Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Anyone for Old-Fashioned Mail? By Polly Morris

In the 1970's Polly Morris wrote a series of articles for the St. Tammany News-Banner, often telling of how things were done in "the good old days." Her topics were varied and interesting, but she always tied the subject into local communities and St. Tammany Parish. 

Here is the text from an article she wrote about how the delivery of mail has changed over the years. Of particular interest are the postal situations in Madisonville and Lacombe.

 Anyone For Old Fashioned Mail?

By Polly Morris

A letter from Pearl River costs 24 cents because the addressee live in Baton Rouge over 100 miles away. The postmaster examines it to make certain that that there is only one page, folded, and written on only one side of the paper. It will not be enclosed in an envelope, nor will it be delivered unless the receiver agrees to pay an extra charge.

Those who remember the penny postal card will grimly suppose the increased postage rate and poor service are a prediction of the future. In truth, it is a peek into the past and at a time when mail service in this country was already well over 200 years old. 

No doubt people have always complained about the postal service and postal carriers about the difficulties that prevent couriers from the "swift completion of their appointed rounds." But the hardships of snow, rain, heat, and the gloom of night were mere annoyances to the postman of long ago, when getting the mail through was often a hazardous or haphazard undertaking.

Port to Port

Outside of government dispatches the first mail service in America was no service at all, but a patronage a rugged sea captain would hang a sea bag in a coffeehouse or tavern and tell the proprietor that he is shoving off for La Rochelle on an estimated date.

People would put letters into the bag even for ports outside France. At La Rochelle the captain would dump the entire lot on a dirty table and depart. Everyone was at liberty to look through the letters, claim their own, or take those of others, for they might be going to another port on the way to the letters destination. Again the letters would be dumped on another dirty table and eventually and hopefully reach the addressee.

International correspondence had additional hazards. Monarches and their men in office were extremely suspicious of correspondence not carried by authorized messengers. An innocent phrase might send a man to prison if it could be read so as to suggest a plot against His Majesty.

When postal service was finally authorized by Great Britain to the Colonies, no one wanted the job of postmaster. He would have a great responsibility, but the pay would be only 1 penny per letter, and he would furnish the horse for pickup and delivery.

The first Postmaster of the United State was old Ben Franklin and his handsome salary was $1000 per year, a nice sum at the time. But he earned it because he set up a system of stagecoaches, post offices, and service to England.

However efficient old Ben was, there was a little town on a big lake in faraway and foreign Louisiana that probably had  a long jump on him. Coqueville or Cokie Bank was on the well traveled trace to the North and had been a trappers village for decades. 

Post Oak

Legend has it that there was an old oak tree on the way that had a generous hold in its ancient trunk. Letters were deposited in the natural post office for pickup, and it was said to be the oldest post office of sorts in St. Tammany Parish.

The settlement later became Madisonville but the legends about the old oak go on and on.

Postal Odd Balls

Even more unique than the old oak, but certainly less lovely were post offices of a later date. Somewhere along the lonely road from East to West was an abandoned trappers cabin where pioneers left letters.

Since the addressee paid the postage, travelers would take the letters to the nearest post office. Many an eastbound letter was deposited in Chicago and the mailboxes inside were quite unusual and smelly. Worn out boots made from all kinds of home-tanned leather were nailed to the walls.

Even more rugged than this was the post office used by travelers going "round the Horn" on their way West. At Capt Horn was a barrel, waterproofed with tar, and wedged between rocks. It had an iron lid and leather hinges, and here were put the letters of the happy hopefuls on their way to the California gold fields or those left by the luckless loners on their way back home.

Dixie Delivery

 On widely scattered plantations the law required the owner of each plantation to pass it on to the next. Or pay a fine of 350 pounds of tobacco.
Ups and Downs

The postal service had had many ups and downs which seem incredible in their differences in time and place.

In 1814 St. Tammany Parish was a rather out-of-the-way place nationwide. Roads were nothing to boast about, and there was mail that came overland on the King's Highway to Madisonville. A government contract was given to Capt. William Wharton Collins that was generous in its time.

He would receive $900 per year for taking the U.S. Mail from Madisonville across the lake to the Old Spanish Fort in his packet boat which made regular trips anyhow. It was a short haul for good money.

Yet in Eastern cities before 1863 a mail carrier was given no salary. He could collect and keep two cents on each letter delivered, if the addressee did not refuse the letter. He could also collect and keep two cents for each letter he picked up and brought to the post office.

Later, in 1858, his paltry job was lessened even more, for street corner mail boxes were put in and the deposit service went down to almost nil.

