Charlotte Waldo, Connecticut’s First Woman Mail Carrier

Charlotte Waldo: Connecticut’s First Woman Mail Carrier

by Jamie Eves

One of the great things about working at a history museum is that people are always showing (or giving) you artifacts, stories, and information. You never stop learning. A friend from Ashford, CT, recently gave me a faded photocopy of a tattered newspaper clipping from an 1894 issue of the Hartford Times. It was a story about Charlotte Waldo,  at the time the only woman mail carrier in Connecticut. In a one-horse mail coach, Waldo drove the route from Ashford to Bolton Notch, delivering mail sacks to post offices along the way. I transcribed the article and it is reprinted below.

In the 19th century, most Americans regarded carrying and delivering the mail — and driving a stage coach — as masculine activities not suited to women. The Post Office did not appoint any female postmasters until the mid-1800s, and then only grudgingly and under the idea that running a small rural post office was mostly sedentary work acceptable for middle-class women. (Nineteenth-century working class women did all sorts of hard physical labor, but were not regarded as “ladies.”) Even then, in 1900 women made up only 10% of American postmasters. Carrying the mail and driving horses generally was viewed as too strenuous, unseemly, or dangerous for “ladies.” (Rural post offices were often located in taverns, off limits to middle-class women.) It was only in the 1880s that Susanna Brunner in New York and Minnie Westerman in Oregon became the first female mail carriers, joined in 1895 by Mary “Stagecoach Mary” Fields, the first African American woman mail carrier. In 1899 there were 11 woman mail carriers, most of them emergency substitutes for a male relative. Like Waldo, they delivered the mail to rural post offices, not door-to-door. Ethel Hill is usually credited with becoming the first woman mail carrier in her own right, in 1899, but Waldo seems to have come earlier. Women were not allowed to deliver mail in urban areas until 1917. Folks in Canterbury, CT, claim that Frances Vadavik was Connecticut’s first woman mail carrier, beginning in 1942. But if the story in the Hartford Times is correct, Waldo was actually first, delivering mail to rural post offices (but not to homes) as early as 1894.

The anonymous reporter (probably a man) who wrote about Waldo claimed to be a supporter of women’s rights and wanted to portray her as both competent and feminine. Although reporting that Waldo had some “masculine” traits, the author decided that it was her femininity that was her greatest strength. Waldo was tough, courageous, determined, and wore men’s shoes — traits normally ascribed primarily to men in the 1890s — but also empathetic and a non-drinker, supposedly feminine attributes that made her stand out. She didn’t drink while driving. She took good care of her horses. She stopped and broke up a fight between two men. And she wore a dress. 

Unfortunately, the article also demonstrates the pervasive racism of the era. The author quotes Waldo using a racial slur, common at the time. Both Waldo and the author regarded African Americans as “other,” fundamentally different from whites — as indeed, the middle class in the 1890s generally considered itself fundamentally different from the working class and immigrants.

Charlotte Waldo was a real person, not the figment of a log-ago newspaper reporter’s imagination. She is buried in the North Ashford, CT, Cemetery. Her stone says she was born June 9, 1849, and died March 9, 1910. There are no other Waldos buried in that cemetery. I invite you read the entire article below, to see what you think about Waldo — and about rural Connecticut in the 1890s. I used ellipses […] where the original clipping was so tattered that the text was unreadable. I edited out the racial epithet, but indicated its location in the text.

ONLY WOMAN MAIL CARRIER

Manages the Worst Route in the State

It Lies Between Ashford and Bolton

On Time Without Regard to Weather

Charlotte Waldo Faithfully Performs the Duties of Several Kinds of Mail Service. – A Resolute Woman, “Not Afraid of Any Man Living.”

Correspondence of the Hartford Times.

Rockville, August 14, 1894

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 this stage with this woman driver. An early ride of a few […] brought me to the […] Town of Ashford, in Windham County […] the post-office, from which […] starts, there is a sturdy old […] under whose spreading branches Washington and his staff stopped to eat their dinner while on a hurried journey to Boston. The gallant General Lyons of Revolutionary fame, and his tired Continentals, also camped out over night on this spot, and in an ancient dwelling-house near by, there is a small, old-fashioned pane of glass of a deep greenish tinge bearing some initials which the wife of General Lyons is said to have scratched on there with her diamond ring.

Shortly before 6 the woman driver, Charlotte Waldo, drove up in a carriage and went into the office, appearing a minute later with a 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 the exposure to all kinds of weather. Her hair 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 resolved, determined look on her face, all gave her a decidedly masculine appearance as she stood there with one hand on the carriage, merely to get in, and the other holding the mail bag. But the dress, a gingham with a huge plaid, made plain and loose, instantly declared her sex. Starting promptly at 6, we had gone probably about a quarter of a mile when a came out of a house and handed her a […] place, where he was burned to a crisp.

