19th and 20th Century Northwoods Mail Delivery Had Its Woes

Jul 6, 2018

On days when the weather in northern Wisconsin is particularly bleak, we've all felt sympathy for our mail carriers. This week on A Northwoods Moment in History though, local historian Gary Entz tells us that it used to be a lot worse.

In this modern age of e-mail, instant messaging, texting, and other forms of electronic communication, many people take the U.S. Postal Service for granted.  But this has not always been the case.  In fact, the founding fathers of the United States believed the delivery of mail to be so essential to a healthy democracy that the establishment of Postal Offices and Post Roads was enshrined it in Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution – the basic law of the land.

The U.S. Postal Service does a remarkable job of delivering the mail, but the home delivery we take for granted today did not always exist.  Prior to the Civil War, Americans had to pick up their mail directly at a Post Office at what is often called General Delivery.  Home mail delivery began in major cities in 1863, but it wasn’t until 1896 that Rural Free Delivery service began so that farm families could receive mail directly.  RFD service was not automatic, and people living in rural areas had to send in a petition, along with a description of their community and roads, to their congressman in order to get home mail delivery.  The town of Hurley, for example, did not get its first 25-mile RFD route established until 1926.  The U.S. Postal Service added Parcel Post for cities in 1913, and when Hurley advanced from village to city status in 1926 it began parcel post delivery within the city limits.

Any modern postal carrier can tell you that environmental conditions in the Northwoods are not always optimal for rural mail delivery.  So how was it done in the past?  When RFD service began, the most common means of transportation was by horse and buggy, or sleigh if the snow was too deep.  With the rise of the automobile, the Model T Ford was often used as a delivery vehicle as it was designed to operate on unpaved rural roads.  Early snowmobiles were used with varying degrees of success during the winter, but if roads had been cleared then a horse was more reliable.  It wasn’t till the end of World War II when the Willys Corporation released the Jeep CJ-2A for commercial sale that the winter delivery woes of rural mail carriers in the Northwoods were finally resolved.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. Some sound effects for this commentary came from FreesoundThe photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.