Farmington Area Historical Society, "History of Rural Free Delivery"


History of Rural Free Delivery

In the summer of 1900, Jay Gage, a journalist, needed a rest. He chose to spend a few weeks in Farmington at Dr. Ralph St. John Perry's "Country Sanitarium," a place "where human wrecks are made new."

Gage was impressed with Farmington. He was so impressed with the village and its Post Office he wrote an article describing the town and its reading habits in "Printers Ink," a weekly magazine published in New York City.

"Farmington, Dakota County, Minnesota, population 775, is one of the quietest suburban residence towns to be found in America," he wrote. "It has no factories, no hops, no smoke, no noise; it has an abundance of fresh air, pure water and the best of food from the surrounding farms."

Gage, as a curious journalist would, observed that some of the residents he met and interviewed considered the town too quite.

"Some people here kick and growl and call the town dead, " he wrote, but for him Farmington was the right place to pause from his hurried life's many challenges.

Doctor Perry's "Country Sanitarium," on the corner of Seventh and Oak Streets, was four blocks from downtown. The Post Office downtown shared space with the Exchange Bank on Oak Street in the Davis Block. The Davis Block is better known today as the Exchange Bank Building, a beautiful Itailianite two-story building designed by St. Paul architect Augustus Gauger.

"On January 1, 1897, free rural mail delivery was established here, and in the three and one-half years that have intervened the second class business of the Post Office has increased more than 300 percent," the article said.

"The local paper, the Dakota County Tribune, has clearly the best circulation of any paper published in the county. The Post Office records show that the Tribune mailed more weight of papers than the other two county papers combined. Of the Twin Cities dailies reaching the village the St. Paul Dispatch send in from sixty to seventy-five, and the Pioneer Press some thirty. The Minneapolis Journal reaches about sixty persons, while the Times goes to about twenty, and the Tribune to about twenty-five. The Journal is the only paper delivered by special carrier, all others comes through the Post Office."

According to the article some Farmington-area residents also received weekly foreign language newspapers. Five residents received the Decorah, Iowa, Posten and ten residents the St. Paul, Minnesota, Volkseitung.

"The religious press is represented by the St. Paul Wanderer ten, the New York Christian Herald eight, the Northwestern Christian Advocatefrom Chicago eight, the Midland Christian Advocate of Minneapolis four, and the Cleveland, Ohio, Botschater fifteen.

The farmers papers circulate fairly well, the Minneapolis Farm and Stock and Home having about forty, the Minneapolis Northwestern Agriculturist forty, St. Paul Farmer fifty, and Hoard's Dairyman two.

Of the juveniles the Youth Companion sends in thirty, the Boyce's Monthly ten.

The fraternal papers, being sent free to lodge members, have a fair circulation; the St. Paul A.O.U.W. Guide eighty, the TorontoIndependent Forester seventy, and the other orders averaging about five each.

School Education, a teachers monthly, issued at Minneapolis, supplies twenty of the suburban educators.

The household papers are well patronized, the Ladies Home Journal having twenty subscribers, the Household Journal ten, the Women's Home Journal twenty-one, the Minneapolis Housekeeper forty-five, and People's Home Journal fifteen.

The varieties of monthly magazines that come into the town show a wide range of readers.

McClure leads the list with a sale of forty-five, Munsey is next with twenty-five, then comes the miscellany as follows: Cosmopolitan five,Ainslie six, Nickel five, Black Cat four, Strand five, Wide World five, Puritan five, Munsey Jr. five, Harper's three, Century one, Northwestern of St. Paul eight, and the Review of Reviews four.

Two copies of Judge and one of Scientific American are read. Neither Puck nor Scribner's seem to have a reader in the village."

Gage also wrote that every so often the Post Office is flooded with mail order papers, and by the indications at the Post Office, the express office and the railroad depot, Farmington's residents did a considerable amount of mail order business.

Farmington's and the surrounding Township's appetite for news and information was satisfied daily through the Post Office's rural mail delivery program. An experiment that some people thought would never succeed.

