Roughing it on the Rural Routes
By P.W. Luce
There’s plenty of variety in a rural mail carrier’s job, but there isn’t much money in it.
Conditions are a little better than they were in the early years of the century, when I was a temporary major domo of one of the sideroads of the Cariboo Highway.
Our route was thirty-five miles long and from two to seven inches deep in the spring and fall. The man who had the contract drove the mail stage himself when he had nothing else to do. If he was busy he gave the job to his hired man. If he had fired his hired man recently, he’d call on one of his neighbors,”in the name of His Majesty the King.”
I doubted his authority to invoke this high power, but never argued the point. He was a big man with a high-voltage temper.
The team were fast steppers for a light load, and could make good time when the road was in shape. In early spring and late fall when weather conditions brought windfalls and quagmires, the horses had to tug at their collars to keep going.
Standard equipment included a coil of rope, a log chain with which to snake out trees that had fallen across the road, a shovel, a pickaxe, a bucksaw, a double-bitted axe, and a rifle and a shotgun for any game that might happen along.
The buggy carried hay for the horses. The mail carrier didn’t earn enough on the trip to buy feed, so he had to haul some from the half-way stop coming and going, and use the rest for the evening and morning feeding. Hay was used and so this made a bulky load. Once in a long while there might be oats, but this always came as a big surprise to the team.
Because of the distance to be travelled, an early start had to be made from each end. There was an hour’s stop at the halfway mark, where a small stream crossed the road. That is, it was a small stream in summer. In the spring and in the fall it was a small river. A bit of open ground provided some grazing for a few weeks. The remainder of the road ran through bush and forest.
The mail had to get through on the appointed day, come hail or high water. The contract was definite as to that.
Nearby ranchers weren’t so bound. One day was as good as another so far as they were concerned. So they would invariably wait for the mail carrier to break trail after a heavy fall of snow, and then follow more or less comfortably in his ruts. The mail man didn’t like this overmuch, but he never succeeded in persuading anyone to break trail ahead of him.
As an individual the mail carrier may have had his faults but as an institution he stood high up in the rank of local celebrities. He was the common carrier of Cariboo gossip, for in those days there was only one district newspaper, and the circulation of the Vancouver papers was mighty small north of Ashcroft. He was banker and financial agent, on a small scale, always ready to cash a reasonable cheque or to break a ten into smaller amounts.
He would buy money orders and slip those into letters for the Toronto department stores and he was obliging enough to affix stamps on envelopes when the writer had been negligent. But he didn’t make a habit of this. He didn’t make a business of benevolence. If a man failed to refund the outlay, he needn’t look for any further outside help from the mail man. The letter of the law would be observed but nothing more.
The mail sacks on the return trip were usually light, except when Eaton’s Catalogues arrived. The buggy frequently carried a fair load of small stuff needed by the ranchers and homesteaders, and most of this travelled dead-head. There might be a couple of cases of groceries, a pair of shoes, a lantern, a sack of oats, pots and pans and other kitchenware, some gunny sacks and almost anything else that was needed on the ranch, but wasn’t worth an immediate trip to town.
On one of my trips I was commissioned to buy two items for the same family. The wife wanted a baby’s nipple, and the husband wanted a second-hand mower. I got the first for ten cents, and the second for $100.
The man told me the mower was O.K. and he paid a couple of dollars for the freight.
I never heard any complaints about the nipple, so assumed it worked O.K. too. The little lad who used it grew up to be a handsome fellow and is now a grandfather.
The mail was picked up in sacks hung on posts along the road. Many of the owners lived several miles away and they used to wait at the post for the pleasure of a chat with the mail carrier. Sometimes he’d hurry along. It depended on how close he was running to his schedule.
The mail man knew whose cattle had not been seen for some weeks, where some strays might be found, whether the price of beef had gone up or down, who had traded horses and who had been gypped, who was dead or who had got drunk again, and how the hay was coming along at various places.
All this trivia, in the Cariboo, was far more to the point than the political situation in Europe or the ups and downs in the New York stock market.
The contract for the rural route mail delivery was entered into for three years and two substantial guarantors were demanded by the government. If the contractor fell down on the job, the guarantors had to take over. That made it hard to get endorsers for some routes, especially as few of the fairly well-off ranchers would undertake the business. The low pay was discouraging.
Still, the mail had to go through. There wasn’t much cash in the land, and somebody would finally take the job.
The horse-and-buggy days of rural mail delivery have plodded back into history. Planes roar in the Cariboo clouds, far above the roads where I urged my team along in the cold winter mornings, and two-ton trucks rumble along the hard surface that cuts through the jackpine and the swamps. A couple of hours can do the trip that took me a whole day, and there are no windfalls to block the road. It’s still too cold or too hot, too wet or too dry, too early or too late, too little pay and too much worry, but… Her Majesty’s Mail always goes through!
‘Our History’ is curated by former Canadian Cattlemen editor, Gren Winslow.