Rural Free Delivery

On October 13, 2011 · 1 Comments

Rural Free Delivery, often distilled down to its recognizable initials RFD, is a cornerstone principal of postal service in the United States. It is an element we take for granted: that mail will be delivered to every corner of the nation at a reasonable price that does not penalize citizens for living in rural areas. It was not always that way.

The National Postal Museum website includes a good video overview of the early days of the Rural Free Delivery system. I wish I could embed the video here but they don’t provide that option so you’ll need to follow the link and return if you wish to view it. Otherwise keep reading and I’ll describe the situation less elegantly although probably in less time too.

People living in rural areas in the latter decades of the 19th Century complained bitterly that they received second-class treatment at the hands of the Postal Service. They had to either travel long to distant post offices or hire private carriers to deliver their mail to them personally, in an era when few other forms of long-distance communication were readily available. The Grange picked up this banner and pushed vigorously on behalf of their farming constituents. It was an issue of fairness and equitability that eventually overcame considerable worries about cost.

The first routes appeared in 1896 and the program went national within a few years. I remember growing up in a rural corner of Virginia served by RFD. Our address was Route 3 Box 372 as far back as I can remember. It didn’t change until the 1980’s when the small towns nearby transitioned to street addresses. The initials "RFD" have become iconic and practically synonymous with rural stereotypes, both positive and negative, completely independent of a postal service context.

For example:

  • There is a cable/satellite channel called RFD today that bills itself as "Rural America’s Most Important Network." I’ve noticed it a few times as I’ve flipped through the channels. It features both nostalgic and contemporary programming for that demographic.
  • There was also once a television show called Mayberry R.F.D. that was a spin-off from the old Andy Griffith show, appearing in the late 1960’s. That’s a bit before my era of television viewing but I do remember catching reruns in latter years.

Besides bringing reliable, reasonably-priced postal delivery throughout the nation, RFD also deserves a nod for helping to support the goals of the Good Roads Movement. Postal deliveries were inhibited by the terrible system of roads that existed as the nation approached the 20th Century. It was definitely an advantage to have a large, taxpayer-funded organization sharing the same set of goals focusing on road improvements.

The average Twelve Mile Circle reader is probably wondering why I’ve focused entirely upon history instead of geography. Isn’t 12MC supposed to be "An Appreciation of Unusual Places?" Why, yes it is. Thank you for asking. I presented all of this backstory to highlight my visit to the birthplace of RFD.

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I never knew about West Virginia’s pioneering role in the Rural Free Delivery system before my recent visit. I consulted the Jefferson County Historical Society website for some ideas before my trip. I came across this interesting tidbit:

It was the nation’s Postmaster General William Wilson who finally delivered on [RFD]. Wilson was serving as Postmaster in Cleveland’s administration when he picked Jefferson County to be the first in the nation to experiment with the system. It didn’t hurt that Wilson was a native son of the Jefferson County town of Charles Town. On October 1, 1896, five carriers began delivering mail in the region. Three operated out of Charles Town and one each from Halltown and Uvilla. The carriers were Harry Gibson, Frank Young, John Lucas, Keyes Strider, and Melvin Strider.

It wasn’t difficult for me to swing a little out of the way to visit one of those five initial post offices, the one at Halltown to see for myself where RFD began.

First Rural Free Delivery Post Office

Let’s cover the caveats though, because there are a bunch of them.

  1. The five original routes may have been in West Virginia but the idea originated elsewhere.
  2. RFD routes arrived at select locations in several other states (Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Ohio) only two weeks later, on October 15, 1896.
  3. While the current Halltown post office is "old," I can’t determine whether it’s the same building that served as a post office in 1896.

Thus, I’d have to conclude that Jefferson County’s claim regarding the first RFD route is about as solid as their claim to the first steamboat. It’s a fun little fact but I’m not sure if it holds much meaning.



On October 13, 2011 · 1 Comments

One Response to “Rural Free Delivery”

  1. Carl says:

    I grew up near a little town called Libertyville Mo. Also known as Cook’s Settlement. When I was a young boy my dad loved to tell a story about the days when mail carrier service was done by the lowest bidder. An older fellow placed a bid to carry the mail between Knob Lick, Mo and Libertyville Mo but he made a mistake and put his decimal point in the wrong spot. He won the bid but was dismayed to find out he was only being paid one dallar for the whole year. That’s just what he did too. The postal service would not let him out of his contract.

    I thought that dad had embellished his story a bit or had forgotten some details. Many years later I was trying to research my old home town on the internet when I run across an article by Mark Twain that mentioned this incident. It turned out that Dad had left some details out but he had basically got the story right. The fellow honored his contract. In order to save money he walked the distance everyday. In my day the distance between the two towns was 5 miles by road. I don’t know what it would have been back then as the new roads that they put in shortened the distance.

    Libertyville Mo lost it’s Post Office long before I was born and I am 60 years old. Our postal routes were divided between Farmington Mo, Knob Lick Mo, and Fredericktown MO. I liked our mail carrier out of Knob Lick. He liked kids and during summer vacation I’d wait by the mail box for him to deliver the mail because you could almost set your clock by him. He’d be there everyday either at 9 AM or shortly after.

    I liked the service provided back then. When I was twelve years old I was hospitalized with appendicitis in Fredericktown Mo. One afternoon I recieved a get well card with a little note from my dad that said they would be visiting me in the evening. I looked at the postmark and it had been put in the mail that morning. Now days it takes two days for a letter to be mailed like it was back then. The mail is sent to a sorting center in Cape Girardeau Mo a distance of about 80 miles. When I moved away from home in the seventies I could send a letter home and it would get there in one day. Nowdays it takes three to four. I’m not surprised that the postal service is in trouble because even with all the so-called improvements their service is not what it used to be.

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