The rural mail carrier was an important link to civilization when I was growing up on the farm. He carried the mail, rain or shine, and in fair weather you could set your clock by the time he arrived at our mail box down by the road. That was in fair weather. When it rained a lot, or snowed, he would be late. But you knew he would be there sooner or later.
Rural free delivery (RFD) postal service, as it was known in those days, was established on an experimental basis in 1896 with five routes. It became a permanent service in 1902, and by 1909 there were 40,000 rural routes in the United States.
For many years our mailman was Uncle Tom Blodgett. As I first remember him, he drove a horse and buggy. The buggy was one specially designed for mailmen. It was a box-like affair, with a curtain that would roll down in case of bad weather. It was something like "the surrey with the fringe on top," only different. The curtain was in front and had a transparent window so he could see the horse. There was also a water-proof slot for the reins used to drive the horse. Uncle Tom's old horse was named Buck. I suppose, because he was a buckskin color. He knew the way, and would stop at just the right places for Uncle Tom to push the mail into the roadside mail boxes. Tom would pick up the mail bags at the post office early in the morning and then sort the mail as Buck jogged along the route.
A lot of the merchandise that my grandparents purchased was ordered from the Montgomery Ward or Sears catalogues. One could mail in an order on Monday and expect the merchandise to arrive before the week was out. One of my favorite pastimes was to watch for Uncle Tom and Buck when I was expecting a package or a letter. On one occasion, I ordered a pair of leather high-topped boots. They came on time, but were too small, so I sent them back by return mail. Three days later, I had another pair of boots that fit perfectly. Mail order and RFD service were pretty prompt in those days. Incidentally, the cost of a stamp to mail a letter was raised from two cents to three cents in 1932.
In later years, Uncle Tom purchased a Model T Ford for his rural deliveries. Even later, he bought a Model A Ford and that was another improvement for him. Most of his route was over plain dirt roads that were sometimes impassable in a car. When the weather was nice, he could cover his route in the car in about half the time it took for Buck to make the rounds. But when the weather turned bad, he hitched up Buck and they carried the mail as usual.
Although Uncle Tom was a bonafide mail carrier, he also served as a good-will ambassador on wheels. If Grandpa wanted to send a message to some one down the line he would meet Tom at the mailbox. They would visit awhile about the weather, the price of wheat or the election coming up. During the conversation, Grandpa would mention that he needed Bill So-and-so to come over and help him fix some fence, or some other chore. The next day, Bill would show up and greet Grandpa with "I hear you need some help." Uncle Tom served the community in other ways, too, like reporting that John Jones was down sick-abed, and his wife and kids needed some help to lay the corn by. He passed along many messages that the Postal Service never knew about.
Just before Uncle Tom was to retire, the county got around to putting gravel on some of the roads on his route. That helped a lot in bad weather. A little later, four-wheel drive vehicles became available, so Tom retired old Buck from service and then retired himself. His replacement was a nice young fellow but he sure wasn't another Tom Blodgett.