Progress Kills

Progress too often kills the picturesque.

The old time overland mail stagecoaches were both quaint and colorful. Their bodies were painted green and the wheels were painted red. Under a great American eagle on the side panels was written in yellow: U.S. Mail Stage. But they often took 17 days to take the mail from St. Louis to San Francisco. This was too slow for business men and merchants, so the privately-owned "Pony Express" began carrying part of the mail.

They covered the same distance in seven days, but the extra cost was considerable. Each piece of mail cost $5 pus U.S. Postage. The first trip netted a nice profit for the riders rushed over the rough country with 49 letters, five telegrams, and dispatches from newspapers.

The Pony Express riders were a daring lot, and much admired, but they lasted only one and a half years. In their place came the Iron Horse, steaming and roaring and belching black smoke from its clumsy stack. However, the small railroads were at first reluctant to take the mail, for they did not run after dark.

Only after much persuasion and unreliable headlights did they rush through the dark countryside, wailing like a lonesome wolf baying at the moon. They, too, were doomed by the sleek diesels that were highly efficient, with greater speed, but lacking in romance.

The old modes of transportation for the mail each gave away to progress and the paddlewheel steamers were also outmoded by the railroads.

Time Stood Still

However, there was a place in St. Tammany Parish where time stood still, even after the beginning of the 20th century.

A long time resident of the little town of St. Tammany remembers when mail was brought into his town from Florenville by horse. Shannon Ezell has reason to remember, for he was one of the riders. And he also recalls other riders: Victor Morgan, Forest and Frank Fogg, and the last one of all, Willie Stimson.

No one alive today recalls when postage stamps were only rubber stamp cancellations, or when adhesive stamps had to be clipped with scissors from a sheet that had no familiar perforations. But many can remember the penny postal card, and the twice daily city deliveries, with one on Saturday.

The Lacombe Post Office

But how many can remember four deliveries a day? Mrs. Hilda Streck of Lacombe tells of how it was in the days before her father, John Henry Davis, gave the right away for the railroad to come through Lacombe and bring the mail.

As near as she recalled, it was around 1905 or 1906 when mail was picked up at the railroad station in Slidell and brought to Lacombe by crossing on a ferry which was near to where the railroad now crosses Bayou Lacombe.

The Lacombe post office is over a century in age and was established before any railroad came through. At which time schooners came up the bayou to the landing at the foot of Main Street.

Rare and Junk

Fortunately mail service has been at its worst when it was needed least. Letters were treasured as a rarity when people could not even spell their own name, much less compose a letter. In eastern towns professional scribes charged for writing services but many a letter in Louisiana was written by a priest because the parishioner could neither read nor write.

Families made settlements and what little mail there was went by travelers or the ever-willing peddlers who knew that meals and a bed were his reward from sender and receiver for his free courtesy.

Two things sped up the sending of mail, but they are oddly related and unrelated. Schools gave the settlers an opportunity to learn the three R's. And a postal law of 1861 authorized the sending of circulars and advertisements through the mail. Eventually this law led to the avalanche of junk mail that plagues postman and patron alike.

Often in the old days, many people never received a letter in their entire life. Now it is estimated that there is an average of 370 pieces of mail per year sent to each person in the United States.

It is interesting to note that as late as 1954 St. Tammany had only 967 post office boxes. Then, as now, most of the mail is by rural free delivery, and star route carriers who are slowed down by junk mail and patrons who complain about it with some justification.

However, the carrier can be happy that the twain shall never meet between the traditional old and the terrifically complicated new.

The new junk mail, however burdensome, is nothing to the heavy clay tablets used for correspondence by the ancient Assyrians. The daily distances are traveled in a vehicle, not on foot at top speed, and the complaints are not as bad as those of old, though the rewards are less.

Messengers of Bad News

Old time Egyptian couriers were torn between the desire to set a speed record, or to simply trot off into the sunset. For if he was fast on his feet with a cheerful message, he was dined, wined, and rewarded. If his papyrus scroll had bad news, he did not even dare ask for a drink of water, nor have time to do so. He was slain on the spot for bringing unwanted mail.

And who knows, maybe the scroll advertised a master builder who had just completed a larger pyramid for a rival king. 

DEPOT - Old railroad depots like this date back to the days when there was a mail car included in the train. The mail was sorted while the train was moving along, and dropped off at the depot where a mail clerk was waiting to grab it.

Here is the actual article. Click on the images to make them larger. 


Polly Morris joined the writing team at the Mandeville Banner in February of 1974.