Back to top

The Experiment

In August 1896, Congressman Joel Heatwohle of the Third District, notified Farmington's Postmaster Hamilton Harris Judson, and Israel Herrick, the publisher of the Dakota County Tribune and an elected Justice of the Peace, to design a few rural mail delivery routes in the Farmington area. Congress wanted to test the idea of expanding the Post Office duties by having mail delivered daily to farmers living outside of Farmington's corporation boundary.

Judson and Herrick laid out three possible mailroutes and sent their descriptions to the Post Office Department in Washington, D.C. In November the Postmaster General notified Judson that the three routes were accepted and that a Postal agent would be in Farmington to begin the bid process for rural mail carriers. Judson was also informed that the trial run would begin two months later.

"The agent of the Postal Department was in town last week and asked for bids for the delivery of mail to those who take their mail from the Farmington post office but live at a distance from the post office," wrote the Dakota County Tribune November 12, 1896. "Three routes were planned, each to cover about 25 miles daily.

Bids were numerous, running from nine hundred dollars down. One bid of $315 for a year was put in and about as hastily withdrawn. The bid of the Tribune was $704.25, or $2.25 per day. The award was made to A.E. Record, W.G. Fletcher and Wm. Harrington, the figures not being given yet.

This is an experiment by the Post Office Department and Farmington is the only town in the state to undergo its trail. Congress has appropriated $30,000 to see how "rural delivery" as it terms it, would work. The experiment which will continue till the money appropriated is spent, extends through all the states of the Union and selects one town in each state."

Despite the individual bids the three selected mail carriers submitted, Congress set the salary at $300 per year, or 83 cents per day, which was lower than the lowest bid of $315 that was "hastily withdrawn." Some communities in the state thought the government could and should pay the new rural mail carriers a better wage.

Back to top

"Abandon the Experiment"

"An experiment of the free rural delivery of mail will be commenced at Farmington next week with an allowance of $300 per year for mail carriers, " wrote the St. Peter Free Press. "It is certainly not to the credit of Congress, or whoever is responsible for fixing the amount to be paid, that men competent to fill the position are asked to work for less than one dollar per day and is in marked contrast to the bill recently introduced to raise the salaries of senators and representatives to $75,000 a year. A laborer is worth his hire and his wages ought to be in keeping with the work performed. If the government is unable to pay its employees enough to afford a decent living, let the experiment be abandoned altogether."

Farmington's and the surrounding Township's residents never considered the idea of abandoning the "rural delivery" experiment. They were so enthusiastic about the idea they asked Judson to add a fourth route. The Dakota County Tribune's Castle Rock correspondent sent this news item to the paper: "A promiscuous variety of mail boxes may now be seen near the entrance of door yards in which the mail carrier collects and delivers mail. We hope this experience will be a successful one as it is very handy to have our mail delivered daily." Delton Day, the fourth carrier selected, would have the route out that way.

Back to top

The advertisement

Herrick knew a good thing when he saw it and wasted no time in grasping the opportunity to expand the readership of the Dakota County Tribune.

"Rural mail delivery will begin in a short time now," he wrote in the November 19, 1896 issue of the Tribune. "Subscribe for a daily newspaper now and have it left at the house every day. To new subscribers, the Tribune will give the daily Minneapolis Tribune and theDakota County Tribune one year for five dollars."

In a few weeks subscriptions to the Dakota County Tribune skyrocketed to the delight of Herrick and the newspaper's advertisers.

Back to top

Ready, aim, fire!

One of the problems of living in a small town is that everyone knows your business and it is hard to get away with anything. Such was the case for some of Farmington's "well known sportsmen" who took advantage of the rural free delivery "stationary targets."

"With new institution come new exhibitions of lawlessness," wrote Herrick in the February 11, 1897 issue of the Dakota County Tribune. "As the readers of the Tribune know, all who live outside the corporation limits who claimed Farmington as their post office get their mail delivered to them daily by carriers. To accommodate these, the people in most instances, have placed boxes to receive mail on the public highway near their respective dwellings, on convenient posts or trees.

Now come the new abuses. Two of these boxes have been torn down, carried away and destroyed. A third has been the target for certain well known sportsmen of the neighborhood and it has been riddled with shot and bullets till it is useful no longer for the purpose intended.

