaster, politicians and the Post Office Department resisted for two decades. But legislation was finally passed, and in 1896, Pennsylvania became the third state to establish Rural Free Delivery.
It didn’t happen all at once. After experimental routes in Westmoreland County succeeded, applications were accepted from across the state. Preference was given to “small towns having thickly-settled farming communities about them in a radius of four miles;” petitions had to be sponsored by a congressman and signed by the heads of at least 60 households along the proposed route. The roads themselves had to pass inspection as being “in good condition – drained and graded, unobstructed by gates and without unbridged or unfordable streams.” Some 20% failed first inspection.
But even before a route’s approval, it had the effect of empowering the farmers it would serve. Congressmen realized that rural Americans were in the majority, which meant votes come election day. Representative Summers Jack became our tireless advocate, personally examining each proposed route ahead of inspectors and “wheeling and dealing” for road improvement funds. And our newspapers, eager for the potential boost in subscriptions, beat the editorial drum for rural delivery.
Our county’s first RFD debuted in September 1899. It looped out through White Township from Indiana and returned, serving 115 families spread out over 25 miles. Its first carrier was one James McKee. It took him and his wagon-horse Daisy six hours to finish the route in good weather. But rain or shine, snow or mud or flood, McKee made the trip six days a week from 1899 through 1931. A quarter-million miles without missing a day – now that’s dedication!
‘Course, you really had to be dedicated to be an RFD carrier. A bond was required, and it was forfeit if you missed a single day. And you’d never get rich on the $400 annual salary, which had to cover horse feed, wagon repair and blacksmith fees on top of your own living expenses. But carriers enjoyed high social standing in the community and were even considered a “good catch.”
And not all carriers were men! One hundred fifty of Pennsylvania’s earliest routes were “manned” by women. Anna Devers was our county’s first. She spearheaded the drive for approval of Blairsville’s second route in 1903, then served as its carrier for 13 years after testing highest of six applicants. Grace Barr, who made the rounds on Grant Township’s Route #3 by car in the 1920s, was said to be “so efficient and accommodating that a mere man was not considered” when several applied to replace her.
A rural carrier had to be something of an octopus as well. Their wagon was in effect a mobile post office, carrying stamps, envelopes and postcards for sale. They accepted cash for money orders to be mailed back at the P.O., and until 1910, farmers could leave coins in the mailbox to cover postage for outgoing letters. RFD wagons even displayed a set of signals communicating the Weather Bureau’s daily forecast, an invaluable service to farmers. (At one point, sixteen grateful Indiana County farmers made their carrier’s life easier by mounting all their boxes on a horizontally-rotating wagon wheel atop a post at the crossroads!)
Success breeds success. By 1903, each of the county’s larger boroughs had several routes serving their surrounding townships, and Star Routes – those hauling mail between post offices – added RFD service to homes along the way. In 1915, it was announced that Indiana County was so thoroughly covered that individual householders could petition for new routes directly. And our carriers’ reputation was such that Blairsville and Indiana were chosen to host the state Rural Letter Carriers conventions of 1911 and 1914. Their service could come at a price: many minor post offices like those in Crete and Clyde were closed, since their towns’ populations were small enough to be served by RFDs.
Solving the greatest challenge to rural delivery had the side-effect of boosting farmers’ inclusion once again. Our roads were, in a word, abysmal. Horses sank in spring mud and winter snow, and wagon-wheels broke in hardened summer ruts. The Gazette opined that “many routes may have to be abandoned” when inspectors returned, as had happened in Washington County. To the rescue came the Good Roads Movement, a coalition of local and national interests which secured passage of our state’s Sproul Road Act and the federal Rural Post Roads Act of 1916. Even the Great Depression contributed to the solution: Pennsylvania’s make-work Rural Roads Act appropriated 477 miles of Indiana County roads for pavement and extension as “Pinchot roads” in 1931.
The hard times of the 1930s and ‘40s brought out Americans’ adaptability, and postal employees were called upon to do their part. To avert layoffs and route eliminations, rural carriers were required to take unpaid furloughs totaling 11 days per year from 1932 to 1934, and the maintenance allowance for automobiles was eliminated. The uniformed troops of RFD showed their mettle again after Pearl Harbor, when carriers sold Defense Savings Stamps and accepted War Bond applications from customers. And like police and firemen, they were given priory for tires and gas by the county Rationing Board.
The world continued to change, and so did rural delivery. As far as can be told, faithful James McKee was our county’s last carrier to use a horse; by 1929, the year the highest percentage of Americans were served by RFDs, autos were in use on almost all Pennsylvania routes. As roads improved and America moved to the suburbs after WWII, route-lengths increased but the total number of rural households declined. Yet even today, only Texas has more carriers than the Keystone State. And it can truly be said that our farmers are second-class citizens no more.