From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 44, No. 2, April 2008
This interesting article was originally published in the Hartford Weekly Times, August 23, 1894. No byline was listed. It has been slightly shortened here, but the full text is available in our archives.
Women have taken up almost every kind of occupation and trade formerly pursued exclusively by the sterner sex, but probably for novelty as well as for a total apparent unfitness, the woman stage-driver leads the van. It was while I was spending my vacation this summer away from all thought of “assignments” or “scoops”, drinking in the pure, invigorating air which the healthy town of Willington is so noted for, that I first heard of the woman stage-driver as a reality, and not as the heroine of fiction, existing in some imaginary “town of c…” in a far-away western state. I immediately made up my mind that the route on my return to the city should take in a trip on the stage with this woman driver.
An early ride of a few miles one morning brought me to the historic old town of Ashford, in Windham county… Shortly before 6 the woman driver, Charlotte Waldo, drove up in a carriage and went into the office, appearing a minute later with an United States mail pouch on her arm. She was of medium height, and although not fleshy, her entire build suggested great strength and endurance. Her face and hands were as red as a boiled lobster, from exposure to all kinds of weather. Her hair was cut short and parted in the middle, huge black eye-goggles, a black sailor hat with a white ribbon and a huge bow much the worse for wear, a pair of large men’s shoes upon her feet, and the resolute determined look on her face, all gave her a decidedly masculine appearance as she stood there with one hand on the carriage, ready to get in, and the other holding the mail bag. But the dress, a gingham with huge plaids, made plain and loose, instantly declared her sex. Staring promptly at 6, we had probably gone about a quarter of a mile when a man came out of a house and handed her a letter as we trotted by. This she explained to me was the “open mail service.” All along the route she receives these letters, having thirty regular everyday and about twenty more of the less regular ones. As she comes to a post-office, the letters she has collected since leaving the last office on the route are duly brought forth from the depths of a mysterious pocket in the inside of her dress and turned over to the postmaster, when they are canceled and placed in the pouch with the rest of the mail.
I had become quite used to seeing her deftly grab the letters as we drove by, when a new system appeared. We were progressing along at a good, fair clip, when she suddenly turned to the side of the road, and grabbing two strings hanging out of a small box on a post, she gave a sudden twitch and landed a waterproof bag in the carriage. The bag was closed at the top with gathering-strings, which are hung out of the box for her to take hold of. In appearance, it very much resembled a skate-bag. This, she informed me, was the “private mail-bag service.” These bags, as in the case with the letters, are turned over to the first postmaster. Another system, which, she explained, was the most annoying of all, is the “private mail-box.” This system is used by those who haven’t enough mail matter to afford the private mail-bag system, and who are not always in the house when the stage goes by so as to give or receive mail matter. In appearance the system is the same as the private mail-bag, there being a long narrow box fastened on the end to a post in such a manner that it hangs out over the side of the road like an inverted L. No mail-bag is used, however, the mail matter just being placed in the box with a stone over it so it will not blow away. A white rag is hung out of the box in place of gathering-strings, as a signal that the mail is there. The driver expressed her bad opinion of this system in a very decided manner, as she is compelled to stop in order to get the letter, pull it out from under the stone and put the rag inside. After changing the mail at West Ashford, we came up a long hill at the top of which was a fine, large farm…
At Mansfield Four Corners, another sorting of the mail was made. Just before reaching Mansfield Depot, on the New London Northern road, we passed the famous Reynolds farm [Spring Manor Farm], one of the most noted in New England. The farm comprises several hundred acres of land, all of which is surrounded and subdivided into lots by massive stone walls. Some of these walls are about four feet high and wide enough on top to drive a double team on. At regular intervals and on each side of the gates are huge stone pyramids fifteen feet high and twelve feet in diameter at the base, all being perfectly rounded and terminating at the top in a capstone. Patent self-acting gates guard all openings in the walls in place of the “bars” usually found on all farms. To the rear of the mansion in which the owner lives is a private trotting park, where his stable of thoroughbreds are trained…
At Mansfield Depot a further sorting of the mail was made and we then began to climb the hills in earnest. The road was badly washed in many places, and was all the way uphill to North Coventry…
After sorting the mail at North Coventry where we stopped long enough to get a light lunch at the hotel we pushed on. Taking out her watch at the top of the hill she informed me we were just a minute ahead of time. From the top of this hill it was straight down for quite a distance; then from the bottom there was a climb up a hill of apparently the same height and grade, the road being perfectly straight and the two hills resembling the sides of a broad-topped V….
