As Postal Service Faces Funding Challenges, A Look Back At The 'Barefoot Mailman' Of South Florida
The postal system is a small miracle. Planes, trains and postal automobiles bring letters around the country for less than a dollar.
There’s also the matter of the role they play providing letters, paychecks, bills and facilitating voting in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. That importance was just on display as we saw a record number of vote-by-mail ballots cast in Florida’s primary election, earlier this week.
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And it used to be much more difficult — and dangerous — to deliver mail in South Florida back at the end of the 19th century.
The opening crawl of the 1951 film “The Barefoot Mailman” romanticizes early Florida’s postal system.
“By 1890, the last frontier of America was not in the West, but in Southern Florida. The outpost settlements of Miami and Palm Beach — isolated by swampland and jungle — depended for communication on the U.S. Mail — which in turn depended upon...” it reads before panning to a strolling, barefoot man carrying a pack labeled “U.S. Mail.”
It’s a rather poetic tribute for a movie that spends fairly little time focusing on pioneer Florida’s mail — the beach-strolling mailman, played by Jerome Courtland, is more an aw-shucks country boy foil to Robert Cummings’ suave gentleman con man than center of attention himself.
In fact, some who knew the very real barefoot mailman Courtland’s character was based on — Charlie Pierce — took issue with the portrayal. Historian and attorney Harvey Oyer, Pierce’s great-nephew, remembers his great-grandmother making her displeasure known to Theodore Pratt, who wrote the book that formed the basis of the 1951 movie.
“Lillie, Charlie’s sister, my great-grandmother, was very angry with Theodore Pratt,” he remembers. “[She] actually would follow him to some of his book lectures and heckle him from the crowd because she didn't appreciate Pratt portraying him to the rest of America as some uneducated, Tarzan type of guy in the jungles of Florida.”
The Historical Society of Palm Beach County lists 20 people who served as the postal carriers between modern Palm Beach County and points north and modern Miami-Dade.
For seven years, beginning in December 1884, the beach walkers – as they were better known before Pratt’s book popularized the term “barefoot mailman” — walked, rowed and sailed the roughly 68 mile trek along Florida’s southeast coast every week for $600 a year.
It wasn’t for the faint of heart.
“In the seven year history of the barefoot mail route, no mail carrier ever attempted to renew their contract,” Oyer said. “At the end of the year, they all said, ‘No thanks,’ even though $600 a year was a really good salary.”
The mailmen’s route started in Palm Beach at first, and then later on Hypoluxo Island — right by Charlie Pierce’s home.
Oyer said neither Pierce nor his neighbor Andrew Garnett had intended to be full-time barefoot mailmen. Getting the U.S. Postal Service contract required beach walkers to have two others promise to walk the route in their place if anything prevented them walking the weekly journey. Garnett and Pierce were backup to their neighbor, Kentucky transplant Ed Hamilton, whose disappearance in the line of duty made him one of the most legendary barefoot mailmen.
The cause of Hamilton’s disappearance remains undetermined. His clothes were found on the northern side of the Hillsboro Inlet, leading many to surmise that he’d gotten to the water to swim to the boat that should have been parked on his side of the river, but was missing. One theory is that he met a very Florida fate — eaten by alligators.
“It’s still one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in Florida history,” Oyer said.
Hamilton’s disappearance underscores one important fact about the barefoot mailmen – they were on their own against whatever South Florida could throw at them. They had to pack enough for three days’ and 68 miles journey down, then the same back. That meant gators, bears, panthers and the entire breadth of Florida weather.
As Oyer put it, it really put the USPS motto of “neither wind, nor snow, nor hail, nor dead of night…” to the test.
“They could never be late or they were docked part of their pay,” he said. “It didn't matter if it was 30 degrees outside,100 degrees outside, a tropical storm, you had to go.”
The carriers hugged the coast on their walk down from either Palm Beach or Hypoluxo Island. About 40 of their 68 miles each way were on foot, with the remaining journey done over water — they kept boats at one end to cross the inlets at Lake Worth, Hillsboro — where Hamilton disappeared — and then-New River, now-Fort Lauderdale.
