Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Plight of the Rural Mail Carrier

by David Parmer

Rural free mail delivery in the United States was started in Jefferson County, West Virginia in 1896. The rural free mail delivery system was the innovative idea of a West Virginian, William Wilson, the Postmaster General under President Grover Cleveland. Wilson, whose home was in Jefferson County in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, felt that rural residents were as deserving as city dwellers who had been receiving free home mail delivery for nearly thirty years.

One of the earliest rural mail carriers in the Orlando area was Charles Victor Blake, the son of Joseph Thomas Blake and Elizabeth (Sands) Blake. Charles was born in Orlando in 1873. He married Amanda Olive Scarff, the daughter of Walter M. and Virginia (Ford) Scarff. A brother of Charles, Francis M. Blake, was the postmaster of Orlando from 1897 until 1915. Yet another brother of Charles Victor Blake was P. N. Blake, also known as “Uncle Zeke,” a noted columnist for the Braxton Democrat and other local newspapers.

Right: Charles and Amanda Olive (Scarff) Blake.

When the rural free mail delivery system started in Orlando, the rule at that time was that rural carriers were selected by the home post office postmaster. Later, rural carriers secured their positions by bid.

One of the duties of rural mail carriers, in addition to delivering the mail and picking up mail, was the sale of stamps, envelopes, and post cards to the rural customers. In the early years of the rural free mail delivery, all transport of the mail was by horseback, or by horse-drawn wagon, when weather and road conditions allowed. Of course, the mail was delivered in the harshest of weather conditions. Rural mail carriers braved the elements of “rain, hail, sleet, and cold,” as the oft used slogan states.

Early in the last century, winters were noticeably more severe than they are today. Naturally, the job of delivering mail in the dead of winter at that time was a test of even the hardiest men. The mail carriers expected to slog through the deep snow, or mud, or the grueling sun, and although a test of their mettle, it was often the picayune tasks which were aggravating. Charles Victor Blake, the Orlando rural mail carrier set to verse one of the nagging grievances of the rural free mail carrier.
January 18, 1911
Burnsville Kanawha Banner
The Pennies in the Box
I’m Uncle Sam’s most favored pet
I’m hearty and I’m hale,
I’ve nothing in this world to do
But glide ‘round with the mail;

But one thing almost breaks my heart,
And my nervous system shocks
Is the everlasting pennies
That I’m fingering from the box.

I carry stamps and envelopes
And postal cards and such,
And I would like to sell a few—
‘Twould please me very much.

But a man can’t sell unless you buy,
No matter how he talks,
So I have to keep on diving
After the pennies in the box.

It’s all right in the spring time
Or when the summer breezes blow,
But a different proposition
When it’s thirty-two below.

When all your fingers and your toes
Are frozen hard as rocks,
It’s most everything but funny
Scratching pennies from the box.

And now confidentially
I’ll tell you something more,
There has been rural carriers
Forgot themselves and swore.

I can stand snow drips.
I can stand the frozen locks.
But bless the measly pennies
In the blessed measly box.

When the roll is called up yonder
And we shall gather there,
They wouldn’t let a mail man in,
If they knew he learned to swear.

If you want St. Peter to open the gate
When your rural carrier knocks
Buy stamps and don’t be guilty
Of putting pennies in the box.

So this all I have to say,
Buy your stamps on a nice bright day;
Prepare for a storm and a long bad spell,
And your carrier will say you have treated him well.
Your rural carrier,
C. V. Blake

This postcard was mailed in November of 1909, when Charley Blake was the mail carrier.

The picture side of the card reads "Taken August 27, 1909. Mother 87, Uncle 74."

Judging from these dates, we believe the photo is of David Newton Godfrey, to whom the postcard is addressed, and his half sister Susannah (Curtis) Rohrbaugh. (Incidentally, Newton Godfrey married Mary Jane Skinner, daughter of Alexander & Phoebe (Conrad) Skinner and Susannah's sister Christina married Alexander Skinner's younger brother Alfred Posey.)

The message side of the postcard reads "Dear Uncle and family,
Here is the photo you have heard about. Am so sorry they are so poorly finished, yet the ??? are very natural Mother appreciated the token of love you sent her. My uncles wish you ?? ?? ?? Mother is in her usual health. Gets out driving on nice days, ??? you can find time write her a long letter she loves to hear from her loved ones. She dreads the dreary days of winter, is so shut in. Give her love & regards to all the friends & relatives. She joins with me in wishing you joy & success. Love, May A. Miller"

note 1 David Parmer shares two photos of Benjamin "Jack" Riffle 1927-1974, who is remembered as the mail carrier on Route 2. Jack Riffle's school photo is on the left. On the right are the four brothers Jack, Claude, Glenn and Brannon Riffle. A third photo can be found at the entry about Pres Bragg's retirement.
note 2 Donna Gloff
David Parmer mentioned the harsh circumstances that Orlando's RFD carriers faced. Orlando RFD Route 1 and Route 2 were nothing like the history books portray America's early RFD.

To the left is the typical image used to portray RFD around 1900. This photo is from Wisconsin. We don't know what kind of wagon the early Orlando mail carriers used, but It is difficult imagining this vehicle maneuvering Oil Creek roads. Left below is a photo of a road on Orlando's RFD Route 2 in the corner of Gilmer County, taken in the 1930s.
To the right are two Orlando RFD mail carriers. In the 1930s, during good weather Alva Barnett would use an auto, but a lot of the time he and his fellow mail carriers would need to go back to their horses.
Below him is Juanita (Stutler) Burgett, daughter of Oras and Edith (Skinner)Stutler, who carried the mail in the 1970s and 1980s. She never used a horse, but even at that time she was glad her truck had 4 wheel drive.


  1. I can remember when i was a little girl.Going to my grandmothers house Della Riffle Wymer and her mail carrier would stop and talk to us kids all the time.His name was Benjamin Jack Riffle.Does anyone have a picture of him they could post?

  2. I am married to Jack Riffle's grandson, we would love to see a picture of him! I know he went by Jack, however his real name is Benjamin.