I suggested how lonesome her drive must be, when she had no passengers, and asked her if she ever met tramps.
“Yes,” said she, “I meet some pretty tough-looking customers sometimes, but they never touch me. If they did they would find out how serious a thing it is to interfere with the United States mails.”
This was said quietly, and simply with no attempt at blustering, but from the resolute, determined look upon her face I knew that she was capable of occupying the position she does, and that one had better think twice before interfering with her, while in her “official capacity.”
…She has made the trip every day except Sundays since she started and never has missed getting the mail to Bolton in time for the train, not even in winter… She carries mail pouches each way for Ashford, West Ashford, Mansfield Four Corners, Mansfield Depot, North Coventry, Quarryville and Bolton. Besides these pouches, she has nearly twenty of the private mail bags to collect up from the offices as she returns and place in their right boxes. Mail matter for these bags is placed in them when the mail from the large pouch is sorted at the preceding post-office. Then whatever mail matter she may have for the private mail boxes, she carries in her pocket until she reaches the box when she stops and placing it under the stone, hangs out the white rag as a signal to the family when they may see it, that there is mail matter there. Then of the open mail service, she has from forty to fifty letters each night to keep separate and deliver to their private owners, who come out regularly as she goes by so as to receive it.
The route is controlled under government contract by Dwight Shurliff … who receives $600 a year for it. The private mail bags yield a revenue each year of from one to four dollars apiece, the private mail boxes and the open mail system yielding a much less sum. During the summer months quite a little is made from carrying passengers. Charlotte Waldo, the driver, received for her services $150 a year and the team furnished. She starts at 6 o’clock in the morning and arrives at Bolton in time for the 9:28 train for Hartford. After leaving the mail bag at the station she drives to a barn a short distance away, where she unhitches and curries and rubs down her horse for about an hour. Then she feeds him and eats her own dinner, bringing both from home. At 12 o’clock she starts back, distributing the mail along the way and reaches home about 6 o’clock. The distance is a little over eighteen miles each way, making thirty-six miles a day or 216 miles a week. The route is the worst in the State, the roads being, in winter and early spring, almost impassable. After a snow storm, the roads are rarely broken out for a day or two, and on the occasion of one storm last winter, the state was the only team through for three days. She shoveled her way through alone each day and never once missed the train…
She seems to take great pride in her position, which she certainly fills as well as any man… Her calling, to say the least, is most eccentric and uncommon, and one that very few women would have the rigid constitution and courageous determination to carry out. Her route lies over the old turnpike between Boston and Hartford, the larger part of it lying in the Bolton Mountain region and being made up almost entirely of long, steep hills with very few level stretches. Every other day she changes horses, and the good care she takes of them keeps them looking in good shape, in spite of the many miles of hills which they climb in a week.
At Quarryville, the last sorting of the mail took place and we drove along past the lower end of Bolton reservoir, and by the old burying ground with many of its quaint old tombstones bearing dates back into the beginning of the seventeenth century. Bolton Notch, the end of our journey was reached at 9:25, after having traversed across six towns and covering a portion of Windham county, the entire distance across Tolland county, and had we covered three miles more, we should have been in Hartford county. As the train came along three minutes later, I left the woman driver, after having had a most interesting ride with her… As the train pulled out, just before entering the Notch, standing on the rear platform of the last car, I caught a last glimpse of her as she sat bent over the reins guiding her horse as he lazily moved up to the barn where she would take care of him and make her preparations to return in a short time over the long lonely road. With the utmost feelings of respect toward the woman and her occupation, I became a convert to Woman’s Rights on the spot, and turning, I entered the car.