Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett here. What follows is not a Maine story, although I suspect similar events took place in this state. It is an account of my grandfather’s career working for the post office in rural Sullivan County, New York, an area that is geographically similar to central Maine.
Fred Gorton was the first RFD carrier in Liberty, New York. He started on March 2, 1908, when the whole idea of Rural Free Delivery was new. The mailmen, or carriers, who made $67.50 a month, provided their own horses and wagons and feed for the horses, too. In those early days, the RFD carrier usually worked from 10:30 until 4:30. Fred traveled a route twenty-seven miles long. At the end of the day he emptied all the mail he’d collected into a big tray in the post office in Liberty.
Fred had a horse named Old Dobbin for the first five years he worked this job. His first wagon had no top. He used an advertising umbrella for shelter. One day, Dobbin bolted and the umbrella sailed off into the air and landed in Lake Ophelia, never to be seen again. In the winter of 1910, Fred decided to drive Old Dobbin the whole length of Hilldale Lake on the ice in the hope of getting his name in the paper. In doing so, he skipped two boarding houses on his route. He never tried that again!
Fred knew all his customers by name and sometimes he was asked to play cupid. A new schoolteacher once asked him to deliver a sealed letter to her beau, but she warned him not to leave it in his mailbox, but to deliver it by hand. A man asked a similar favor. He was afraid his mother would see his love letters before he got home from work, so he asked Fred to leave them in a neighbor’s mailbox.
In 1915, Fred bought at Model T Ford for $467.50. It came in a boxcar on the O&W Railroad. After two days of instruction, he drove it on his own. He had to crank it to start it, and when he had a blow out, he had to jack the car up, patch the inner tube, and blow it up again with a foot pump. Fred drove the Model T for three summers on the RFD route, but for four months every winter he still had to use a horse. They didn’t plow the roads in those day. From late December until mid-March, he hitched the horse to a sleigh.
Another horse Fred used on the RFD was named Roxy. He hired a livery horse every Thursday to spell her, but she made the trip five days a week nearly all winter. Some days he could use the horse part way, leaving her with someone while he made another loop through the fields and coming back again for her when he was done. One day he caught the train at Taylor’s Crossing and rode it back to Liberty with the mail.
On February 19, 1916, Fred had the most difficult trip of his career. The sleigh upset twice, and he lost all his horse feed in the field. Then, when Roxy wouldn’t stand up, he jerked on her reins and broke the turret off the harness. By the time he arrived at Alvin Brown’s house, the road was completely impassable. He put Roxy in Brown’s barn, put all the mail in a sack, and went on by foot. It was just after noon when he started out from Brown’s. He stopped for dinner at one house on his route and left mail for eight patrons there. Another patron met him with an ox sled, breaking the road for him, and several others offered him hot drinks and food. Finally, after all the mail was delivered, Fred returned to Alvin Brown’s. The Browns had unharnessed Roxy, so while they were hooking her up again, Fred rested and visited. He finally got back to the Liberty post office at 7:05 PM, so lame from walking that he felt it for two days. He’d walked seventeen miles over his RFD route in snow two feet deep.
All of my grandfather’s story, one of my earliest writing projects, is online as The Life of a Plodder: Fred Gorton’s 95 Years. The index page is here: Life of a Plodder
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award in 2008 for best mystery nonfiction for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2014 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (The Scottie Barked at Midnight) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com