A century ago the post office had a much larger place in daily life than it has now.
Postal communication was vital to businesses, and was the only economical means for the public to maintain contact with out-of-town friends and relatives.
As a government-operated service, the post office in the 19th century had an additional role as a means of ladling out patronage. Local party functionaries could be rewarded with positions as postmasters. Changes in those offices sometimes followed elections, and as did contracts for the transport of mail.
Political patronage and good postal service did not often go together, and by the later decades of the 19th century good postal service became more important than rewarding party hacks.
The most important era in the history of the Canadian post office was the administration of William Mulock as postmaster general. He introduced procedures and policies that persist to this day as he totally transformed the post office department during his decade at its head.
Mulock preferred to be underestimated. He passed himself off as a farmer (indeed, he lived on a farm near Newmarket), but he was also a top corporate lawyer in Toronto, a guiding hand on the Dominion Bank, and involved himself in a number of other enterprises.
When Mulock stepped into his cabinet office in 1896, the Canadian post office was plagued with poor service, dispirited employees, and a deficit of over $700,000 per year. That amount seems small in 2010, but in the days of $10 and $12-per-week salaries it was enormous.
Mulock’s major innovations all affected Wellington County. Clerk’s jobs on the travelling Railway Post Offices had formerly been undesirable. Mulock raised salaries for those positions and instituted incentives and tough qualifying examinations. In short order, the railway mail clerks became the elite of the post office, and the jobs much sought after. As well, Mulock increased the frequency of railway mail services. Formerly there had been only a single daily delivery on most lines. By 1900, most passenger trains carried a mail car, and mail moved much more quickly through the network. For Wellington residents, that meant it was possible to send a letter to many points in the morning and receive a reply that night. Palmerston became a beehive of activity as clerks transerred bags of mail from one train to another.
Effective in 1899, Mulock reduced the postage rate on letters from three cents to two cents. Critics predicted that the Canadian post office would soon be drowning in red ink, but revenues recovered to their former levels in less than 18 months, and continued to grow rapidly after that. Businesses benefitted greatly from the lower cost. By the time Mulock retired as postmaster general in 1905, his department was generating a profit of more than $1-million per year.
As an administrator, Mulock might be regarded as lazy. He would stroll into his office in mid morning, after attending to his personal business affairs, peruse the morning mail, consult briefly with his senior assistants, then leave for the day to enjoy an ample lunch and perhaps an afternoon of horse racing with his cronies.
One of his great skills was the ability to select the right men for senior administrative positions. He then allowed them relatively free reign to achieve his broad objectives. Mulock’s influence thus persisted for years after he left the top job.
An innovation that Mulock had considered since the late 1890s was rural delivery of mail. At that time farmers had to go a nearby post office to pick up and send their mail. That could be time consuming for farmers. For the post office it meant supervising and maintaining hundreds of small offices. Mulock hesitated for years, fearing the cost of instituting free rural mail delivery across the country.
The department bit the bullet in 1908, instituting the first rural route near Hamilton. It was an instant success, and soon there was pressure to extend the service everywhere. By 1913, all of Wellington County’s rural areas were served with six-day-a-week mail delivery, and dozens of the old rural post offices closed.
With the new emphasis on efficiencies, the post office, working with the Department of Public Works, decided in 1908 on a massive program of construction of new buildings in towns with substantial mail volumes. Four Wellington County towns were on the list: Elora, Fergus, Mount Forest and Harriston. Each of the buildings was estimated at $5,000, and all were in towns where customs offices existed or were planned. The program was an extension of a policy already in place for large centres. The post office at Guelph, for example, had received a third storey and massive renovations four years earlier.
The new program was included in supplementary budget estimates passed in July 1908. With a federal election on the horizon for the fall of that year, cynics saw it as a vote-getting scheme by Laurier Liberals.
At the local level, residents and businessmen greeted the announcement with approval. The postal facilities in some of the towns had been substandard for years. In Mount Forest, for example, MP Alex Martin and Senator McMullen had been pressing for a new building for a very long time.
In short order, residents of every town on the list began debating the location of the new buildings. Some favoured particular sites for personal gain, hoping to sell at a good price. Some merchants wanted the new post office as close to their stores as possible. But the government had its own priorities, in terms of size, accessibility, and site drainage.
At the end of August 1908, Inspector Charles Hunter of the Department of Public Works visited Wellington to scout for potential sites. The matter had the potential to be a sensitive political one. Local Liberal committees had already met in each of the towns, and had several potential locations identified. On Aug. 31, Hunter was in Elora and Fergus with Wellington South MP Hugh Guthrie. The following day, Hunter was in Mount Forest with Wellington North MP Alex Martin, and the following day the pair went to Harriston. In all four they indicated that the government very much favoured a location on the main street.
Hunter later retraced his steps without the federal members in tow, making notes and doing measurements.
The federal election in October 1908 produced little excitement in Wellington County. Voters re-elected Alex Martin and Hugh Guthrie, both Liberals. It is impossible to say whether the new post offices played a significant part in the results.
After the vote, progress on the new buildings slowed to a bare crawl. That resulted in more arguments over sites. Only one location was decided that fall, the one in Elora. The government purchased a vacant lot at the corner of Geddes and Colborne Streets. It was used at that time by a dealer in firewood, and was next door to the village’s new Carnegie Library, which was still under construction. After that, the planned new post offices seemed a dead issue for several months.
By April, though, it was evident that the federal government remained interested in the new buildings. In April 1909, federal officials purchased a property in Fergus, diagonally across from the relatively new Melville Church, at the corner of St. Andrew and Tower Streets. The price was $700 for a site that contained a dilapidated building.
The decision was at once controversial. The location was at the extreme end of the business section of town, far from the existing location in the MacQueen Block, which was near the St. David Street intersection. Arguments in favour of the site were its ample size, and that wagons and vehicles could access the rear easily off Tower Street.
Purchases of property in the other towns proceeded at an agonizing pace. No shovels appeared on the sites during the rest of 1909, nor in 1910.
In 1911, with another federal election on the horizon, the new buildings rose much higher on the list of government priorities. That year would see much building activity.
Next week: The new offices are built and occupied.