Long ago, I was watching the 1962 movie version of Meredith Wilson’s musical “The Music Man.” One of the songs had a very young Ronnie Howard lisping his way through “The Wells Fargo Wagon” as the entire town of River City came out to see if any mail or maybe a package might be delivered to them.
Although it was part of a fictional story, the song emphasized a truth: early mail service to any town was vital to the community’s success.
As the West expanded, the U.S. Postmaster General would contract with private stage or coach companies to deliver mail in the interior part of the country. Called star routes, mail was rarely delivered to individual homes, but rather to the town’s post office for pickup by recipients. The exception would be when there was less than one customer per mile.
In our local area, some of the mail carriers went out of their way to not only deliver the mail to homes, but also help out in various other ways.
In his first book, “Pioneer Tales,” Gering Courier founder and publisher A.B. Wood gave a colorful description of one of the mail carriers — a guy named Zina Phinney.
The star mail route between Gering and Caldwell used the east and west road. For years, it was operated by Phinney.
Phinney drove small mule teams hitched to a buckboard and changed teams at either end of the line or possibly in Mitchell Valley. The route went through Mitchell Valley and Mitchell Pass, so one of his stops would be at the Mitchell post office, located on the south side of river at the Frank Beers’ place.
Phinney stopped at every mailbox on his route to deliver the mail. He also picked up any butter, eggs or other produce the settlers had for sale.
Once in town, Phinney would deliver the produce to the grocer and bring back whatever groceries or dry goods the settlers had requested.
Basically, Phinney was doing the shopping for all the housewives along his route. It was something he did cheerfully.
The process of mail handling was different in the new town of Gering. Oscar W. Gardner was appointed as the town’s first postmaster in 1887. He was given authority to operate the post office solely as a supply office.
That meant patrons had to bring in their mail, at their own expense, by voluntary carriers from Camp Clarke, 30 miles downriver. That’s where the mail was delivered to a stopping point along the Sidney-Black Hills stage line.
At the time, the Gering-Kimball stage route served post offices in Ashford and Harrisburg in Banner County.
Passenger traffic was also booming, as the stage line for some time was the only established method of reaching the valley.
The Kimball to Gering mail route didn’t implement Monday through Saturday service until 1889. In the meantime, several other star routes were established and Gering became the mail distribution center for the entire North Platte Valley.
Another route was established in 1889 when the Billings line of the Burlington Railroad was completed to Alliance to serve post offices opposite Gering. By 1890, it was a daily route,
Many of those small post offices also maintained eating establishments and horse changing stations.
Most of them are now just listings in the history books — names like Larissa, Caldwell, Sedan, Malinda and Granger.