Mail delivery may be reduced to five days a week if some of the proposed cost-cutting measures of the U.S. Postal Service are put into effect. That may seem unthinkable after decades of Monday-to-Saturday service, but a look at postal history makes it obvious we have taken for granted the marvels of modern mail movement over the past century.

Young people may not know what RFD means. It’s Rural Free Delivery and it was a revolutionary concept in 1890 when a $10,000 government grant tested a free mail delivery system in 46 small towns. At that time, farmers had to go to a post office for their mail, and sometimes they couldn’t make pickups for weeks. RFD greatly improved communication possibilities for country dwellers before telephones and automobiles.

Some of the early RFD mail carriers in this part of Maine ran up some impressive records.

In 1931, members of Auburn Grange No. 4 in East Auburn honored Willard Waterman, who covered a route through East Auburn and North Auburn. He was retiring after 30 years of dedicated mail delivery.

My grandfather noted Waterman’s accomplishments in a speech that said, “Starting out April 1, 1901, with horse and road cart, one small mail bag was sufficient to carry the six daily newspapers and about the same number of letters. Now (in 1931) he carries, on an average, about 1,000 pieces of mail per day, and at Christmastime it takes two automobiles to carry the mail from the office.”

The tribute to Waterman said, “He has used eight horses and two automobiles on his route. A total of 109 of his patrons have passed away in the 30 years of his service and 27 sets of buildings have burned on his route.”

Waterman spent only three-and-a-half months away from his deliveries in those 30 years because of sickness, and it was calculated that he had traveled 344,000 miles, or more than 13 times around the world.

My recent searches of old family papers also turned up a hand-written page headed East Auburn News. It probably was an early news submission of my aunt, who wrote extensively for the Lewiston Evening Journal.

It said, “One wonders what model the mail carrier on Route 5 had in mind when building his winter vehicle. It resembles either a hen coop on wheels or an animated lumberman’s shanty. At any rate, it is warranted to keep out the cool breezes that sweep up from the lake.”

There’s no hint that it described one of Waterman’s mail vehicles, but it might have.

A feature story by Estella M. Harris in the May 31, 1924, edition of the Lewiston Journal Illustrated Magazine Section told of two other early RFD carriers.

Jacob A. Durgin of Turner was said to have one of the longest RFD routes in New England. It was 30 miles, compared with the regulation length of 24 miles at that time.

Durgin started delivering Turner mail exactly seven years after Willard Waterman began his route in Auburn. There was only one time when Durgin failed to complete a day’s route: A winter storm caught him five miles from home, and an obliging mail patron put him up for the night.

In the article, Durgin told of using horses and wagons from 1908 until about 1921. He said he kept enough horses so he could change them on alternate days and keep them in good condition.

When an automobile was acquired for that RFD route in the early 1920s, Ellen Bailey of Turner was appointed the driver. She was one of the first females in this part of New England to drive an RFD route. She was often accompanied by her little fox terrier dog, Prince.

It’s not called RFD mail anymore, but everyone with a mailbox along a country road still appreciates the punctual appearance of the mailman or, just as common today, the mailwoman. They are still the welcome familiar faces who always have a friendly wave as they stop at the country mailboxes.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He may be reached by sending e-mail to [email protected]

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