Home & Shop Companion #0138
Rural Ramblings – Summer 1983
Ralph C. Miller
I have been parking my ‘Ramblin’ shoes’ under a desk at the Journal office (with some semblance of consistency) for nearly eleven months now, and my feet are getting a bit itchy. By the time you read this, I expect I’ll have put several thousand more miles on them, but I want to get this column written before I go this time. I’ll possibly have something on this particular ramble somewhere down the line.
Meantime, I have enjoyed this latest stint in the office immensely. Through your letters, writings (yes and postmarks), I feel I have gotten better acquainted with a good cross-section of you. I wish I had the time on some extended ramble to drop in on any or all of you for a real down home talkfest. Not all of you agree with everything we do, or say, but I get the feeling that most of you think we are at least on the right path. If you continue to bear with us for a few more years, maybe we’ll get it right.
In addition to hearing from so many of you (working with the Mill Press mail and the SFJ letters), I get another real sense of adventure. You already know how I feel about traveling – just the postmarks on the daily mail often has me taking off in some real flights of fancy. Some of these postmarks might surprise many of you as much as they do me. We’re the voice of the Small Farmer – right? By and for plain country folks? Well, not entirely.
I don’t think that there is a major city in America where we don’t have some subscribers – Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. – What about the ‘Big Apple?’ Well, how about a Broadway address – a 32nd floor apartment on Park Avenue or something simple like ‘the Waldorf Astoria?’ That’s right, and we also have a few in West Palm Beach, Florida. I think that’s a commentary on the genuine hunger and search for real values to cling to in a world where such are difficult to come by.
Nashville is an American city with some justifiable claim to fame as the music capital of the country, if not the world. I guess Dinah Shore sensed that early on, and that’s one reason she chose to be born there. As an all-time favorite of mine, it makes sense that she was the one to record my theme song: “Far Away Places with Strange Sounding Names” about says it for the fascination odd corners of this and the other continents have had for me. Tasmania and the Australian Outback, British Columbia and the Yukon, the Top of the World at Point Barrow, Alaska or the backside of the ‘Big Island’ in Hawaii – all those strange, remote or exotic places are sources of mental journeys when I read those postmarks.
Actually, of course, while we do get letters and subscriptions from all of those off-beat locations, the great bulk of our readership is in the American Countryside. Addresses come with a number or P.O. Box on County, State or Township roads; some are named roads or street extensions and the mail routes – Star Route, Route #_, R #_, RD #_, or Rte. #_, they come in all designations, but all of these fall under the one original genuine heading RFD – Rural Free Delivery.
There is a whole slice of authentic Americana in those words. I do feel a little remiss in being unable to say just where, when and how ‘Rural Free Delivery’ began, but it has been around a lot longer than I have. I may not always appear to be as serious as I might be about some of the things we discuss, but sober reflection tells me that Rural Free Delivery was an enormous step in making country life, rural America and the family farm not only possible, but livable. RFD was the wire on which we were all strung and the lifeline that would make us one nation.
It antedated the telephone, radio, motion pictures, television, everything but the printed word and smoke signals. And without the rural route, the printed word wouldn’t have done the rural inhabitant much good. I don’t suppose we gave it all that much thought back there as long as it came through on time, but in retrospect, it is easy to see how much farm life depended on it.
We can wax a bit lyrical, I suppose, pay a well deserved tribute to all of country life in general as a form of Rural Free Delivery that isn’t the Government brand. We had (have?) more fresh air, sunlight, green grass, trees, flowers, bird songs and rippling streams than city folks. These were provided free, and in addition, there were all those other benefits for which you paid little or no cash, simply unremitting labor. Fresh vegetables, fruits, milk, eggs, home-killed meats – even the wild berries and the fuel from the woods was only paid by unstinting toil. And you didn’t have to get in any employment line on the farm, the work was there already. On the job training depended on no outside agency; experience was a stern teacher. Unions may well have borrowed the idea of fringe benefits from farm folks. Sometimes fringe benefits were the only wages.
All that was true then, and to a greater or less degree, may be valid now, but it isn’t really what we started to discourse on. I mentioned that a large portion of our readership get their mail in some form of mail route today, and mail deliveries consequently have a relative importance to all of us. However, I should think that it is difficult for younger folk to visualize just how much importance there was to that metal box fastened on a post.
