Neither Rain, Nor Sleet, Nor Ice-cold Brick…
There is more truth than poetry to the Postal Service’s nickname, U.S. Mule.
In the early 1900s a robust fellow name Gene Mays carried the Highlands mail on the southern route to Walhalla. For five decades he trekked back and forth. Folks say you rarely saw him without his trademark cigar dangling out of the corner of his grin. He never lit it, just kind of gnawed it.
He started out at 28 years of age delivering mail by bicycle. That had to have been an aerobic workout. No wonder he was described as rugged. Soon he graduated to mule delivery, then a horse and buggy. Even with gradual transportation improvement, it still took ten hours round trip to make all the stops.
Eventually, real-life horsepower was replaced by the mechanical kind with an old 1911 Model T Ford. Acceleration and engine spark were controlled by levers on either side of the steering wheel. Imagine manipulating all the handles and knobs while sorting mail and steering and stuffing mailboxes. But it was worth driving a car to cut his travel time in two, and that was with frequent stops to refill the radiator and patch the tires.
On top of all that, his old Model T was not heated in the winter, so he’d stuff a hot brick into a sack and keep it by his feet. When he turned to make the trek home, the heat had dissipated, so he had Popsicle toes by the time he got home. Eventually he and a Walhalla mail carrier split the distance. They exchanged mailbags at the halfway point. By the 1960s, the U.S. Mule was kicking into high gear, and the journey took only two hours.
In 1966 Mays passed on in line of duty. He had a heart attack while driving his mail truck. He was seventy-eight years old. But his legend lives on. It is in the fortitude of Gene Mays, who tackled the elements daily, that the spirit of the mail service lives on. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor an abundance of levers, nor an ice-cold brick…
To learn more about the heroes who built Highlands one outstanding job at a time, read “Heart of the Blue Ridge” by Ran Shaffner or visit the Highlands Historical Society’s website: www.highlandshistory.com.
by Donna Rhodes | Photo Courtesy of Highlands Historical Society