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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Rural Mail Routes

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Motorists today tend to take good roads for granted, unless they encounter bumpy pavement, a detour or congested traffic.

But in the early 20th century, travelers well understood the old expression that compared something unfavorable to "X miles of bad road."

When J.D. Copeland hired on as a rural mail carrier in Travis County in 1916, he quickly learned the importance of good roads.

Using a gig, a two-wheeled wagon pulled by one horse, Copeland served a 24.5-mile route in the southeastern part of the county, working out of the Del Valle Post Office. Of that route, only six miles of road had a gravel covering. The rest of the mileage consisted of two-rut dirt roads.

"During rainy weather I had just one mud hole about 18 miles long between two barbed wire fences," Copeland later recalled. Noting that a wet spell could last up to six weeks, on occasion, he continued, "I had to go horse back, carrying four pouches of mail hanging two on each side of the horse, over the front and back of the saddle."

When making his deliveries on a horse, he carried only first class mail, daily newspapers and magazines. He saved the catalogs and parcels until the weather - and the roads - improved.

Copeland never forgot a particularly wet spring that washed out bridges as well as making the roads virtually impassable.

One day conditions had deteriorated to the point that he had to switch from a horse to a mule. When he tried to ford Dry Creek, a name that seemed like a joke at the time, his mule decided to lie down in the cool mud at the creek's edge. Copeland soon found himself mired in silt and water up to his waist.

"At that time I told myself I was quitting," he said.

Copeland managed to make it to a country store in the nearby Stony Point community. There the proprietor loaned him a change of clothes and agreed to hold his mail until Copeland's customers could come and claim it.

Back at Del Valle, Copeland walked in the post office and advised Postmaster James H. Johnson that he needed to find a new carrier for his route.

"I told [Johnson] that I was quitting for the reason that only a jaybird could fly over those mud holes," Copeland said. "He laughed and told me to go home and he would study about sending my resignation in the next morning."

After sleeping on it, Copeland returned to the post office for another talk with Johnson.

The young mailman may or may not have heard the often-invoked expression first articulated by the Greek historian Herodotus that "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of nights, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds," but he knew the fundamentals of micro economics. It takes money to pay the rent and buy food.

"I had dried out and thawed out [and told] the postmaster that I had a wife and two children that I had to provide for and I'd try a while longer," Copeland said.

Postmaster Johnson stayed on the job a while longer himself, finally retiring after 34 years of service in the summer of 1946. That was about when the highway department started building an all-weather network of paved rural routes called farm to market roads that made it a lot easier for postal carriers to live up to Herodotus' words.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" >

September 21, 2006 column
 
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This page last modified: September 21, 2006