by Catherine C. Brooks
On Tuesday April 26, 2005, I put the last pictures in the box with the zip disk, taped it shut and headed for the post office. What that disk held had been my work—literally my life—for weeks after years of research and drafting chapter after chapter. If ever anyone wanted to check my handwritten research notebook, they’d feel they had tackled an impossible maze. But I knew what each word and figure meant, or I did know.
When I began the trip up the ramp at Mathews Post Office, butterflies—or was it bees—attacked my tummy. At least my teeth didn’t chatter when I placed the precious box on the counter for the postmaster to weigh and stamp. I rejoiced that Dana Brown was still on duty for she had added information for the book that no one else had. The tumbling in my tummy continued so I pulled in front of what had been my store and parked. After 35 years, working in the building, it felt like going back home for that is what it had been 50 or 60 hours a week most of those years. I went to check under the counter where I knew Karyn Austin kept her antique books, pulling one out, not under but on top at the end. I surely acted at home, going to sit at a nearby table while she helped her customers. After everyone had gone, we chatted. An hour later, I drove home with my son’s and my mail. I did little afterwards except eat a bite and wash my six dishes and flatware. But I slept like a log when I went to bed a bit early.
The book will show how Postal Landmarks define the lore, traditions and society of Mathews County, Virginia, when it comes from the publisher. The county grew one community at the time with one or more general merchandise stores and a post office in each. The book covers available statistics and humorous tales told by older residents. The general merchandise store furnished the needs that the community couldn’t raise on their land or harvest from the Bay. Since everyone walked or traveled by horse or horse and carriage, they found mail service to the community essential. Most sat in the corner of the general merchandise store—usually on the right in the front corner.
I tell about walking two miles to and from school through sixth grade—the last two years I had a bicycle. Meanwhile, my husband didn’t begin until age seven because he had a seven-mile walk each way. I met the steamboat, worked on the family farm and shopped from local stores and catalogs. I’ll share the prologue to Walk With Me.
It reads: Take a “walk with me” back in time before paved roads, automobiles, telephones, radios, television, computers and electricity—those things we take for granted. Except for the Chiskoyack Indian tribes, who camped on the shores of what is now Mathews County’s many waterways, cleared fields for corn and tobacco, made trails through the trees and underbrush to hunt, we would call the place a wilderness. The Chiskoyacks traveled waterways, using dugout canoes, taking them far from their birthplace. Young tribesmen found new sites to camp, brought their squaws and developed communities. They conveyed messages across distances with smoke signals because from the time God created man, he has found a need to communicate one with the other.
When 105 Englishmen landed at the place known today as Jamestown, Virginia, in May 1607, they had no need for post offices or mail carriers other than the little ships traveling to and from England. The King of England governed the colony so must keep in communication with his subjects, whom he sent in search of gold. As more Englishmen and women arrived, the colony expanded well beyond Jamestown Island. They traveled principally by boat for it proved the easiest means to reach the many peninsulas and islands. After the Englishmen found a river that they named “York,” some of the men settled on both shores. In time they had settled the peninsula north of the York and named it Gloucester. Then the officials divided it into parishes. In 1779 the largest parish, known as Kingston, lying on the eastern end of the county, seceded. The new county seat became Mathews County, named for General Thomas Mathews, who influenced permission to grant the signers of the petition for a new county seat for which they proved a need.
During the earlier years, the settlers in Virginia depended on boats or men on foot to deliver both correspondence and merchandise. After the Spaniards introduced horses from Mexico to what white men called the New World, men learned to utilize the animals for riding, carrying burdens, and pulling sleds and later vehicles. When they became available to the settlers, correspondence and merchandise traveled over land more efficiently.
Thirteen years after the landing at Jamestown, another English group landed further north at Plymouth in what today is Massachusetts. Knowledge of Postal Service in Europe motivated the colonists to action—pursuing the same. However, the northern colonies contended for postal delivery earlier than the Virginia Colony.
“The earliest record appeared in the General Court of Massachusetts in 1639 when a tavern of the certain Richard Fairbanks was—appointed for all letters, which are brought from beyond the seas, or are to be sent thither, to be left with him, and he is to take care that they are delivered, or sent according to direction.” (Quote from History of the United Postal Service 1775-1979 Web Site 2001) European nation’s coffee houses and taverns had served as mail drops until this time.
Nearly fifty years later, officials established a post in Virginia. But
since before the mid 1600s, delivery and pick-up of written messages had
traveled to and from Gloucester County (now Gloucester and Mathews Counties)
by way of sailing schooners to one or more plantations in designated regions
along the coast. Private messengers, usually slaves, connected the plantations
with deliveries: A hogshead (a barrel of 63 pounds) of tobacco was the
penalty for failing to relay mail to the next plantation. Other records
prove letters and newspapers arrived at Henry Rispess’s Tavern from Gloucester
Court House before the post office became official. Therefore we can envision
the way Mathews County’s residents received most early correspondence.
(Information from History of Virginia for Boys and Girls by Wayland printed 1920, World Book Encyclopedia 1944 and an interview with J. Martin Diggs.)
©2005Catherine C. Brooks
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