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How mail delivery impacted rural America

In central New York there are many small towns that aren't officially towns. The old-timers and locals call these neighborhoods (or hamlets) by there original names, but the post office doesn't use the names.

Hunts Corners, for example, is a part of Cortland County. On Google Maps, the intersection at Hunts Corners Road and Route 221 is said to be in Marathon, but on Findagrave, it is said to be in Lapeer. Wikipedia also lists Hunts Corners as a hamlet in Lapeer. It's all very confusing! Why isn't it just "Hunts Corners"? How did this small community that appears to have a fine foundation stop growing? I stumbled upon the answer to this question in a book that explains that it was when "Rural Free Delivery" began, around 1900, that the town lost it's official identity. This I learned from a book titled "RFD, the changing face of rural America", by Wayne Edison Fuller, 1964. Fuller explains how changes in the postal system stunted the growth of so many once-thriving rural towns as follows:

Before the R F D was established, there were hundreds of little communities in rural America, most of them identifiable by their local post offices, and people who lived within their boundaries had a sense of belonging and a community spirit which showed itself in their occasional social meetings. "Formerly," wrote one observer of the old community life, "frequent social gatherings were held, when the whole neighborhood would 'turn out,' - the women and children gathering in the afternoon, and the men both old and young, joining them in the evenings. The sons of farmers married daughters of farmers, and the new farm homes were established, thus perpetuating the community." (Fuller 283)

Fuller goes on to mention Cortland County specifically by name - albeit misspelled "Courtland". He explains that soon after 1900, "Rural Free Delivery" began and the post offices at Freetown, Texas Valley, Hunts Corners, and Messengerville were closed and consolidated, with mail being received at the post office in Marathon and delivered by mail carrier from there to rural homes. This had a number of impacts on the local people.

First, people had the newfound ability to mail letters easily, without leaving home. It was much easier to send a letter, than it was to travel the muddy and bumpy roads, often under harsh weather conditions, to deliver a message to a correspondent. It was the social media of the day, and like social media of today, it caused a decrease in social gatherings and visits. In a sense, it was the beginning of social distancing.

It also reshaped local business in a major way. When the people needed to go to the post office, it was their "trip to town". While they were in town, they shopped in the stores, purchasing supplies or services, and gathered with friends. The traffic coming and going from the post office made it attractive for businesses to build nearby, thereby promoting urban growth, to the dismay of rural business owners. If they were to compete, they too needed to be where the people were, and for this reason many left their quiet country life for city streets and sidewalks.

For the younger generations, the cities were glamorous and sophisticated and offered a lifestyle far more exciting than their sleepy country towns could provide. Slowly these rural towns stopped growing and many of them have smaller populations today than they did 100 years ago.

The closing of their local post offices essentially took away the identity of these small towns. Would building them again bring these towns back to life? Perhaps, but I believe it's quite possible the people of these sleepy, forgotten country towns aren't interested in becoming the next city on the map and are content just the way things are.

RFD, the changing face of rural America

The map provided here is extremely helpful in identifying these parts of southern Cortland County. (Save this page to your favorites to return to it later for reference while researching your Cortland County ancestors!)

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