Once they got to the top of Biscayne Bay, at the area now called Haulover Beach, the mailmen would sail down to modern-day downtown Miami. They’d spend nights on the way down at Houses of Refuge in Delray Beach and Fort Lauderdale — havens for shipwrecked sailors and travelers that used to line the Florida coast.
Once they’d dropped off the mail in Miami, the mailmen would spend the night and then start back up — three days’ travel down, three days’ travel back, and a day of rest on Sunday before they’d start again.
Part of the original Barefoot Mailman route lives on in an annual hike organized by the South Florida council of the Boy Scouts.
The Scouts start gathering around 5 a.m. in a parking lot in Pompano Beach, just south of the Hillsboro Inlet where barefoot mailman Ed Hamilton disappeared. From there, they walk about half of the mailmen’s original route, some 34 miles mostly along A1A and Ocean Drive.
“It’s really long,” opined Isaac Edward, a 13-year-old Scout who was walking his first full Barefoot Mailman. “And it’s not fun the second day.”
Edward walked the shorter, second-day-only part of the hike in 2019 — a route the Boy Scouts call the “Big Toe.” The Scouts who hike it tend to do the full trip only once — Edward said what excites him most about the hike is not having to do it again.
The volunteers, though, return year after year. Hike organizer Frank Kimball has been leading the trip for the majority of its 56 years, and can easily rattle off Barefoot Mailman history. Karen Robinson and Linda Leasburg-Kramer, who checked in each troop and passed out information and parking passes for the cars that would carry extra water, kept coming back long after their own boys had aged out of Scouting.
“I started this when my son was in Scouting,and I think he did his first hike when he was 12 or 13 years old,” Leasburg-Kramer recalled. “He turns 30 this year. He’s not even in Scouting anymore – he doesn’t even live in Miami!”
About 190 people walked the full Barefoot Mailman Hike on Feb. 1 and 2, despite rainy conditions and worse traffic than usual because of Super Bowl LIV.
Hiker Raisa Falero-Company rattled off a list of supplies packed into her backpack — a sleeping bag, extra clothes, sunblock — as well as extra precautions for the rainy forecast.
“I brought a poncho, and also a poncho for my bag — just in case,” she said. “And I brought extra shoes in case it rains.”
The hikers, much like the original mailmen, have to carry everything they need except extra water, which they can get from their support vehicles during the hike. Thanks to Florida’s development over the past 127 years, they’re much less likely to have to fend off bears, gators and panthers than the original beach walkers.
They left in staggered groups, each with one mailbag carrying letters the hikers had addressed to themselves. In honor of South Florida’s original mail carriers, the U.S. Postal Service stamps each letter upon receipt with a special commemorative postmark.
The Barefoot Mailman legacy lives on in other ways in South Florida. Several parks along the original route — including on the Hillsboro Inlet, where Hamilton vanished — have statues honoring the Barefoot Mailmen. A motel in Lantana took the Barefoot Mailman name, and has a robust history of the beach walkers on its website. Dania Beach hosts a “Barefoot Mailman Classic” run, with runners taking the 5K or 10K routes either shod or shoeless.
Harvey Oyer, the attorney and great-nephew of mailman Charlie Pierce, writes children’s books about his great-uncle and the pioneer days of South Florida — including one called “The Barefoot Mailman.” They’re taught as part of many fourth grade history curriculums, and are pretty well-loved by the students they’re assigned to.
“I've been sent at least a dozen photographs by parents of, they tucked their kid in bed and come back and their kid is under the covers with a flashlight reading the book,” Oyer said.
Mail in South Florida has changed tremendously since the seven-year era of the beach walkers. A road constructed in 1893 between Jupiter and Miami made it possible to send the mail via stage, which was much faster and less labor-intensive. Over time, the mail system in South Florida changed into its modern iteration – most of the areas the barefoot mailmen passed on their route now have their own post offices, which process thousands of letters and parcels each day.
When Pierce, Hamilton and Garnett walked the route, they could fit all the mail coming from the northern tip of the Keys to the St. Lucie River in a single pack.
“I don’t think you could fit all the mail for my block in one mailbag today,” Oyer said.