Going to the mailbox was once a much anticipated event. Living in a rural area, the postman would arrive in the early afternoon and stuff the mailbox with advertisements, the newspaper, letters and postcards.
Letters and postcards were our ties to our relatives and friends that did not live in the immediate community. The pages of flowing cursive described the lives of those we loved; things as important as marriages and deaths or as mundane as going to visit Aunt Clara at her home on Sunday.
Special events and vacations required pictorial postcards. Traveling to California, we purchased cards depicting the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, and even the tepee constructed motel we stayed in overnight. Many small town photographers would even take your photo in front of a local historical site and construct a special pictorial card on site. Letters, cards and newspapers were the way of keeping in touch with the world and what was happening outside one's small community.
The written word has always been of prime importance to our country and democracy itself.
The U.S. Postal Service was established in 1775 and Benjamin Franklin was appointed as the first Postmaster General. George Washington and other founders felt communication between people and colonies was a necessity for the maintenance of democracy and the unification of the country.
Postal routes were established with mailmen making regular delivery to central locations called post offices. These offices were located along rivers or existing primary roads. People from surrounding areas would them come to these offices and receive their mail.
Even before Arkansas became a state, mail was delivered by steamboat along the White, Ouachita and Arkansas River. Land routes existed on the old Southwest Trail and the Military roads with stops at Batesville, Texarkana, Little Rock, Conway, Fort Smith and smaller towns in between.
As the state grew, smaller "postal" roads were built to connect outlying areas and "offices" were established in areas where people congregated. The job of area postmaster became a preferred government position and many appointments were handed out as political favors.
For generations, people preserved those old letters and cards. Stacked into small collections separated by rubber bands, they were stored in cardboard boxes or old cedar chests; a treasure trove of information about the past.
Many of the old letters are just items that allow you to connect with your ancestors but some have much greater value. Letters from our country founders provide the basis for much of our history. They describe the foundations of democracy, establish our bill of rights, and tell us of the struggle to maintain the integrity of our country. Where would we be without the letters between Jefferson and Washington, notes from Lincoln and his cabinet, or Martin L. King Junior's letter from the Birmingham jail? Letters allow us to delve into private conversations, thoughts and relationships.
I recently received a trove of letters from the Civil War. I now know what it was like for the wife left behind while the husband was away. The terrible loneliness, the despair of trying to care for and feed your children and the terror created by the bushwhackers.
Another, more recent letter from Vietnam expressed the fear of dying and concluded with, "What if they gave a war, and nobody came." Poignant words from a poignant time!
After a week of snow, my mailbox is completely empty. Messages from my family by phone or email may inconvenience a lot of electrons but there is little or no evidence of their occurrence.
Post offices are closing, there is even talk of moving our mail distribution from Fayetteville to a larger city. Just not enough volume to warrant the expense.
Today we are overwhelmed with the spew of information from mass media, virtually all of which involves the movers and shakers of the world. Without the written word, we are losing the thoughts, hopes, desires of the common people who make up our world.