Post Office On Wheels
Ride along with Kentucky’s rural letter carriers as they weave their way into
our lives six days a week
Called Miss Paula by some of her customers, she relishes
the friendships she has made along the route. She has gotten invitations to
families’ christenings. She has helped a couple, new to the area, to find a
doctor for their children. She has cried over the death of customers.
Things like that aren’t part of the written job description
for letter carrier Paula Raleigh, but sometimes the carrier is the only person
that a customer sees in a day, especially if the customer is retired or doesn’t
own a car.
Every job has a rhythm, but none quite as distinct as the
job of the rural letter carrier delivering the mail to every single mailbox
along a road. Drive. Stop. Open the mailbox. Retrieve the letters to be mailed.
Slide in the new mail. Close the box. Drive. Stop. Open the mailbox.
Each day, Kentucky’s rural letter carriers—all of them
employees of the United States Postal Service—make an estimated 725,000 deliveries,
traveling more than 82,000 miles. It’s a rhythm that occurs six days a week
on nearly 1,600 routes in Kentucky.
There are many aspects that affect this rhythm, like the
day of the week (Mondays mean more mail), the weather, the gravel trucks and
tractors on the route, the customer at the mailbox who wants to chat. And, oh,
there are always the parcels that are too large to fit in the mailbox and must
be delivered to the door.
“We’re called a post office on wheels,” says Frankie Hunt,
a 20-year letter carrier and president of the Kentucky Rural Letter Carriers’
Association. “We can do most anything you can do at the post office.” Besides
delivering the mail and parcels, carriers sell stamps and money orders, and
mail outgoing parcels for customers and collect the postage for those deliveries—all
transacted from the carrier’s vehicle.
It might seem like an idyllic sort of job, as a carrier
drives along country roads, but with increased traffic and speeds on some state
routes, the job can be dangerous. In the past two years, 17 rural carriers from
across the country were killed in traffic accidents while on duty.
Five days a week, Raleigh delivers mail to 579 mailboxes
on a 22-mile “L-route” out of the Union post office. Some of her route is in
quiet residential neighborhoods, but on other parts of the route, large trucks
swish past just inches from her 1990 Dodge Aries. (L-routes have 12 or more
mailboxes per mile; non-L routes have less than 12 boxes a mile.) It’s a job
she enjoys and truly misses on the days when she doesn’t drive the route.
“Customers are glad to get a package but also glad to see
you,” observes Janice Ford, who drives a 54-mile route out of Boaz.
One day when Janice Ford opened a customer’s mailbox, there
was a glass of iced tea sitting inside. Some customers will invite a carrier
into the house to either cool off or warm up, depending on the season. In the
summer months, carriers generally turn off their vehicle’s air conditioning;
the sudden stops and starts are too hard on the car.
Dust blows in the windows. Flowers at the base of a mailbox
sometimes attract bees. Ice and snow in the winter make the job treacherous,
but you just focus on each mailbox one at a time and try not to think of the
difficult parts of the road up ahead, says Raleigh. When snow emergencies are
declared and police admonish drivers to drive only if necessary, carriers will
be out on the road delivering the mail.
In 42 years as a rural carrier, William “Junior” Collins
of Leitchfield missed only two days of delivering the mail—both due to extremely
deep snows. When Collins started working for the post office in 1947, his 24-mile
route out of Millwood was mostly dirt roads. There were seven creeks to ford,
and for the first three years, he delivered mail by horseback. He’d carry the
mail in saddlebags on each side of the horse. Some days, the saddlebags weren’t
large enough to hold all that needed to be delivered, like the Sears, Roebuck
and Co. catalogs that most families received. For carriers, it was—and still
is—a juggling act in getting everything packed up for a day’s deliveries.
One time when Collins had five boxes of 450 live chickens
loaded onto his horse, a postcard went sailing from his hand into the wind.
What did Collins do? He climbed off the horse and ran across the broom sage
field to retrieve the postcard. When Collins retired in 1989, his route covered
112 miles with 480 to 500 stops a day. “There’s only one way to do this job:
treat your customers as human beings, not as a number on a box.” This lesson
he has passed on to his eldest daughter, Kim Harrell, a rural carrier at the
Leitchfield post office with 17 years of experience.
