Sometimes a story carries many surprises, and this one did just that. One never knew who would be on the other end when answering the telephone at the newspaper. And some stories were so surprising I’d actually go mute. An unusual situation for me.
Imogene Norton called one day to say that she had a story about the last mounted mail carrier in Arkansas. I jumped at that for history of the state from any source fascinated me. I was not to know how fascinating until I arrived at her door.
But let’s take that trip. Readers remember I drove a Ford Thunderbird in the early years making my way around the county in search of interviews. It had been a rainy winter and spring so when I took out for Black Oak Road, not the one just a mile away from my home in Winslow, but the one east of Fayetteville near Round Mountain, I was in for a wild ride. Puddles cut large holes in the unpaved road. The only way I could be sure of not falling into a lake was tracks went in and tracks went out on the other side.
I was at the very end of the mud soaked road when I approached a large mobile home surrounded by thick woods. This would be the Norton home unless I was totally lost. A petite graying woman greeted me at the door. I entered and settled with my pad, pen, and recorder, ready for a story from the previous century.
Imogene spoke right away about her husband Silas and his mare Topsy carrying the mail in the Fifties. Confused because this woman could not be that old, I stopped her, something I rarely did. I was sure I had misunderstood something. “The 1850s?”
She smiled in the sweet way she had. “Oh, no, dear. This was the 1950s. He was the last mail carrier in Arkansas to deliver from horseback. It was out of Limestone in Newton County. You know in those days carriers delivered all sort of things besides mail, and he serviced 40 families. He retired from that job in the early sixties and went to work in the log woods.”
Astounded, I launched into the interview, amazed at her story. She told of how he would ride out three days a week, leaving before daylight and not coming home till after dark. Sometimes on winter days he would return with his boots frozen to the stirrups from crossing five or six creeks. She would have to help thaw him out, so to speak.
“No wheeled vehicle could cover the route so he rode his mare Topsy.” Though he had several different horses, Silas said she was the best he ever had. She would stop at every mail box automatically, whether there was mail or not. Silas didn’t stop with the three day route, the other days he delivered to the Fort Douglas Post Office. Both routes were in the heart of the Ozark National Forest in the Piney River area. There were still 18 families receiving mail there before the routes were abandoned along with several other remote routes in the state.
I’m thinking what a rough life that would have been for this man. Then Imogene tells her story. “I was only a girl when we married in 1946 and had our first child when I was 17. I rode the route with him once.” She stops and laughs. “That was the last time I ever did that.
This tiny lady with shining eyes leans back and studies me a moment, probably realizing how blown-away I am by her story. “I still miss those days. Oh my yes, I do. Even the early morning breakfasts and the late nights. I remember most of the time Silas carried a .30-.30 because there were too many varmints in the woods and snakes too. In the beginning he earned fifty dollars a month and we had five living at home then.”
I can’t speak for a while, but I think she understands. I’m trying to imagine living on fifty dollars a month, even in the early 1950s, even in the hills of Arkansas. I know there was a home garden, bartering with neighbors and a cow for milk. No such thing as electric or phone bills. Still it seems impossible.
A newspaper once referred to Silas Norton as Arkansas’ living link to the Pony Express, and indeed he was. You can read Silas and Imogene’s complete story and many others along with my own, in my book, Wandering In the Shadows of Time, to be re-released by Oghma Creative Medie, to be released soon.