Of course not everyone lived (or lives) directly on a mail route. I can’t say how such routes were first laid out, but they were arbitrarily established somehow in the beginning, and while not really graven in stone, I expect it was nearly as hard to get them altered. Thus if you happened to be on some side road not part of the system, you were expected to put your mailbox at the nearest point on the route. (To show how progressive the Postal System is, I understand they’re seriously considering a form of that now for cities – Urban Free Delivery?). At any rate, your box would seldom lack for company on that corner – two, three or twenty, indicating that somewhere in the hinterlands behind them lived at least that number of families expectantly awaiting word from the outside world. Just that too, of course, as remember, the mail was the only actual contact unless you went in person.
With all that, it is little wonder that the mailman was of primary importance to his patrons along the route. Who and what he was made an enormous difference. Was he dependable (he’d better be); did he get there on time or nearly so every day? Was he friendly, businesslike, autocratic, a gossip, helpful? That sounds like a boy scout manual, but some mailmen not only delivered mail and sold you stamps, but passed along messages or might even be persuaded to run an errand or bring something from town to a shut-in.
Route 2, RFD Hayward, was one of the blessed ones. We had Julius! It was a measure of his esteem to those of us on his route that we all thought of him as simply Julius – no disrespect intended. Mr. Schmidt would have been too formal and just plain Schmidt too patronizing. ‘Julius’ set just the right tone as he was friend to us all, young and old.
I don’t know when he became mailman on Route 2. I lived there until I was twenty-one and I can never recall anyone else carrying the mail except during his annual two-week vacation. I am reasonably sure that the very first time I ever encountered that bit about ‘rains, nor snow, nor gloom of night,’ I was positive the mailman who would not ever be stayed on his appointed rounds was Julius Schmidt.
The mail must go through – sometime between 1914 and the early 1920’s, most all mailmen must have switched to the automobile for deliveries. That is – when and where they could, roads and weather permitting. That last was a real iffy condition. Up there in northern Wisconsin, we had no paved roads at all, gravel didn’t come into widespread use until the thirties, and then not on secondary roads. Traversing some of those rutted ways in early Spring or after hard rains presented difficulties almost beyond imagination. The mail did go through.
In Winter, the snow often drifted to a depth of 6-8 feet where winds had sufficient sweep. Small wonder that Julius, like most mailmen thereabouts, kept his team on almost a yearly standby basis. Teams, I should have said. As I recall, in the worst times, he stabled one team about halfway along at a neighboring farm and alternated teams each time to make it easier on the horses. No one had such consideration for him, of course; he made the entire trip each day. We were relatively close to the end of his route, and in those worst times, a near exhausted Julius would pass our house just about early dark.
When the weather was good and the roads dry and relatively passable, he’d be coming along not so very long after noon. His route was longer in Summer, too, with the addition of a swing around some of the lakes to pick up Summer resorts. When the county got powered snow plows, at least part of the routes were usually opened the next day or two after a blizzard. Eventually Julius had a snowmobile built, a sort of home-grown variety as they were built in those early days thirty years before the little sports toboggans used today. Two back axles (one driving) with a wide web track and broad snow runners in front, all constructed on an old car chassis. The mail went through.
A lot of our readers will remember those days, they’ll also probably recall some of the items Rural Free Delivery brought that were so important. Mail of course – that is letters and cards from relatives and friends beyond the reach of a casual visit. Those messages were so much more important, even vital, back when they were the only means of contact. You couldn’t ‘reach out and touch someone’ as Ma Bell advises today.
But there was much more that the mail brought. Many of them still come, don’t they? Not with the same impact I would think. Unless you are old enough to remember those days on the farm, you’ll hardly feel the same about them. You’ll be reading this in late Spring with plenty to occupy any free time you’d have. We were in the same boat at that season of the year extending through Summer and early Autumn. In late Fall, Winter and early Autumn. In late Fall, Winter and early Spring, there was no TV or other manufactured distraction to fill the time unless it came courtesy of the RFD.
Almanacs, I wonder if there isn’t a whole column in almanacs and the dependence of farm folk on them. Phases of the moon, long range weather predictions that would turn John Coleman or Willard Scott green. All the other odds and ends of advice, hints, folklore, humor and encouragement that they contained made the Almanac but little less dependable and depended upon than the family Bible.
