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Rural Free Delivery

Prior to Rural Free Delivery, those who lived in remote areas had to pick up their mail at a post office, often long distances from their homesteads. Sometimes people paid private carriers to deliver the mail.

That began to change on October 1, 1880, as five men set out on horseback to deliver mail along a 10-mile route in West Virginia. Within a year, forty-four rural routes delivered mail in 29 states. Rural Free Delivery was abbreviated as RFD, with numbered routes as part of rural addresses. It was familiar terminology in its day, even appearing as part of a TV show title: “Mayberry RFD,” which was a spin-off of The Andy Griffith Show.

Farm families were instrumental in the development of Rural Free Delivery, which would grow into a program offering mail service everywhere in America. They had demanded to know why city dwellers received mail delivery when rural customers – who paid the same postage rates – did not. Politicians often promised free rural delivery, and saw it as a way to reach voters. Some businesses also liked the idea as a way to reach customers, but others resisted. Private carriers paid by individuals to deliver rural mail would be put out of business. Shopkeepers also resisted RFD, afraid they would lose customers if people no longer had to come to town to get their mail.

In 1892 legislation passed that mandated rural delivery, but implementation was slow. On this date in 1913, Postmaster General Burleson announced that he was taking care of rural customers. When he took office the previous March, he discovered a backlog of 890 petitions for the establishment of RFD routes. He had quickly approved all but 36 of the requests. He subsequently approved an additional 730 applications that came into his office. These routes provided mail service for over 20 million people. RFD was a boon to businesses that could now market directly to the consumer. It also helped farmers who no longer had to make long and time-consuming trips to get their mail. Burleson expected that another 1,200 routes would be established within a year.

All of this was, of course, of great interest to North Dakotans. In 1898, Wahpeton became the first North Dakota post office to offer rural delivery. St. Thomas and Mayville quickly followed.

An address included a rural route number and often a box number, like "Rural Route 5, Box 10." However, with the creation of the 9-1-1 emergency system, the old rural route numbers were discontinued in favor of house numbers and street names, a changed that enabled emergency services to more quickly locate a rural residence.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


The Evening Times. “Postmaster-General Burleson Looks After Rural Patrons. 13 November 1913. Grand Forks, ND. Page 2,

United States Post Office. “First Rural Routes by State.” https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/first-rural-routes.htm  Accessed 12 November 2018.

Grit Magazine. The History of Rural Free Delivery.” https://www.grit.com/community/history/history-of-rural-free-delivery-zm0z13ndzgou  Accessed 12 November 2018.

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