When RFD killed the rural post offices…

After the settlement era, those who moved to Kendall County put down roots and established communities.

In towns, communities were often formed by those who came from the same areas in the east to their new homes. In rural areas, communities were often established in much the same way, as neighbors in eastern farming communities often traveled west together and purchased land near each other.

These new farming communities came to be based around three institutions, at least to start. Churches, schools, and the local post office-general store provided communal connections for pioneer farm families.

Of the three institutions, churches and schools were started first. Many country churches can trace their origins back to pioneer missionaries who held services in pioneer cabins. Later, after churches were built, denominations established circuits where preachers traveled from congregation to congregation. That practice lasted right up through the early years of the 20th Century.

Before 1850, schools were also started when settlers—especially those from eastern states—established subscription schools. Subscriptions were collected, buildings procured, and teachers hired from the proceeds. Settlers from southern states were less enthusiastic about education, but most eventually went along with their northern neighbors when schools were established in their neighborhoods.

Both schools and churches not only promoted religion and education, but they were also part of the rural social framework.

As the frontier moved west, local Congressmen made sure their constituents were able to stay in touch via the U.S. Mail. Post offices were established throughout the Fox Valley early on, the first at Ottawa in December 1833 and the next at Holdeman’s Grove in April 1834. Post offices were valuable things for a community have, since they offered a communications pipeline back to their home communities in the east and south.

In those years, not everyone could afford, say, a newspaper subscription. So a few local residents would order papers from their Eastern hometowns. The arrival of the mail, in small towns, was an almost holiday-like event as those with subscriptions read their papers aloud to groups of residents. Ministers complained, in fact, because on Sundays when the mail stagecoach arrived at the village post office, most of the males abruptly left the service so they could find out the latest news.

But people still had to go to the post office to get their mail. In small villages that was no problem, but in larger cities and out in rural areas, it was. In 1863, the postal service had begun free house-to-house delivery in larger towns. But out in the country and in small villages, people still had to travel to the post office to pick up their mail.

Because patrons had to physically pick up their mail, small post offices came to be scattered around the countryside. Kendall County residents were served by a number of these rural post offices, many of which also included a small general store. Often, a school was located nearby, and sometimes a church, too. These crossroads hamlets sometimes became the bases around which small towns grew.

Here in Kendall County, for instance, there was the rural Specie Grove Post Office in Section 10 of Kendall Township, the Kendall Post Office, located nearly on the border with NaAuSay Township and the NaAuSay Post Office, in that township’s extreme northeast corner. Kendall County residents also patronized the Tamarack Post Office, the Wolf’s Crossing Post Office, and the Normantown Post Office in Will County. The Nettle Creek Post Office in Grundy County also served some county residents.

But between 1893 and 1912, 11 of these small post offices throughout the county closed. What happened? It was another historical example of “Be careful of what you wish for; you may get it.”

Mr. Ebinger, a rural mail carrier working out of the Oswego Post Office about 1915, pauses after completing his rounds.

Mr. Ebinger, a rural mail carrier working out of the Oswego Post Office about 1915, pauses after completing his rounds.

In the 1890s, farm organizations, such as the Grange, began a strong push for Rural Free Delivery. RFD was proposed to bring the mail right to the farmyard gate, and was eagerly sought by farmers and farm organizations alike. So in 1896, the postal service began experimental RFD. It proved extremely successful. But with RFD, many small rural post offices were no longer needed. Instead, postal service was consolidated into village post offices and rural mail carriers traveled routes six days a week delivering the mail.

Before the RFD initiative, the rural NaAuSay Post Office closed in 1893 after 43 years in business, probably as the result of simple lack of business due to the county’s continuing post-Civil War population decline.

But then in 1900, a veritable avalanche of local closures took place as rural post offices at Little Rock in Kendall County and Wolf’s Crossing and Caton Farm in Will County closed, followed by Tamarack in 1901 and Normantown in 1903. The Kendall post office closed in 1905 followed by Plattville in 1906, and White Willow and Nettle Creek in 1908. The tiny Norwegian hamlet of Helmar lost its post office in 1912.

Throughout the nation and Illinois, RFD consolidations resulted in huge numbers of post office closures. And that meant the disappearance of the small stores that went hand-in-hand with them, which also meant if not a break, at least a sort of dent in the continuity of those small rural post office-school-church communities.

While farmers could get their mail delivered right to their homes—along with all those wonderful mail order items from Sears and Montgomery Ward—it meant much longer trips to the nearest town to buy simple necessities once stocked by the local general store. And it put a bit of a crimp in the previous social opportunities those little stores and post offices offered for their rural communities.

But it’s likely most farmers—and their families—were fine with the change. After all, they could get daily newspapers delivered right to their front gate (usually on publication day in the era of several mail deliveries to post offices each day), right along with Christmas presents for the kids, medicine, and the vast amount of other items the big mail order companies were pedaling. RFD really did bring the world right to the farmer’s doorstep.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Oswego

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