In Carroll, special delivery

Wheels: A century ago, mail was delivered for the first time by a mobile post office, an achievement celebrated by Westminster fans.

April 04, 1999|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

A century ago, rural mail carriers endured more than rain, snow or dark of night. Try greased pigs, armed bandits and mules in need of watering.

The country's first post office on wheels made its debut April 3, 1899, in Carroll County, eventually leading to rural home delivery nationwide. A commemorative stroll in Westminster yesterday celebrated the centennial and honored mail carrier Edwin W. Shriver, who designed the mobile post office.

Delivering the mail, especially in rural areas, meant more than just slipping a letter into a box.

As Shriver left Westminster on his route that day, a customer handed him a squealing greased pig to deliver three miles up the road. Uncertain whether it was a joke, Shriver slapped a 42-cent stamp on the pig's rump and deposited the swine at its destination.

Carriers were routinely asked to perform tasks such as cutting hair and pulling teeth, according to postal records. One mailman, upon arriving at a farm to drop off letters, was met with this note: "Dear Mail Carrier: Please feed our chickens and water the cows, and the mule in the stable, and if the bees have swarmed, put them in a new hive. We have gone visiting."

The request was likely granted, said Carl E. Parks, a mail carrier in Finksburg and organizer of yesterday's event, which began at Westminster City Hall and worked its way to the Westminster Post Office. A replica of a late-19th-century postal wagon was featured.

"Often these were farmers delivering the mail to make extra money," said Parks, a postal-history buff. "He may have gotten a few pennies for the chores."

Before home delivery, rural residents had to walk or ride many miles to the nearest post office, usually in a general store or tavern.

"That was a hardship for a lot of people, and the mail was important," Parks said. "Letters then were not advertisements, they were from loved ones far away, relatives, husbands and sons off to war."

In fact, the Civil War may have started home delivery, when, as the story goes, a postal agent was struck by the sorrow of the women who came to the post office and received letters notifying them about the deaths of their husbands or sons.

"The clerk felt so sorry for them, he suggested the idea of free city delivery," said Megaera Ausman, a postal historian for the Postal Service in Washington.

While that brought service to city addresses in 1863, rural residents had to fight for home delivery.

Postmaster General John Wanamaker petitioned Congress in the early 1890s for $6 million to start Rural Free Delivery. Congress, feeling it was impractical and would bankrupt the country, denied the request. After pressure from farmers, Congress appropriated $10,000 to experiment with the service in 1896.

Limited delivery, with carriers on bicycles and horseback, began that year in West Virginia -- homestate of then-Postmaster General William L. Wilson.

That year, Carroll County was one of 44 areas in the country to gain experimental limited rural home delivery.

Shriver proposed a traveling post office, which allowed customers to buy stamps and money orders and mail certified letters from the mobile storefront.

After Shriver's test run April 3, the service was expanded throughout Carroll on Dec. 20. Carroll became the first county in the nation to have countywide Rural Free Delivery, as three wagons joined Shriver's original. The model is still in place nationwide, with the same services available today from rural carriers.

Rural Free Delivery did not bankrupt the nation, as Congress had feared.

In 1899, the Post Office Department, as it was called until 1971, had income of $95 million and expenditures of $101 million, with 6.6 billion pieces of mail handled, Ausman said.

But the office broke even in 1911, she said, and is now self-sustaining. Last year, the Postal Service took in $60.1 billion and spent $59.5 billion, handling 198 billion pieces of mail.

But as home delivery solved some problems, it created others.

With the advent of Shriver's wagon, many small post offices closed. Store owners complained of lost business, Parks said, and some men resented that they had lost a good excuse to visit local taverns.

Without a specific spot to buy stamps or money orders, customers would have to sit at the side of the road waiting for the wagon to pass.

"A lot of people didn't want it," said Bill Francis, a Finksburg mail carrier who helped organize the event. "People thought it was government interference. The government didn't know where they lived, and they thought it was better that it didn't."

Shriver, a Westminster resident, carried in his wagon a small safe and a gun, fearing robbers. He was shot at and cursed on several occasions by opponents of home delivery, Parks said.

"In the first week, there was a near riot in Manchester," he said. "People threw rocks and barricaded the road. A local preacher calmed down the crowd and let Shriver pass, and later that preacher was fired."

Shriver's navy blue and black wagon -- 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and 6 feet tall -- contained 16 large boxes and 42 small boxes where letters were placed in alphabetical order. Addresses weren't used; the recipient's name and nearest town was good enough.

Along with organizing the stroll, Parks and Francis are on the Carroll County/RFD Centennial Committee, which is trying to raise about $20,000 to build a replica of Shriver's wagon. It would be housed at the Carroll County Farm Museum, which is accepting donations for the committee. Parks said it has raised about $200 and hopes the event sparks interest.

"If we never had countywide Rural Free Delivery, we wouldn't have anything like what we have now," Francis said. "They'd have [delivery] in urban areas, but there are places in the country they would never have gotten to.

"People lived in some gosh-awful places."

Pub Date: 4/04/99

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