From the June 10, 1938 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

The rural free delivery of mail throughout the United States is far too old an institution to arouse any particular comment at the present time, although it is a comparatively new departure as reckoned by historical annals. Credit for this wonderful system has been claimed by the Grange and a number of individuals who supported the measure before it became law. Whether or not other localities enjoyed systems peculiar to themselves in the way of distributing mail is not important, but Martha’s Vineyard had a rural free delivery system many years before other sections, a workable system which benefited many families and cost nothing.

This system was carried out in finest detail in the towns of Chilmark and West Tisbury, and operated in the following manner, which was probably illegal if the statutes and regulations were followed specifically, but which was entirely satisfactory to all parties concerned.

At the time of its origin, the West Tisbury post office was located opposite the store of George G. Gifford. Another post office was in the building now owned and used for business by Ole Borgen in North Tisbury. Both of these offices handled mail for West Tisbury and Chilmark residents, the people of Quenames and the South Road having their mail directed to West Tisbury, as it was much nearer than their own post office in Chilmark and those of the North Road having their mail directed to the North Tisbury post office for the same reason.

When the mail reached West Tisbury, there were always two groups of people awaiting its arrival. One was at the post office itself, and the other in the store of S. M. Mayhew. There was no authorized carrier; just any one of the local residents who happened to be present at the post office would ask for the mail that “goes over the brook,” and would receive a huge bundle of letters and papers which he would deliver at the store of S. M. Mayhew. There the accommodating proprietors had arranged a rack of small mail boxes, similar to those in use in a post office, but of home-made construction. They were marked with the names of various people who received their mail in this manner, and one of the clerks or partners in the business would sort the mail each evening, handling each batch out to the waiting claimant, or placing it in his box in the store.

When someone from the outlying sections was present, he would take all mail going in the direction of his home and deliver it on his way. In this manner, the residents of the South Road, Quenames, and all sections between, received their mail daily with but few interruptions.

On the North Road the system was a trifle different and even more intricate. Also probably more illegal. The patient waiter at the North Tisbury post office would ask for the North Road and Roaring Brook mail. On his way home he would drop the Roaring Brook mail into a bag that hung in the storm porch of the home of Asa Luce, and there the papers and letters would lie until someone from this location called and took it away. If there was an attractive looking newspaper or magazine in the lot, the householder might take it out and peruse it before it was called for, but no one minded a thing like that. Often mail of considerable value was handled in this manner, but nothing was ever lost or mislaid.

The North Road mail was divided into two lots. One of these was left with the Roaring Brook mail, the other was carried farther along the road and dropped into a mail box that was hung on the fence outside the home of Nahum T. Norton, who made the various boxes that were used and kept them painted and in good condition at his own expense. Mail of all kinds lay in this box for days at times, for but few people made daily visits to the box to remove it. There was no lock or even a hook on this box, yet never was a letter or paper removed. One by one the neighbors came, removed their mail and perhaps that of the person living nearest them, and nearly every day someone came over the road from the post office, depositing more.

In an earlier day, when a store was conducted in the old mill at Roaring Brook, another set of home-made mail boxes was kept in the building, and people from farther up-Island would visit the mill for their mail.

It was a simple system, despite the details mentioned. All the self-appointed carrier had to know was who his neighbors were and where each individual’s mail was kept. Everyone knew these things as soon as he was old enough to make the trip to and from the post offices, and there were no errors made, a fact that is noteworthy in the days of a system whereby the most successful operator is the one who can furnish the best alibi. But nevertheless, the Vineyard had its R.F.D., an actuality, long before generous Uncle Sam adopted this method of handling the mails, and if it was not the first appearance of the system, at least it was original and entirely of the Vineyard in its application.

Compiled by Hilary Wall