Those responsible for these acts look at this destruction of property as a joke. It will prove a serious joke if the names of the parties doing the mischief are given away to the detectives of this department. Robbing the mail, looting a post office and destroying these mail boxes are offenses on a similar footing and no persons hereafter will be respected because they had the leisure or inclination to enjoy in such unlawful sport."

Herrick's indignation about the incident sent a clear message to the community. As a Justice of the Peace, Herrick meant business and had a reputation for dealing out stiff punishments. The "certain well known sportsmen of the neighborhood" knew he was not to be trifled with.

The community knew the Nation's eyes were on Farmington watching how it would solve the problems that accompanied the rural mail delivery experiment. Justice Herrick saw to it that they were nipped in the bud.

Back to top

Alexander Records and Route Three

The first few years of the experiment proved costly to the four rural mail carriers. The low pay, long hours and the gnawing winters wore them down to the point that three of them quit.

Alexander Records was 50 years old in 1896 when he chose the third of the four routes. His twenty-seven mile route three was south and west of Farmington and covered most of Eureka Township.

Eureka Township is beautiful and inviting during the summer months. The Vermillion River Valley lies to the north. The Christiania Heights is to the west and marshy Chub Lake to the south. During the winter months the river valley is a highway for wailing winds, and travel throughout the township on its primitive roads at the turn of the century was difficult.

Record's youngest daughter, Rae, describes an incident that happened to her father while delivering mail on December 24, 1904.

"It was the day before Christmas and so the mail was unusually heavy. Papa packed his leather bags at the post office and came home for the hot dinner he always ate before setting out, even if it was only ten thirty in the morning. As usual my mother had his little carbon burning

foot stove ready to place inside the blankets on the floor of the sleigh. The glowing red brick of carbon would burn for several hours, and with the help of wool socks and felt boots, would keep his feet warm most of the day.

He wore a fur-lined coat with a high muskrat collar that rose to meet a warm cap with fur earflaps. Tucked around his legs were a woolen horse blanket and a buffalo robe, and other blankets were under him so that once settled it was very difficult for him to move.

His hands were encased, first in home knit mittens and then in fur lined gauntlets. These were all right for driving, because his knowing little broncos - Ned and Nettie - could pretty well handle themselves, but he hoped no one would put pennies for stamps in the mailboxes that day. Sometimes they were frozen to the bottom and in any case it required removal of the mittens and chilling his hands to get them out. By the time he was tucked into his open sleigh, with packages and mailbags around him, there was little to be seen except his eyes, nose and whiskers.

The roads had been in fairly good condition that year, but as he started out my mother called after him, "Remember tonight is Christmas Eve (as he could forget with that loaded sleigh) do try to get back early for the church program." He replied that the weather looked mighty doubtful but he would do the best he could. Then he clucked to his team and drove out of town.

After he left there was great activity at home. By late afternoon the baking was done, the last packages wrapped and we little ones had returned from rehearsal at the church. Then came the dressing for the great occasion. Clean clothes were laid out, ears and fingernails inspected and hair ribbon adjusted. We were so busy that there was not much time to think about our father; but as the day drew darker I saw Mama glance out the window at the gathering clouds and heard her remark that the weather was getting worse.

Just after noon a few flakes fluttered down and she exclaimed "I hope this doesn't amount to much!" But she had lived in Minnesota all her life and knew its moods, so was not surprised

when the wind began to howl around the house and drive the increasing snow in long slanting lines before it; sweeping the ground bare in some spots but piling it high in others. It was a genuine blizzard and by three o'clock we had to light the kerosene lamps.

My brother milked the cow early because it was now a certainty that Papa would be late. Then we ate super and afterwards were bundled with hoods, coats, overshoes and mittens and sent off to church under the care of our two oldest sisters. Mama remained at home to keep food warm and help unharness and bed down the horses. My brother wanted to stay and help with this but she insisted that he go with us as he had an important part in the evening's festivities. She promised to follow if the chores were done in time.

