Memories of the Mail
Written by Hulda Franklyn
Edited by Reg Quist
In the glowing accounts of our wonderful country, the vastness of this wilderness land, the absence of roads or trails, and even worse, the lack of communication with the outside world, is sometimes missed in the telling. What broke the distance and the loneliness was the arrival of the mail, bringing with it the newspaper or the occasional letter from home, sweetheart or friend.
Heroic carriers of mail in this new West delivered the precious bags of news and greetings from loved ones, to outlying post offices. These post offices were often located in settler’s homes. Neighboring homesteaders drove or rode once a week, when weather permitted, to pick up their mail, and find out the latest district news or gossip, from the post mistress. Postal worker’s pay was so meagre, it was usually the farmer’s wife’s task to sort and hand out the mail and sell the two-cent stamps required for a letter.
My father, grandfather and grandmother homesteaded across the Battle River, southeast of Wetaskiwin in 1892. Their district post office was located in the Lewis home, which later became known as the Lewisville post office.
To reach this outlying spot, the second stop in a round trip of close to one hundred miles, Joe Cowan, the postman, braved and surmounted almost unbelievable obstacles. Besides various creeks and ankle-deep mudholes in the summer, the unbridged Battle River presented many problems in the spring and fall.
Cowan’s modes of travel suited the conditions of the day: saddle and packhorse, two-wheeled cart and packhorse or, when the load was heavy, four horses and a covered wagon. In the fall when ice started to form on the river and streams, the thin ice had to be broken up before the horses were put through the frigid water. When the ice did become firm enough to cross on, horses had to be sharply shod to prevent slipping and injury. Sometimes settlers spread straw or manure on river crossings to create traction for their animals, until heavy snow fell.
During the long winter months, Cowan worked his route in a covered sleigh. He had a special, wide toboggan-like sleigh made so it wouldn’t tip on the high snowbanks that often obliterated the trail. To avoid the heaviest snow buildup, new trails were often developed, working their way through the settlers unfenced land.
Where the horses were forced to work their way through the deep drifts, a hard layer was formed on top. This type of road became higher and higher as the winter progressed and as succeeding snowfalls added to the depth of the accumulated snow. During the spring thaw, horses had been known to plunge to the bottom of the melting drift, and often had to be dug out with a shovel.
From Lewisville, Cowan headed northeast over an almost impassable bog creek to Duhamel, a French-Metis settlement, twenty miles farther down the Battle River on the old Red River Cart Trail. After delivering mail at Duhamel, he crossed the river again and wound his way over hilly country to leave his last bags at Rosenroll, later renamed Bittern Lake.
The following day he returned to Wetaskiwin, reversing the same route, picking up mail as he went and fording the sometimes swollen Battle River. Cowan held this route until 1906 when a branch line railway was built from Wetaskiwin to Hardisty.
After the rail line was built our mail was delivered to the Battle River post office located in the Bauer home, five miles east of our farm. I remember my dad going there for mail every Saturday evening after chores during that terribly cold and drifted winter of 1906-07. Sundays were almost as good as Christmas. In addition to the sometimes unexpected letter there would be The Family Herald and Weekly Star, the Western Home Monthly and our Youth Companion magazines.
Later the Battle River post office was located in Dahlberg’s home, only a couple of miles away. And in 1913, we were blessed with rural mail delivery to our own mailbox at the end of the farm road, three days a week. But these mail carriers still had their problems. Dirt roads were not graveled, and the clay and gumbo thrown up for roadbeds was almost impassable when it was wet.
Our first rural mail carrier, Fred Wiberg, from Duhamel, died serving in the First World War. There were several others, but for thirty-four years, Clarence Schele faithfully delivered our mail and parcels three times a week. I can’t remember that he or his wife, Helen, who took over when Clarence was in hospital, ever missed a day.
The mail had to get through.