Kate Field and the truth about little country post offices
Mountain Tales: First-hand stories of life in Tehachapi
December 7, 2019
In 1892, Benjamin Harrison was president and John Wanamaker was Postmaster General. When Mr. Wanamaker had been in office 15 months, he invited several hundred Postmasters and Postmistresses from all sections of the country and representing all classes of Post Offices to come to Washington for three days to discuss how we can improve the postal system and service. The final night of the meeting, a banquet was held, and at the speaker's table were Mr. Wanamaker, President Harrison, Secretary of State James Blaine and other dignitaries, including one special guest, Kate Field.
Kate Field – journalist, lecturer, author, actress – was then all the rage in Washington and over much of the country. Her magazine, Kate Field's Washington, was in vogue [she was like the Oprah of her day]. When she accepted the invitation to attend, it was with the expressed condition that she not be asked to speak. Early in the evening she was presented to those at the banquet, but that was all. After assorted speeches, Postmaster General Wanamaker arose to conclude the evening, when those in attendance began chanting "Kate Field, Kate Field" repeatedly. Suddenly there was silence and standing in the middle of that great banquet hall was a little plain country woman, her bonnet years out of style. Across her back was a once black shawl, and she wore the cheapest of cotton gloves. All eyes were upon her. Kate Field sensed the situation in a second – glancing down at the printed list of names she read "Kate Field, Postmistress, Cumberland Corners, Kentucky." Instantly she was on her feet clapping her hands and shouting "Kate Field of Kentucky!" The crowd joined – as crowds always do.
And the little country Postmistress said, "For the life of me I can't understand why you called for me to speak. It's the last thing I expected when I came to this banquet and meeting – I didn't see how I could come at all, with Ma chair-ridden, and no one to keep the Post Office, or care for the chickens, or look after the young turkeys, and so many things. I was about to give up on comin', when Brother Elkanah Barton of the Baptist Church says 'Kate, 'tain't fittin' for unmarried females like you to go gaddin' off up north alone among all that wickedness, 'specially since Cleveland ain't no longer President – maybe, Kate, you don't know that.' And when he said that – insultin' my intelligence – I sez, 'I'm going no matter who says I shan't.'
"Well, I'll tell ya about my little Post Office. You've heard a lot of jokes about them country Post Offices readin' the mail. With me that ain't no joke. Ours is mountain country. Lots of the mountain folks don't git to town but once a month. Mail seldom comes for them 'cept bad news – death, sickness or worse troubles. I'll read it, and if the letter's important, git somebody with a sure-footed mule to take it where it needs to go. I hafta read lots o' folks mail 'cause they can't read. Widow Hover's boy Jake up and runs away and she never had nary a word from him. One day a letter came and I sent her word. She can't read it, but she never lets on, so she says, 'Kate, read it fur me, I'm having heaps a' trouble with my eyes.' So I read – to myself – 'Dear Ma. This is fine country up north. I am well and hope you are the same. I hope you can send me some money soon. I sure need it. Jake.'
"When I seen what it said, I stepped out of sight for a minute, sayin' I needed to get glasses, and I changed that last part to read 'I hope I can send you some money soon. You sure need it.' She went out like she had wings, a'shoutin' 'I knowed there was good in Jake, I knowed it.' And then I sat down and wrote that good fer nuthin' Jake a letter, telling him how I committed a forgery to save his face to his poor ole Ma. And I said, 'If you don't git to work and git some money and send it to your ma, I'm comin' up there and when I'm through with you, you'll look funny with no skin on you.' And he did.
"I've also seen to it that poor girls with no good clothes got a nice dress so they could meet a decent boy. Postmistresses like me have to be a lot of things – doctor, nurse, and what not. But I didn't intend to go on like this, you'll be taking me for a preacher, which I'm not, but only Kate Field, Postmistress, Cumberland Corners, Kentucky." When she sat down, the applause was deafening and every person was standing. Wanamaker later insisted that no journalists write of the incident, saying, "If that dear old Kentucky country Postmistress were to discover that she was not the Kate Field the crowd was clamoring for, it would break her heart, and we can't break hearts such as that."
Many years passed. One morning the little Cumberland Corners Post Office didn't open. The young turkeys, chickens and geese made much clatter around the cottage of the Postmistress. Finally neighbors knocked on the front door. No response. Kate was an early riser, but on this morning she was still in bed, motionless. On the pillow beside her was a yellowed-with-age clipping from a Washington daily paper. It read: "The closing speech was the speech of the evening. It was also a great surprise. And evidently wholly unprepared. The ovation at its close should warm the speaker's heart until the end of her days."
In a trembly, old hand was written beneath, "It did."
– Elmer Ellsworth Helms
My grandmother, Edith Hand, clipped this account from a magazine in 1944 and kept it her whole life because it reminded her of the little post offices in Eastern Kern County, like Keene, Caliente, Weldon, Havilah and others. JEH