When rural mail was delivered by sleigh in snowy places
I grew up in a rural area in Georgia, and each day the mailman would drive his car up close to the tin mail box on a wooden pole, lean across his seat, open the little door on the box and slip the mail inside. He’d lower the little arm on the side if he had retrieved any mail we had left for pickup.
We’d walk down the dirt driveway to the mailbox to retrieve the mail. We had kind winters with no snow, so our mailman’s tires never skidded in the muck and his windshield never caked with the stuff.
That was not necessarily the case in places where the snow was relentless and heavy. That’s likely where a mail sleigh I saw on the back lot of an auction house recently would have been used.
The body resembled a stage coach on sleigh runners. It was painted red with the words “Rural Route No. 1” painted in gold and white shadowed letters on the side. It looked to be a hand-made vehicle, built during a time when mail carriers had to provide their own transportation to get letters, bills and the Sears & Roebuck catalog to folks who lived in the boonies. I assumed it was used to deliver the U.S. mail, although there was no reference to it on the vehicle.
By now, it was showing its age. Most of the windows were missing, along with both doors. It was dusty, but the exterior paint was not terribly faded. The interior was simple and stark, bearing a long wooden plank seat and back. Trash and some other heavy items were strewn across the floor. A rope was tied through one window.
This mail vehicle was likely used some time after the Post Office realized that rural folks should get their mail delivered for free, too. Initially, the 65 percent of the population that lived in rural areas had to go to their local post office – which in some cases could be miles from their homes – to pick up their mail. Those who lived in urban areas in the 1890s got their mail delivered for free.
Around that time, a concerted effort was begun to change that dynamic, starting with the postmaster general and taken up over subsequent years by various congressmen. The plan for rural free delivery, or RFD, had its supporters – most significantly, farmers’ organizations and rural residents – and opponents who said that it would cost too much. In a few cases, rural free delivery was tested in several towns, including three in West Virginia in 1893.
The first countywide experiment was in Carroll County, MD, in 1899 when three postal workers set out in a “U.S. Mail – Postal Wagon” – accompanied by a photographer and officials in a carriage – to deliver the mail. They drove 20 miles round trip and serviced 200 rural families.
By 1902, delivery of mail for free in rural areas was adopted nationwide. People left out “lard pails and syrup cans (and) old apple, soap and cigar boxes” to hold their mail. Soon, the Post Office authorized the manufacture of standardized boxes.
Mail carriers became known as “post offices on wheels” because they not only carried mail they picked up from the local post offices that dotted the area (many of which closed after delivery took hold) but they also sold stamps, money orders and other mail-related products. They delivered the mail in horse-drawn wagons until around 1929, when cars took over.
In tough snowstorms, though, the carriers had to return to those horses and wagons, replacing the wheels with sleigh runners. To keep warm, they bought coal heaters made especially for “wagon driving” and marketed to them.
Others designed their own snowmobiles, presumably as the person who once owned the sleigh at the auction and this Danville, OH, mail carrier standing in a circa 1900-1910 photo near his self-designed “mail sleigh.” In Idaho, one article noted, they used snow shoes, skis and dogs sleds.
That changed for many of them when Virgil White of Wisconsin designed a Model-T snowmobile kit known as the “snowbird.” The kit offered steel tracks for retrofitted back wheels and sleigh runners to replace the two front tires. He sold the kits out of his New Hampshire company for $250 to $400. They were an instant hit.
One carrier in the 1930s bought a kit for his Model A Ford from a Wisconsin company but could only afford the basic kit, so he outfitted the sleigh-like front on his own.
I wasn’t around when the mail vehicle was sold at auction, but when I returned to the back lot later I saw it among a dealer’s stash.