“107,062 Delawareans are without the free delivery of mails, except where furnished in spots by the experimental rural free delivery services,” noted the News Journal [Wilmington] in July 1898.
From our vantage point today rural free delivery (RFD) mail service seems like a no-brainer. But in 1898 it was untested, and there were opponents to the whole idea.
Fourth class post offices, for one.
“Experiments conducted already by the department,” said the News Journal back in March that year, “show that with the establishment of rural delivery, in which there is a hearty cooperation of the communities interested, the discontinuation of a number of 4th class postmasters can be effected.
“It is feared that if the new system promises to result in doing away with these, it will invite the hostility of Congressmen. The latter have little enough of this kind of patronage to dispose of at present, and they will not relish any further depletion of the supply.”
“The idea upon which the service was first established,” added special agent A.B. Smith of the new RFD Eastern Division, “was that it was to be supplementary to existing fourth class post offices.
“It was to seek an existence on byroads and in sparsely settled regions. It was simply an insignificant scavenger picking up the odds and ends that postmasters did not much care for, and it was too frequently attached to offices where it was not appreciated.
“Nine-tenths of the fourth class post offices,” Smith pointed out, “are kept in stores. Many of these postmasters have told me that they wish the office were at the bottom of the sea, as it did not pay and was a terrible annoyance. But when the proposition was made to relieve them of their disagreeable duties, they at once began to hedge, and from that moment became the implacable foe of free delivery.”
Many farmers felt the post office’s new program would impose undue financial burdens on them. For one thing, they were required to purchase new standardized mailboxes (most had the metal flag we recognize; some early mailboxes used a cloth version.) And worse, if they wanted RFD service, they had to maintain their local roads. “Carriers are exempt from going over roads that are commonly termed as very bad or impassable,” reported the Morning News [Wilmington] in September 1898. “Most of the districts turned down by the special agents of the Post Office Department are the victims of their own bad roads.”
Assistant Postmaster General Perry S. Heath, nationally in charge of the RFD program, sought to diffuse farmer resistance by enlisting the support of state grange associations for farmers. “It is very desirable to have the cooperation of the leading citizens and agricultural organizations in this work,” he told the News Journal [Wilmington] in September.
Heath’s plan for Delaware was to test the idea in Harrington, due to its proximity to two other rural communities in the central part of the state. The Harrington route “is to serve the community in the triangle formed by Harrington, Milford and Frederica roads,” he said. “It is probable that the experiment will be applied at one or two other points in Delaware.”
The Harrington route opened Oct 3, 1898, originally to cover 12.5 square miles, but extended the following April to 18. “Joseph G. Peckman, of Mispillion Hundred, has been appointed carrier at a salary of $300,” reported the Middletown Transcript. “Boxes will be placed at convenient places along the routes and the carrier will sell stamps.” Peckman covered a 20 mile route. He originally served 100 people, which rose to 600 within a year and a half.
Each carrier was expected to provide his own horse and wagon, but was exempt from having to pay road tolls.
The town of Laurel started RFD service on November 1, its 38 mile route the longest in the state, nonetheless served by only 2 carriers. Marshallton began that same day.
Service began at Smyrna on March 1, 1899. Middletown’s postmaster agreed to start RFD there the following month, with 2 routes covering about 47 square miles, 1 carrier per route.
By March 1900, reported the News Journal, Laurel’s RFD was serving 1,500 people. That number, though, was dwarfed by the Marshallton service, which that same month handled Delaware’s largest amount of RFD mail: 21,177 pieces delivered and collected.
“After a seven years’ struggle under different Postmaster Generals, First Assistant Postmaster General Perry S. Heath has at last placed the rural free delivery mail system on a solid foundation,” glowed the News Journal.
“The service is growing in popularity each day. At present there are 5,000 applicants on file in the Post Office Department, and though routes are being established every day, the number of applications does not seem to decrease.”
“Rural free delivery,” summed up RFD Eastern Division’s A.B. Smith in a 1901 report to the Postmaster General, “diffuses intelligence, increases the volume of mail, promotes sociability, and tends to more exalted ideas of government. These are the helps which have enabled the rural service to overcome all obstacles and in three years become the most popular feature of the postal service.”
The experimental phase had clearly ended.