It’s right there on his gravestone:
Harry C. Gibson, June 8, 1876; April 19, 1938; Carried First Rural Mail in the United States; October 1, 1896.
“He was so anxious to deliver mail, he started a few weeks before the official starting date,” explained Thomas ‘Buddy’ Owens, Jr., retired Charles Town, WV postmaster, in a 1996 Postal Life interview.
“Imagine what it must have been like,” recounts Owens, “a lean rider galloping on horseback from farm to farm, placing a letter or newspaper in a cigar box, lard pail or other creative receptacle at the end of a long lane. The roads, worn with wagon-wheel ruts and mud from a summer rain, or nearly blocked by thigh-high snowdrifts, challenge man and horse as they deliver the day’s correspondence.”
Rural Free Delivery (RFD) service began as an experiment on October 1, 1896, at Charles Town, Halltown and Uvilla, WV. Charles Town happened to be the hometown of then-Postmaster General William L. Wilson. Wilson is credited with launching RFD, though in his personal diary, he mentions RFD only once, in just one sentence: ‘Talked to Marche about the experiment in Jefferson (County).’ (Col. Thomas) Marche was one of his assistants.
Postmaster General John Wanamaker, a predecessor of Wilson’s, first suggested Rural Free Delivery in 1889, but it took several years to convince Congress to allocate funds. Wanamaker traveled throughout rural America, speaking to the Grange and Farmers’ Alliance clubs about this service that had been enjoyed by city dwellers since 1863. Congress finally authorized a $10,000 grant in 1890 as a test for the free delivery system in 46 small towns and villages. The move was controversial because of the expense involved.
“Four other routes also officially began October 1, 1896,” noted Owens. “Harry Gibson, Frank Young and John Lucas left Charles Town on horseback that morning. Keyes Strider left on horseback from Halltown Post Office, and his cousin Melvin Strider delivered mail from the Uvilla Post Office. Melvin Strider was only 15 years old. He couldn’t even collect a paycheck until he turned 16, and he rode his bicycle. Mind you, these routes were all around 20 miles long.”
The number of RFD routes grew quickly. By June 1900, there were 1,214 RFD routes, serving an estimated 879,127 people in nearly every state. Six months later the number of routes had increased to 2,551. These provided mail service to almost 2 million Americans. Rural Free Delivery became a permanent postal service in 1902.
Once the Post Office Department designated a RFD route, the local postmaster was responsible for hiring a carrier who would travel the route delivering and receiving mail.
Early rural letter carriers made their rounds by whatever means they could. For most that meant by horseback or by buggies and wagons. During winter months, rural carriers who faced bad winter weather, and could afford to buy another vehicle, used horse-drawn sleds. Unlike city carriers, rural carriers were (still are) responsible for purchasing their own vehicles. Those who used horses to draw their wagons or sled were also responsible for purchasing, feeding and stabling the animals.
The only exceptions were a few experimental routes on which postmasters arranged for the purchase and use of special wagons that required two carriers to operate. The specially-designed two-person wagons allowed one carrier to drive the wagon while the other processed mail along the way. Each of these wagons had a bell that announced its arrival.
They were used on an experimental basis in large counties, beginning at Westminster, Maryland, in 1899 and continuing to Carroll County, Maryland, Frederick County, Maryland, Washington County, Pennsylvania, Jackson County, Missouri, and Newton County, Georgia. The wagons did not prove as useful as first thought and were discontinued by 1905.
One difference between city and rural carriers was that the RFD carriers brought the post office to their patrons. Each RFD vehicle functioned as a miniature post office on wheels, with carriers able to receive and postmark mail and sell stamps, money orders, and other postal supplies.
Rural Free Delivery not only improved communications for rural residents, but was a shot in the arm for the U.S. economy, stimulating road and bridge development, and all kinds of economic growth.
sources: Horse-Drawn Mail Vehicles, by James H. Bruns, Polo, Illinois: Transportation Trails, 1996
National Rural Letter Carriers Association, RFD News, Chicago, NRLCA, 1903
http://snipurl.com/416xh [Smithsonian Institute/National Postal Museum]