Impassable roads (where roads even existed) and isolated communities shaped the development of Rabun County’s postal system in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In the absence of decent roads, post offices had to be located within easy reach of the county’s many small communities. A round trip by horse and buggy from Rabun Gap to Tallulah Falls could take a full day. When rain turned roads into muddy quagmires, the same trip could take much longer. And there was no such thing as home delivery back in those days. People had to travel to the local post office to pick up their mail.
Rabun Served By 30 Post Offices
Given these realities, 30 post offices were scattered throughout Rabun County by the early 1900s.
The county’s first post office was established at Clayton in 1827, six years after the town was founded. This was followed by post offices in Rabun Gap (1857), Tallulah Falls (1887), Dillard (1894), Wiley (1902), Lakemont (then known as Mathis in 1903), and Mountain City (then Passover in 1903).
Over 20 other tiny communities and settlements also had their own post offices. Among them are names not found on most maps today: Quartz, Grove, Spruce, Blalock, Glassy Mountain, Satolah and Burton (now underneath the lake of the same name). ,
Contract Star Routes Established
In 1845 Congress enacted legislation to make mail delivery more efficient and less expensive. Under this legislation, contracts for mail delivery to and between post offices would be awarded to the lowest bidder for what “may be necessary to provide for the due celerity, certainty and security of such transportation.”
These were known as “celerity, certainty and security” bids. Postal clerks shortened the phrase to three asterisks or stars. The bids became known as star bids and the routes as Star Routes. In numerous cases, bids were so low that contractors lacking business sense ended up paying the U.S. Postal Department (the precursor of the U.S. Postal Service) for the privilege of delivering the mail.
Teenage Contractors and Carriers
Initially, contractors and mail carriers had to be at least 16 years old. They were bonded and took an oath of office. The typical four-year contract did not provide payment for missed trips, regardless of weather conditions. Service failures could result in fines up to three times the amount of the route’s contract.
Star Route carriers could use any means of transportation to get the job done. In Rabun County, mail was delivered to post offices by horse or horse and wagon. Depending on circumstances, carriers also could use boats, sleds or snowshoes.
Moonshine in the Mail
In 1890, the 15 ½-mile Star Route between the Rabun Gap and Burton post offices was contracted by Ella Jackson for $153.06 per year for two trips per week. A daily, 16-mile route between the Clayton, Warwoman and Pine Mountain post offices was established in 1899. Prior to this, it took as long as a week for a letter from Clayton to reach Pine Mountain. The Clayton Tribune wrote, “This route was badly needed…Now we are in daily communication with Pine Mountain.” And it was only fitting that A. M. Wall was appointed postmistress of the Warwoman post office.
Star Route regulations concerning what could be sent in the mail were not always strictly enforced. The Clayton Tribune reported a complaint in 1899 about a Persimmon mail boy carrying a jar of corn whiskey in his mail pouch. The recipient of the moonshine was not disclosed.
Rural Free Delivery
Nearly 41 million people, or 65 percent of the American population, lived in rural areas by 1890. Although city dwellers had enjoyed free home delivery since 1863, rural citizens like those in Rabun County still had to pick up their mail at the post office.
In January 1892, “A Bill to Extend the Free Delivery System of Mails to Rural Communities” was rejected by Congress due to its proposed $6 million price tag. Then in 1893, a similar bill introduced by Georgia Congressman Tom Watson passed. It appropriated $10,000 for experimental rural free delivery (RFD) service. However, the Postmaster General did not pursue the experiment, citing the pressure of more important concerns.
Congress appropriated additional funds in 1895, enabling the experiment in rural free delivery to proceed. On October 1, 1896, RFD service was started in several towns in West Virginia, the home state of the then-Postmaster General. Within a year, 44 routes were operating in 28 states. The U.S. Post Office Department extended the RFD experiment across the entire country in late 1899. Judged a success, RFD became a permanent, nationwide service effective July 1, 1902.
Clayton Awarded Rabun’s First RFD Route in 1909
Clayton petitioned the U.S. Post Office Department in 1907 for an RFD route. The route was not awarded at that time, probably due to the requirement for proof of passable roads. This was a daunting challenge for a county with many impassable roads. However, sufficient proof finally was accepted by the government.
The May 21, 1909 edition of the Clayton Tribune carried a letter from the Fourth Assistant Postmaster General stating, “I have the honor to advise you that rural delivery service has been ordered established from Clayton, Rabun County, Georgia, with one carrier, to be effective July 1, 1909.” Other RFD routes in the county were subsequently established.
The Tallulah Falls Railroad, running from Cornelia, Georgia to Franklin, North Carolina, played a key role in the development of Rabun County’s RFD service. Starting in 1909 under a contract with the U.S. Postal Department, nearly every passenger train included a mail car, which greatly reduced mail delivery times. The railroad’s mail service put any number of Star Route contractors out of business.
8×10 Foot Post Office
An account of an early RFD route in Rabun County came from a John Moore, who, as a teenager in 1920, rode his horse Bell on a daily round-trip between the Blalock and Rabun Gap post offices. Along the nearly 20-mile route, he delivered mail to all of 29 homes.
John’s first stop after leaving Blalock was the Persimmon post office, which he described as an eight-by-ten-foot building in the postmaster’s front yard. He reminisced that on one winter day, his horse’s “belly was frosty white with icicles” from the water that had splashed on her while crossing Persimmon Creek on his way to the post office.
Bedroom Post Office
After leaving Persimmon, John rode three more miles to Quartz, where he said the post office was housed in the postmaster’s bedroom. He recalled, “The top two drawers of an old-fashioned bureau were used for the mail and postal equipment.”
From Quartz, John crossed the mountain (possibly on Blue Ridge Gap Road) to Wolffork Valley and then made his way to the Rabun Gap post office. The mountain crossing was the most dangerous part of the route. John said he had to dismount and lead his horse across an icy patch overlooking a rock cliff. He also recalled that other sections of the route “were so rough that a rabbit would have to reduce his speed or risk breaking his neck.” One wonders about the government’s definition of passable roads.
The Great Safe Heist
The perils of the county postal system were not limited to mail routes. Things occasionally got dicey at post offices.
A December 1928 edition of the Clayton Tribune reported a nighttime robbery of the Clayton post office. The burglars did not escape with a bag of cash. Instead, they hauled off a 500-pound safe that contained stamps worth $522.23, cash of $29.09 and 68 money order blank checks.
After fleeing town, the robbers stopped on Warwoman Road and rolled the safe down a hillside, where it was hidden with brush and leaves. They planned to return and crack it open once the sheriff’s search party went home. But things did not go as planned. The unopened safe was quickly found and the robbers were arrested.
The number of Rabun County post offices has shrunk from 30 to seven. Bedrooms are no longer used as post offices, and moonshine is banned from the mail. Today’s postal system may not be as colorful as it was back in the day, but at least we get our mail in a timely manner…for the most part.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Clayton Tribune on October 22, 2020.