Historical society offers a special delivery in talk about Carroll's 'post office on wheels'

Over the years, Jim Shriver has amassed his own personal archive of his family's illustrious history.

Even so, the Union Mills resident, like many long-time Carroll residents, has always been intrigued by one particular historic marker in front of the former U.S. Post OfficeBuilding on Westminster's Main Street.

That marker commemorates the creation in April 1899 of the nation's first Rural Free Delivery Route — often called the first "post office on wheels" — and Edwin Shriver, the man who created it, who happens to be Jim Shriver's distant cousin.

"I live across the road from the historic Union Mills (Shriver) Homestead, where they happen to have a lot of photographs and other information about the early RFD routes here in Carroll County, along with diaries and letters pertaining to it," said Jim Shriver.

"So when the Historical Society of Carroll County asked me to give a talk on Edwin Shriver and the Rural Free Delivery system he developed, I was happy to do it," said Shriver. "Since Edwin is a distant cousin, and I've already done a lot of family history research, I thought it would be fun to do some investigation and learn more about him myself."

Shriver will be talking in detail about his cousin, and his Rural Free Delivery system on Fri., June 8, at noon, at the HSCC's monthly Boxed Lunch Talk, at the Carroll American Legion Post.

Between the archives at the historical society and at the Union Mills Homestead, Shriver was surprised to find a wealth of information, both factual and anecdotal, about his cousin's innovative — yet controversial — new mail delivery system.

Jim Shriver's roots go deep in Carroll, although as an international sales manager for a California company, he spends much of his time in Asian Pacific Rim countries. He and Edwin Shriver share a common ancestor, David Shriver, a soldier in the Revolutionary War who came to Carroll from Pennsylvania in the early 1700s.

But it's the Rural Free Delivery system that placed Edwin Shriver — and Westminster — into postal service history.

Edwin Shriver created the RFD system from the ground up. He designed the first postal wagons; and for years, spent 10 hours a day, six days a week delivering mail along a route that stretched over a large swath of the county and took in about 20 square miles and 300 families.

The notion of door-to-door mail delivery, as an alternative to having to trek down to the post office or general store every day for your mail, was certainly a convenience — at least to the residents served by the route.

But when the concept was first rolled out by theU.S. Postal Servicein 1898, it was met with considerable opposition from some quarters.

"A lot of those who opposed the RFD system were people who were politically connected and owned general stores that depended on the people who came to the stores to get their mail for their business," Shriver said. "So it really changed some of the small communities.

"It even cost Union Mills its post office, and many other little local post offices around the county were closed and replaced by this new system," he said. "The postal system determined that (the post office closings and the transition to the RFD system) would be a cost saving and would provide an increase of services."

It increased service, but there were complaints that the system only benefited residents who lived on or close to the actual roads covered — and left out those living on back roads or at the end of long farm lanes.

"But one of the important features of the RFD was that people could now get a daily newspaper, and that's why it was covered so extensively in the press at the time," Shriver said. "It was an advantage to newspapers in that it provided them with new readers in the rural areas.

"There were a lot of other economic and political aspects," he added. "For instance, it also provided farmers with a government service that they had not had before.

"Another underlying story line in those early stories about the new system was how the farmer was for the first time going to become the equal of people in the cities in terms of communication and getting his mail daily," Shriver said.

Edwin Shriver braved the new world of postal delivery, and paid the price for those who didn't know exactly how to use it. A 1999 article in The Baltimore Sun, on the centennial of the RFD system, recalled one anecdote that Shriver once encountered a farmer who, "handed him a squealing greased pig to deliver three miles up the road. Uncertain whether it was a joke, Shriver slapped a ... stamp on the pig's rump and deposited the swine at its destination."

In his later years, Edwin, who contracted with the federal government, was given the title of postal inspector and was dispatched to various eastern and Midwestern states to train people and set up similar rural free delivery systems.

"What's fascinating is that Edwin kept a scrapbook, which is in the archives in the historical society," Shriver said. "It's quite detailed. He saved every letter and article that was written about his system, both pro and con. And he was not one to shelter the information if someone wrote a letter to the editor opposing it. He saved it all."

Jim Shriver will give his presentation about Edwin Shriver's historic "post office on wheels" at noon, Tuesday, June 12, at the Carroll Post, American Legion, in Westminster. The post is located at the corner of Green and Sycamore streets. Beverages and dessert will be provided, but attendees can either bring a lunch or order one by calling ahead to the American Legion, at 410-857-7953, between 11 and 11:30 a.m.

Admission is $1 for HSCC members and $5 for nonmembers.

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