Today no one really thinks about air mail as anything particularly unique. In the past, however, the railroads transported most interstate mail in the U.S. To receive a letter with a special air mail envelope and stamp meant that it was either important enough for the sender to pay extra for the postage, or that it came from overseas.
The United States Post Office Department, which is today the U.S. Postal Service, began experimenting with air mail delivery as early as 1911. In 1918 the Post Office established the first air mail route between New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. All mail had to be flown on government-operated aircraft in those early days, but that ended in 1926 when the Kelly Act required the Post Office to start contracting air mail out to commercial carriers. Unfortunately, corruption in the awarding of contracts during the Hoover Administration led newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt to cancel the program in 1934. The Army Air Corps temporarily carried air mail, but this proved equally disastrous. By mid-1934 competitive bidding was restored, and commercial carriers resumed air mail service.
While the major air routes went to the large commercial carriers, aircraft technology had improved enough by the 1930s that small carriers serving rural parts of the country could get contracts as well, if only temporarily. This is where the Northwoods comes in.
In the mid-1930s, Northwoods residents could send a letter via air mail. Anyone who paid air mail postage and got a letter to the Rhinelander post office in time for one of four mail trains leaving town could expect their letter to arrive in most major cities in the country within twenty-four hours. But sending mail by train then having it flown out of Milwaukee was not direct service.
In 1938, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the first air mail route, the Post Office declared that the week of May 15-21 would be National Air Mail Week. Postmasters in small towns across the nation were encouraged to participate. In Rhinelander Postmaster John Kelly contracted with local pilot Steve Shalbreck to fly the first air mail ever out of the Northwoods on the 19th. Originally Shalbreck was to start in Eagle River, stop in Three Lakes, and then Rhinelander, but demand was high enough that those two towns got their own routes. Tomahawk and Merrill received a combined route as well, as did Ashland and Hurley. Shalbreck’s flight path took him from Rhinelander to Milwaukee with one stop at Clintonville. The Eagle River route went to Milwaukee with stops at Marinette and Green Bay. The Three Lakes route went direct to Milwaukee.
Each town where a flight originated could print out its own personalized ceremonial Air Mail Cachet that could be stamped on each envelope. Rhinelander’s cachet was printed in red. It featured an outline of the state showing the town’s location along with a picture of the Hodag. It said: “Home of the Hodag. Capital of Wisconsin’s Heart O’ the Lakes. Where the Nation finds Recreation.”
Bags of mail left the Northwoods by air on that day in 1938, but it was a route that lasted for only a single day. It was not until January 1948 when Wisconsin Central Airlines began regularly scheduled service out of Rhinelander that direct air mail service became a permanent fixture in the Northwoods.