When Mailmen Were Barefoot

When Mailmen Were Barefoot 2












Theodore Pratt (1901-1969) was one of the most popular Florida authors of the 1940s and 1950s. Three of his most read books are The Big Blow (1936), The Barefoot Mailman (1943) and The Flame Tree (1950). The Barefoot Mailman was made into a movie of the same name in 1951 starring Robert Cummings, Terry Moore, Jerome Courtland, and John Russell. The author noted that he used the real life story of James Edward Hamilton as the “springboard, rather than foundation” for his novel. Hamilton was one of several pioneer Mail Carriers who walked the 70-80 mile stretch of roadless wilderness between Palm Beach and Miami. These men found that the easiest route was to walk barefoot along the beach. Hamilton died mysteriously swimming across Hillsboro Inlet because someone had moved his rowboat. At the site today, a statue of him stands inscribed on the base, “The Mail Must Go, In memory of James E. Hamilton, U. S. Mail Carrier, who Lost His Life here In Line Of Duty, October 11, 1887.” There are several murals painted in 1939 by Stevan Dohanos of the Barefoot Mailmen in the West Pam Beach Post Office. A study for one of the murals are now in the collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Kings Road south of St. Augustine presented different obstacles to mail service as told by Virginia Edward, a volunteer with the historical society, in her weekly column in the St. Augustine Record on January 13, 1979. She reported in “It Happened Here” an interview by Albert C. Manucy with an elderly Mail Carrier Jesse David Edwards, Sr. (1869-1960).  From 1888 to 1890, he had delivered the mail to the six small Post Offices (there was no Rural Free Delivery then) on the route from St. Augustine to Tomoka River. His stepfather George L. Bond owned the contract to deliver the mail. Jesse and his brother Fred drove a buckboard with a canvas cover over the driver’s seat to keep the rain off. The brothers alternated the day-long trips: spending the night at Tomoka. They enjoyed driving through the pine forests due to the road being covered with packed down pine needles. In the hammocks of scrub oak, the going was more difficult. Mr. Edwards recalled, “I’d travel down the white sand road and the branches would whip back, wet with dew, and the mosquitoes would fly in clouds.” He related that he wore a broad-brimmed palmetto hat, and over it a mosquito net which came down to his waist. It was fastened at his mid section and wrists with elastic. Even the mule had to be provided with a mosquito net to protect his head and eyes, but the stinging pests gathered so thick on his back that it was difficult to tell the color of his hide.

Mosquitoes weren’t just a nuisance; they were a real danger. Jesse Edwards related a tall tale told to him by persons living in Duke (today’s Palm Coast). The tale was of a mail carrier who got lost on dark, moonless night in a hammock along the Kings Road. His cries could be heard, but he could not be found. At dawn, the search for him continued but when he was located, he was dead: from thousands of mosquito bites.

Danger also came in large sizes on the Kings Road. A substitute driver, John Simms (1864-1905), was delayed and darkness fell before he could reach the Post Office at Howard’s Grove, the last stop before the Tomoka River. As the Mail Carrier drove through the forest, his mule was spooked and balked. Simms managed to force the frightened animal onward and it broke into a gallop. Simms looked behind him to see what might have affected the mule and his saw a panther gaining on them. Fortunately, Simms was delivering a package of venison which some hunter had mailed to friends. He threw a large hunk of deer meat to the big cat and he and his mule made their escape when the panther stopped to collect his treat.

The motto of these pioneer Mail Carriers was, “the mail must go through.”