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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: Remembering when Harry carried the mail

A North Country Public Radio project

December 29, 2017
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

OLMSTEDVILLE - There's a big difference between delivering mail on a city route in a small town like Potsdam or Saranac Lake and delivering mail on a rural route to remote houses in farm country or along the back roads of the Adirondacks.

There's an even bigger difference between how mail was delivered 100 years ago and how it's delivered today.


Article Photos

Harry Wilson carries the mail near Olmstedville.
(Photo provided — Dan Berggren)

Harry Wilson

Harry Wilson, a dairy farmer in the Essex County hamlet of Leonardsville in the town of Minerva, saw many changes during his 30-year tenure as the mailman in his neck of the woods. But every day, between 1915 and 1945, he always relied on one tool that today's letter carrier still uses in all kinds of weather.

"The mail pouch was probably his most significant tool," said Adirondack singer/songwriter Dan Berggren, who wrote a song about his grandfather Harry Wilson called "When Harry Carried the Mail." Dan spent his adolescence on the family farm, and in 1975 he moved back to it.

One day, while exploring the farm, Dan found something he says changed his life forever, something that brought him closer to his grandfather: a leather mail pouch.

"I found it in our barn, which used to be my grandfather's barn, a barn that he helped his father build and that was his work station. It is where everything was accomplished for the farm and where he got the horses and carriage ready for the mail route."

That same year, with a tape recorder in hand, Berggren decided to retrace his grandfather's original 14-mile mail route, from Olmstedville to Leonardsville, Loch Muller and Irishtown. He knocked on doors to see if anyone remembered Harry. Many did, including Cecil Butler of Loch Muller. And he showed him the mail pouch.

"Harry's mail pouch, yes, sir, that's good leather," Butler told Berggren. "Oh, that's old. Harry used to carry it with horses, you know.... I know darn well I've seen him put his hand in there and take out mail and hand it to me."

Wilson delivered mail with a carriage and horses, a cutter in the winter, then a Model T Ford and a Model A. One time, he even delivered Army draft notices to a couple of men during World War I, on snowshoes.

"It didn't bother Harry, and the snow was deep, but he had a road to get home on," Butler said.

Wilson's day would begin with chores on the farm, making sure that the cows were milked and the animals were fed. In the meantime, someone else met the mail train in North Creek and brought pouches of mail back to Olmstedville. Around noon, he would go to the Olmstedville post office and sort the mail and begin his route.

When he began his mail route in 1915, it was 14 miles long. By the time he retired in 1945, it was 24 miles long. When Harry got home depended on how much mail there was. Around Christmas time, when there were a lot of packages, people shipping and people receiving, he might get home at 8:00 or 8:30 at night.


Sense of community

Harry Wilson's story is typical of Rural Free Delivery in the Adirondacks in the early 20th century, when the mailman was much more than a mailman, according to Laura Rice, chief curator at the Adirondack Experience museum in Blue Mountain Lake.

"The postal service really served as a sort of social glue in a lot of ways - that you had mail carriers and people delivering mail that would also look after people when the snow got very high. They would look after shut-ins and the elderly and bring them staples from town if they couldn't make it back and forth. They would relay messages about medical emergencies to doctors in town."

Harry Wilson would even deliver medicine to sick people along his route, or food. Berggren said he even delivered the news: "Cecil Butler even told me that when his daughter Phyllis was born, he and his wife held her up to the window so that Harry could see and tell the other people on the mail route that the Butlers had their baby."


Post offices as social hubs

Post offices in rural America didn't have their beginnings in the stand-alone structures we see today.

In small towns, the post office usually began in an existing business, sometimes in a household. Such was the case in the tiny Franklin County hamlet of Coreys at the southern end of Upper Saranac Lake, where postmistress Catherine Petty set up the post office in the front parlor of her home. She took on the job to earn a little extra cash, a story her son Clarence told before his death in 2009 at the age of 104.

"Clarence remembered the very first dollar he ever made was in carrying the mail over to a portion of his community that wasn't accessible anyway except by foot," Laura Rice said. "And he lost his dollar bill on the path and had to go back and retrieve it."

Clarence Petty also remembered that their home soon became a place for residents and visitors to meet.

"All of the lumberjacks and the locals and some of the sportsmen would come in," Rice said. "As they came in to get their mail and ship things home, as it is now, a lot of times the postal office was really sort of a social center for people."


Mail by boat

One unique way to get mail in the Adirondacks is by mail boat, a service seen in the summer months on large lakes dotted by seasonal homes for more than a century. President Benjamin Harrison, for example, began mail boat service on the Fulton Chain of Lakes near Old Forge in 1901 to get mail delivered to his seasonal home on the lake.

"He was kind of tired of having to hike out to get his mail and wanted a more efficient way of having the mail come to him," Rice said.

In Old Forge, Rice says camp owners receiving mail by boat still needed to have a post office box in town.

"The pilot would sound the horn to let everybody know he was coming. If you met him at the dock you got your mail on the dock. If you weren't there when he was there, you would have to go in town and go collect your mail out of your box."

As time went by, some larger mail boats doubled as tourist boats, so visitors could take a scenic tour of the lake while the mail was being delivered.

Mail bags of all kinds - from leather to canvas and pillowcases - were required for camp owners to receive their mail. The Adirondack Experience has a few of them in their collection, including a handmade one from the Adirondack Woodswoman, Anne LaBastille, who owned a log cabin on Twitchell Lake.

"She was kind of interesting because she had those German shepherds and she trained them," Rice said. "A German shepherd would run down to the dock. The man delivering the mail would hand the bag to the dog, and the dog would bring it up to the cabin."



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