At the church there was the usual recitations, dialogues and choir selections, followed by the arrival of Santa Claus, and the distribution of presents and candy. It was a joyful occasion for most, but once in a while we all turned to scan the audience for a sight of our mother's best hat or soft gray hair; and as the evening passed with no sign from home our spirits sank lower and lower.

By ten o'clock, when we finally stamped the snow from our boots at the back door we were greeted by "No news."

It was announced at church that Mr. Records had not come home and some of the neighbors came in to speak of friendly encouragement. They said he had probably stopped some place for the night and would be home the next day. But we who had seen him start out had visions of an overturned sleigh, with a man, none to young, struggling to free himself from entangling blankets while frantic horses kicked and plunged. They might have even freed themselves, run away and left him stranded in the dark.

About midnight I was sent to bed where I cried myself to sleep worn out by the excitements and worries of the day and could not be comforted by the warm, new slippers I should receive in the morning.

Christmas day broke bright and clear, the storm having spent itself; but we could not bring ourselves to go ahead with any seasonal fun until our father was safely home again.

The neighbors had agreed to form a search party, but because of the holiday it was hard for them to leave home, so it was nine o'clock before two sleighs with men and shovels paused in front of our door. They were just getting final instructions when a neighbor, who had one of the few telephones in own, came running with word that my father had just entered the edge of town.

Well, the rest was anticlimactic; but by the time Papa drove into the yard quite a crowd had gathered to hear his story. It was simple. The large amount of heavy mail, plus the drifting snow had slowed his pace so much that early darkness had caught him still far from home. He had reached an isolated farm house when the increasing bitterness of the storm made it impossible for him to go on; so he drove into the yard and a barking dog brought the men out to see who was coming. They soon had him out of his cocoon and into the warm house, while the boys took equally good care of the team.

The family had no phone so they could not let us know where he was; but they welcomed him, gave him a good hot meal and even included him in their own celebration. He spent the night with them and in the morning they plowed the road ahead of him until the next farmer took over. And this was the way the people of Minnesota helped each other in the early part of the century."

Back to top

Postal Order No. 569

Rae Records also wrote that without the help of the farmers along her father's mail route, there were days when he could not have completed his rounds. The early rural mail carriers had excellent relationships with the farmers they delivered mail and packages to. So excellent were the relationships that H.C. Payne, the U.S. Postmaster General in 1904 found it necessary to issue an order prohibiting mail carriers from accepting gifts or presents, sell souvenirs, favor any business establishment or individual, carrying passengers, or enjoying an alcoholic drink with any of their patrons while on the job. It wasn't unusual for the rural mail carriers to find a slice of wedding cake or a sample of a new bride's biscuits in a mailbox. Occasional they were asked to take a patron to town to catch the train, since they were going that way anyway. Farmington's Postmaster, Hamilton Judson, was responsible for having the order enforced.

Judson was Farmington's ninth Postmaster in nineteen years. The history of Farmington's Post Office goes back to 1856 when the little farming community was located in several sections of Empire Township. The community and its Post Office moved to section 31 in 1865 when the Minnesota Central Railroad completed laying a line form Mendota to Fairbault. The building was set at the corner of Third and Oak Streets and opened for business the spring of that year.

Back to top

Going, going, gone

Changes in Postmasters were rapidly made in those days. Major James Donaldson, a leading citizen in the community and one of its primary builders, lasted only three months as Postmaster in 1867. Frank J. Mead, the publisher of Farmington's first newspaper, theTelegraph, was the Postmaster for only five months a year later. He stepped down from the position to spend more time fanning the fires he helped to create in attempting to have the county seat moved from Hastings to Farmington. Leroy Fluke, a druggist and village clerk, was Postmaster for fourteen years but quickly dropped the position in 1883 when he was severely publicly criticized by John Emery, the publisher of Farmington's second newspaper, the Farmington Press. Fluke suggested that Emery be nominated as the new Postmaster and Emery conceitedly accepted. He lasted eight months.

The appointment of Judson in 1884 brought stability to the Post Office as he served the community for twenty-nine and a half years. Judson proved so faithful and efficient in performing his duties that both democrats and republicans would not listen to a change in the appointment at the expiration of his term. A staunch democrat, Judson was appointed by a republican president. The choice being made from a point of ability rather than party affiliation.

