Before the Rural Free Delivery (RFD) mail system was developed, farm families had to pick up their mail in the nearest town which could be hours or days away. RFD service was started as an experiment in West Virginia on October 1, 1896 and was implemented nationwide on July 1, 1902. Once RFD came to Nebraska, families could order machinery and supplies and easily send and receive letters and news. RFD also forced the government to improve the conditions of the roads and stimulated economic growth since families could buy and sell goods by mail and by using the improved roads.
The Nebraska History Museum holds several items in its collections relating to J. W. Thompson, who was in charge of RFD route 1 at Farnam, Nebraska. Thompson was born on February 14, 1866 in eastern Nebraska. When he was 11, his family moved to Frontier County, where his father, a carpenter, established a brickyard. Two years later, his father sold the brickyard and took up ranching. The family of eleven lived in a sod house until a permanent home was built. Thompson began his own career as a carpenter, but he and his wife, Ida B. Owen, later homesteaded north of Farnam. In 1906 they moved to Farnam with their three children, Owen, Maude, and Mabel and he began delivering mail.
Mail carrier strongbox used by J. W. Thompson (NSHS 11055-2720-1).
Hat worn by J. W. Thompson (NSHS 11055-2718). (at right).
In the early years, rural carriers received a salary of a maximum of $300 per year and provided their own transportation. In 1928, carriers who served a route of 24 miles, six days per week received $1800.00 per year plus four cents per mile for equipment maintenance. Thompson first used a horse and carriage and later conducted his route by automobile. Thompson retired in 1931 and his son Owen took over the route. Thompson died on March 14, 1938.
-Tom Mooney, Curator of Manuscripts