Can we pass on to catalogues? Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Wards, Speigel-May-Stern, probably a dozen lesser known houses. ‘I sent away for it.’ I don’t suppose it means exactly the same thing today as it did then. If you sent away for it, it was supposed to be bigger, better, newer or – more to the point – cheaper. And catalogues had everything then, didn’t they? At least Sears did, with Wards certainly a close second. Not only at the personal level and for the household, but in farm equipment as well. They still carry all the personal and household goods, but for most of the farm equipment, horse drawn at least, you’d have to look elsewhere. When it comes to ordering team harness, a David Bradley cultivator or a plow, or even the DeLaval cream separator, well I expect they don’t have a catalogue section marked recollection. Flynets, milking bottles, stanchions, even new farm wagons; when you can find such things today, they come from specialty houses. Then they were as near as a catalogue order in your RFD mailbox (when and if you could afford them, of course).
The catalogue truly lived up to its nickname of the farm family ‘Wish Book’ and was always good for a few hours of wistful dreaming at almost anytime. If you heard over the grapevine that the new catalogue was out, you were on pins and needles, the whole family was, until your copy arrived. Why sometimes you even got to order something from it if the hens laid well and the cream check expanded a little.
I mentioned specialty catalogues, there were some, of course, and none so eagerly awaited or so well received as the seed catalogues. I can recall Northrup King and Gurneys because I still get them or use their seeds, but there were a number of others. I think it says something of the isolation of much of rural America back there that a notable calendar marking event was the arrival of one or more seed catalogues. For one thing, those pictures of all the luscious fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers arrived at a time when snow lay deep and all your palate had to recall was some limp, dried-out carrots buried in the root cellar or a pungent visit to the sauerkraut jar. Up where we lived, we were unlikely to be able to raise many of those things to match the seed catalogue portraits – but we could dream, couldn’t we?
Just back in the last paragraph, I mentioned the calendar(s). If you didn’t receive a half-dozen calendars at the start of the year, it was a disappointment. Most would be the usual pictorial scene with a small pad below with the months to be torn off as they passed into the next, but the one that farmers and their families waited for was the big drugstore type calendar (ours was always from Rexall) whose layout of monthly numbers covered the whole page. They still print that type, I know, but I wonder how many use them as faithfully as most of us did back there. For many it was the family account book, journal, diary, planting guide and log book all rolled into one. Children marked school days, mothers marked down the egg money and when the broody hen took to the nest. Father marked the beginning and end of plowing, the day the cow was bred and when she dropped her calf, the day he could expect the threshers and (possibly edged in black) the day the price of butterfat took another tumble. Without the Rexall calendar, many of us would have been adrift without a rudder. Even when times were blackest, there was always some notation of something in the future that meant hope.
There were many other things that RFD brought of course – ag bulletins from the state or US agriculture departments. Price lists and sale bills from auctions and/or dealers in farm products. And there was usually the weekly paper – very few were privileged to be close enough to the large cities with such luxury everyday. There were magazines in many farm homes then as now. Not all the same ones, but some are still around perhaps. I remember Cappers Weekly, Successful Farming and possibly one or two others. We got the Country Gentleman and the Poultry Journal.
The big farm next to us on the East was that of E.M. Wheeler and the few times I stayed overnight there as a guest of his grandson, I can recall the old man sitting in his office den pouring over old copies of the Breeder’s Gazette. What I wouldn’t give for that stack today!
Incidentally, I mentioned the daily versus the weekly newspaper – it reminds me of a story my grandfather used to tell of an episode down in the southern part of the state. There was a mailman there who carried a route through part of the hills above the Kickapoo River. One section of it led up and over one of the worst grades around. At the time I mention, only one family lived up there so when there was no mail for them, it was possible for the mailman to bypass that stretch without climbing the hill. The mailman made the mistake of having a falling out with an acquaintance who took his vengeance by subscribing to the Madison paper, the Capital Times in the name of the family on the hill. All through the worst three months of winter, he had to deliver that daily paper at the top of the icy slope. The mail must go through.
Although the impact was much greater back in the days before Radio, TV and widespread use of the telephone, there are still a number of remote areas where like conditions exist. And of course, there are things that are still as eagerly awaited. We like to think the Small Farmer’s Journal is one of them for many of you. We hope it will continue to be for many years to come and that people will still be standing by their mailboxes awaiting the ‘Rural Free Delivery!’