Judson worked seven days a week, arriving at the Post Office at seven in the morning and locking up and leaving for home at ten o'clock at night. Every day he waited for the nine p.m.

mail train that had the heaviest amount of mail, and spent an hour at the office sorting it. Before rural delivery, Judson kept the Post Office open late into the evening during the harvest season to accommodate the area farmers. A Postal Inspector once asked him why he didn't set up a cot an sleep at the office.

Working at the Post Office was a family event for Judson's children. His three daughters, Dora, Belle, and Stella all had responsibilities at the office. Belle worked as the regular assistant and was responsible for writing the money orders, doing the bookkeeping, and distributing the mail. Dora, the oldest daughter, was a schoolteacher and helped at the Post Office during the summer months.

Back to top

With Appreciation

In 1909 the patrons of Farmington's Post Office wished to honor Judson on his twenty-fifth anniversary as Postmaster. Without his knowledge a banquet was planned and a silver loving cup purchased. Plans had developed so far that the loving cup was ready to be engraved when Judson found out about the banquet and the honor to be bestowed upon him. He would have no part of it and all efforts to persuade him otherwise proved futile. The loving cup was returned to the manufacturer.

Back to top

The First Man Out and the Last to Quit

In December of 1913, Alexander Record's doctor advised him to consider retiring as a rural mail carrier. Record was 68 years old and his health began to fail him. Of the old guard who started out on the trail trip to deliver mail to the rural areas around Farmington, Records was the only one left. After sixteen years as a rural mail carrier he retired. On January 1, 1897, he left the Farmington Post Office with thirty-five pieces of mail and collected none. In June of 1913 he delivered 7,353 pieces weighing 971 pounds.

"Mr. Records has put in a good portion of his life for Uncle Sam," wrote the Dakota County Tribune January 2, 1914. He has labored faithfully and his services have been satisfactory to the patrons on his route." Records moved to St. Paul from Farmington shortly after his retirement. He died two years later. Soon the old guard would be no more.

Back to top

"Farmington's First Citizen"

1914 not only saw the retirement of Records but of Postmaster Judson as well. Garry Akin, a life-long resident of Farmington and a loyal democrat, was appointed to replace Judson in January.

"Mr. Judson steps down and out with a record rarely attained by anyone, with none better," wrote the Dakota County Tribune January 9, 1914. "No one has ever worked more diligently, more faithful that he and his record stands on the books down with the great powers without a blemish. There was no one who found fault; it was not because someone's mail had gone astray, accounts short or any kick whatever. The administration changed hands, and as the old saying goes: "Victors of the battle enjoy the spoils," the word has passed down the line for change and Farmington was in line."

After his retirement from the Post Office Judson worked for Farmington's electric light company and shortly thereafter developed rheumatism. The illness gradually grew worse and forced him to retire again in 1919 and to remain at home. Despite the best medical help the disease accelerated and took his life in November 1920.

"Hamilton Harris Judson, although modest of manner and declining in accepting honor where honor was due," wrote the Dakota County Tribune, "was the greatest of all our citizens."

Back to top

An End of an Era

By the 1920s Dakota County had invested thousands of dollars to improve the county's road system. Automobiles more frequently disputed the right of way of the United States Mail with the rural mail carriers in their horse-drawn buggies.

The old corduroy roads near the big slough south of Farmington and Chub Creek in Eureka Township, were replaced with level gravel roads. Laying logs and branches horizontally and then again vertically over marshy ground and filling the spaces with clay or dirt made a corduroy road. The effect was like that of corduroy cloth.

Years later the Postmaster chose to move the Post Office from the Davis Building on Oak Street to a larger space on Third Street. The old Post Office no longer had enough space to accommodate the rural mail carriers. With the enormous amount of business the Post Office was handling, everyone seemed to be in everyone's way. The four original mail routes were changed and combined into two separate routes. Fifty-nine years after the successful "rural delivery experiment" Farmington began city delivery. The mail had come full circle.

Back to top