|By Bob Weaver 2001|
We just retraced Bert Vaughan's steps
fifty years after National Geographic did a story on his mail route between
Chloe and Elmira. The path and road is still tempered with red earth that turns into
gumbo, the area more sparsely settled now than in 1954.
The steep hills create, beauty
isolation and protection, a reminder of stout people rooted deeply into the sod
these past two hundred years.
Bert told the Geographic writer about people in his part of Calhoun walking or riding a
horse to get around.
That has changed, but in many ways Walker and Walnut are
throw-backs to the 19th century, excluding the electric and telephone lines and the "hard road."
It has a tranquil, pastoral sense.
Mail and the weather are hot-stove topics in rural
West Virginia. Here 60-year-old Vaughan distributes
mail at the post office-general store in Chloe.
Identified by Mary Sue Siers Calvert (L to R) Okey Parsons,
Nancy McGeorge, Bert Vaughan, Salesman (name unknown), Henry
Nichols, Jessie Weekley, Cora Dye wife of Doctor Dye, Luther McGeorge. Seated behind stove reading letter is Jim Siers and Mary Sue Siers
Bert's daughter, 82-year-old Mabel Smith of Walker Creek, said her dad started
carrying the mail in 1929, never graduating from horseback in his over thirty-year
postal career. Traveling back and forth, he connected the villages of Elmira, Floe,
Villanova, Walker and Chloe. He died in 1993, three months short of being 100 years
Two of Bert's neighbors, Nancy and Luther McGeorge of Walker, carried the mail on
another route. Both have passed away in recent years.
"Dad got so tired on the saddle, he'd tie his horse to a little sapling at the McGeorge
place and walk on over to Chloe," said his a daughter, Mabel. "That is a really big tree
Bert was first married to Belle Siers, having three children, Ruby Hensley of New
Philadelphia, Ohio and Mabel Smith and Ruth Yost of Chloe. He married Anna Yost for
his second wife and they had two children, Geneva Snyder of Akron and Paul
Vaughan, who died in 1993.
"I've never felt at home anywhere else," concluded Mabel Smith.
REPRINT OF 1954 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC STORY:
Excerpts and photos included in the May 1954 edition
of The National Geographic Magazine article:
EVERYONE'S SERVANT, THE POST OFFICE
Deluged By Record Mail Volume, The Postal Service Streamlines
Its Operations And Speeds Delivery With New Techniques
By Allen G. Fisher, Jr. - National Geographic Magazine Staff
With illustrations by National Geographic Photographer Volkmar Wentzel
Some areas of the country defy motorized transport of the mail. Even Philadelphia still has a few
horse-drawn mail carts; they prove more efficient in narrow, congested streets. But usually old
Dobbin carries postmen over rough routes in out-of-the-way places.
Just such a route, eight rugged miles long, connects the tiny towns of Chloe and Elmira in the
hills of central West Virginia. There 60-year-old J.B. Vaughan, astride his pinto horse, Pat,
delivers mail six days a week to about 200 hill folk.
Contractors Operate "Star" Routes
Burt, as he likes to be called, is not a regular postal employee. He operates a "star," or contract
Postal contracts admonish private carriers to transport the mail with "celerity, certainty, and
security." Many years ago clerks tired of copying the repetitious phrase, fell into the habit of
drawing three stars to indicate the words; hence, star routes.
Today (1954) there are more than 12,000 star route contractors. Some operate large
enterprises with fleets of motor vehicles; others, like Burt, work alone, doing jobs that would be
uneconomical for the Post office to undertake with regular employees.
Most farmers, however, receive their mail via Rural Free Delivery, a Department service
employing more than 32,000 regular carriers who serve approximately nine million families.
Near the postman's home, Mrs. Vaughan meets her husband to
get the days newspaper. There's mail too, for the neighbors.
Identified by Mabel Smith (L to R) Howard Metz, Carolyn Lane, Anna
Vaughan, Fountain Yost, Ruth Yost. Bert Vaughan on Pat the horse
Volkmar Wentzel and I rented horses one winter's morning and rode with Burt along his route.
The wind blew gently and warm, hinting at an early spring, and the route wound pleasantly
along the base of a wooded ridge.
But the conditions of the dirt road tempered our delight to the weather. Thawing snow and ice
turned the red earth into gumbo, so slippery that our horses had difficulty with their footing on
the slopes. Wheel ruts indicated automobile traffic, but before long the route became all but
impassable for motor vehicles. Most back-countrymen, Burt said, walked or rode
We passed several comfortable frame homes. Later, as the road steepened and the hills moved
in, dwellings became small and weatherbeaten, usually with unpainted board siding and tin or
Occasionally, Burt dropped letters in roadside boxes. Shaggy Hereford cattle grazed in narrow
fields, but we saw few people.
Riding at a leisurely walk, Burt talked about his work:
"Had this job 13 years; I've ridden Pat the past 12."
Did he ever bring in medicine for these people?
"Sometimes. Usually castor oil or Epsom salts. Anybody gets real sick, they take 'im out to the
hospital, but mostly they do their own doctorin'. "Somebody dies, I often carry word out to the
undertaker. I'm in a quartet that sings at all the funerals. Those days I hire a man to deliver the
mail for me."
Did he carry messages, if people put them in their boxes?
"Well, if it's important, I'll take a note up the road. But I don't let 'em seal it - against postal
Mail-order Catalogs And Weight
"Dread mail-order catalogs. They all come on the same day, seems like, and they're awful
heavy. Pat can only carry 47 pounds of mail in these saddle bags."
Pat, the postman's horse, supervises weighing of a parcel.
Pat has helped deliver mail for 12 years, missing only four
trips. As a private contractor, the postman receives $160 a
month. Postmistress Hazel Mollohan operates the scales in
this 8-by-10-foot frame post office at Floe, West Virginia
Vaughan, completing his route, hands mail to postmistress
Garnet Vaughan, a relative by marriage, at her store in Elmira
We delivered letters at two 1-room elementary schools, where children greeted Pat like an old
friend, and then we climbed a 1,300-foot ridge. Here the narrow route could hardly be dignified
by the word "road." Woodland enclosed us; not a field or home lined the way. It seemed as if we
were in another age. delivering mail through the backwoods of a still youthful nation.
Indian-file, the three of us wound down to Elmira (one house and a post office-general store)
and then retraced our route. Unused to riding, I felt as if I were astride a dull razor. But Wentzel,
to my chagrin, sat his horse in comfort all the way back to Chloe.