Many times, letters won’t be addressed correctly, but carriers
try to look beyond this and focus on “who gets this letter?” Recently in Frankie
Hunt’s mail stack was an envelope that said “Grandma.” And the address was wrong,
but knowing the customers and their family members, Hunt was able to figure
out which grandmother to deliver the letter to.
“You become one of the family. You see what they mail and
receive. You don’t break that confidence. It’s like a doctor’s oath,” points
out Scottie B. Hicks of Owingsville, who carried mail in the Morehead area from
1959 until 1985. He has seen many changes since the late 1950s when the postman
stopped for lunch at his father’s general store and encouraged Hicks to become
a substitute postman.
“One can no longer call carriers postmen, since currently
there are more females in the craft than there are males,” says Hicks, who has
represented rural letter carriers nationwide in Washington, D.C., as an officer/lobbyist
of the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association and as national president
from 1994 to 1997.
The act of delivering mail actually begins long before
the carriers climb in their vehicles. At daybreak, United States Postal Service
trucks arrive at post offices across the state and unload the mail that must
be delivered locally that day (with the exception of undated Third Class mail).
Each carrier sorts, into multitiered cases, the mail for his or her route.
Paula Raleigh and co-workers spend about 60 percent of
their time in the post office doing this sorting, and then loading everything
onto canvas carts to get the heavy bundles of mail to the loading dock and into
the car. It’s hard, physical work but, as with the deliveries on the road, there’s
a rhythm to it. Sort. Check. Lift. Tote. Sort. Check, and check again. Today’s
carriers still deliver live chickens, or sometimes turkeys, seahorses, grasshoppers,
Most post office administrators have come from the ranks
of city carriers and city post offices, and not from the “rural carrier craft.”
Why? Rural carriers like the variety of this job and the postal service’s “evaluated
pay system.” Based on an annual count of the mail in September, carriers work
on salary, so to speak, and have no time clocks to punch. Bobby Reynolds of
Scottsville, a former Kentucky association president, continued to farm his
land while working as a carrier for 33 years. “You feel honor-bound to do a
good job on your route,” he points out.
Carriers will quickly notice when mail is accumulating
in a mailbox, and often will check on a customer. That happened this past August
in Ivanhoe, Virginia, when a mail carrier saved the life of a 75-year-old man
trapped for 69 hours in a collapsed outhouse. The mail carrier noticed the untouched
mail in the box and went to see if the farmer was all right, and heard the weak
call of the man who had fallen into the outhouse’s pit.
Frankie Hunt once encountered a customer who had locked
herself out of her house and had a young child inside. Hunt climbed through
the window and unlocked the door for the woman. Another time he spotted fire
around the chimney of a house and alerted the occupants and fire department.
On most days, the time it takes to complete a route varies, depending on the
number of parcels and volume of the day’s mail.
The pace of life has greatly changed since Kentucky’s first
rural delivery began in Allensville in 1897, but one thing hasn’t changed: the
mail still arrives at our homes every day but Sunday. Thanks to the men and
women who make this possible, and care about you and your neighbors.
History of Rural Free Delivery (RFD)
1863—Free mail delivery began in cities.
1890—Farmers asked Congress for rural free delivery.
Congress appropriated $10,000 to test this experiment.
1892—U.S. House Committee on the Post Office and Post
Roads rejected the bill for RFD.
1893—The House approved mail deliveries to farms, but
not towns and villages.
1896—Charles Town, West Virginia, became the first site
for permanent rural free delivery. 44 routes in 29 states were established.
1897—Allensville became the first site in Kentucky to
have rural delivery.
1903—National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association started.
1921—Kentucky Rural Letter Carriers’ Association formed.
1970—Postal Reorganization Act discontinued the practice
of congressmen appointing each rural letter carrier.
2000—United States Postal Service has more than 67,000
routes. Nearly 1,600 of these rural routes are in Kentucky.
More than Numbers
Most people reach into a mailbox, thinking only of their
own mail. Consider some of the numbers behind the scenes:
3,195 rural letter carriers in Kentucky
56,826 regular rural carriers across the United State
57,945 leave replacements, or substitutes, for U.S. rural
30 million rural boxes nationwide
Kentucky rural carriers travel more than 82,000 miles
Nationwide, carriers drive nearly 3.1 million miles each
day, serving rural and urban America