“You see that old barn there?” my companion asked suddenly, after a climb of a particularly long hill made up of a series of little steep pitches. I nodded in the affirmative as I gazed at the building, a little low shed, with the roof terribly sagged and full of great holes, and the sides braced up together by means of fence rails placed against them and a general suggestion about the entire structure of the old one-horse shay on the morning of its dissolution. “Well, the man that owns it lives in that house there,” nodding towards a small three-room house in a bad state of repair. “He’s a hermit, and he ought to be complained of to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. You see, he keeps a cow in that old shed and in the winter the poor thing suffers terribly from the cold. The building becomes half filled with snow at every snow-storm and twice last winter it nearly blew over and had to be pushed to place and braced up. Then, what little hay it holds, besides the cow, becomes soaked with every rain and is not fit to eat. When that is gone, he takes a wheelbarrow and goes up on that side hill and wheels down those tumbles, one by one, and feeds her. These lie out, with no protection from the weather all winter.” With this final outburst my entertainer relapsed into silence, having shown her tender regard for animals.

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. A country grocer’s team was lazily crawling up the last pitch on the summit of the opposite hill, and I was asked to guess the distance between our team and that. “A quarter of a mile,” suggested I, thinking that I had probably greatly overrated it. “Just one mile,” said she with a triumphant smile at my failure to anywhere near approximate the distance. It seemed almost incredible at first, the clear morning air making the team appear so near that I fancied I heard it rattle as it moved slowly along over the stony road. But the time that it took us to reach the top of the hill proved to me that it must be fully a mile. On this hill she pointed out the spot where, as she tersely expressed it, she “stopped a couple of [here the author quotes the driver as using a familiar racial epithet] from fighting.” I remembered then the account I had seen in a paper about the affair. One of the colored persons, becoming partially intoxicated, had called upon the other, a very steady old gentleman owning a small farm on the hill, and for a slight grievance had knocked him down and beat him unmercifully, bruising and cutting his head and reducing him to a state on insensibility, when a woman appeared on the scene and drove the intoxicated man away and had the injured man cared for. The assailant was afterwards arrested and committed to jail. The paper had spoken in high terms of the brave act of the woman. [….]

[…] me, every man driver, after he has been on a little while, takes to drink and ultimately becomes unfit for the position, while she never takes liquor in any form. 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 […] 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 tomb stones 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. Although her exterior was rough and masculine in appearance, there was the woman there just the same, and although to the casual observer she appeared unfeminine in the extreme, in talking of the ills of human beings and the abuses to which the brute creation are subjected, she displayed a rare sympathy and depth of feeling which surprised me. Disappointed in early life, knocked about by the world ever since, and with no one to care what becomes of her, she has become hardened in manner and appearance, and has learned better than to wear her heart on her sleeve. But at heart, pure and simple, she is a woman still. 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.

COMMENT From Drew:

This article can be recovered from the Ashford Historical Society. I had the Barbara Metsack from Historical Society talk about this recently at my installation on May 31st, 2019 as the Postmaster of Ashford. There surprisingly a lot of history in that town. Awesome to see this story shared.

Amy Hooker

Amy Hooker: Union Organizer

by Jamie Eves

For several years now, I have used bits and pieces of spare time trying to track down information about Amy Hooker, an early 20th-century Connecticut labor leader about whom little is known … even though she appears in a song by state troubadour Hugh Blumenfeld!

“I saw Eugene Debs rise up on Wobbly legs
I heard Amy Hooker dressing down American Thread
They took up the strikers’ signs from back in 1925
When the cutbacks ate our grandparents alive.”
–From “How Long” by Hugh Blumenfeld

In 1925 Amy Hooker was 38, single, and the President of the Willimantic Textile Union Council, an affiliate of the United Textile Workers of America, a former craft union that had recently metamorphosed into an industrial union. She was about to lead one of the bitterest, most divisive strikes in Connecticut history, and in the process stand up to one of the state’s most powerful corporations.

Hooker was born (probably) in New Britain, CT, where she was baptized at St. Mark’s on Sept. 9, 1887. Her father, Dwight Freeman Hooker, had worked as a joiner. Amy became a textile worker at an early age. The 1910 United States Census found her, 23 years old, living with her parents Dwight and Alice in Newark, NJ, and working in a factory making straw hats. She never went to school beyond the 6th grade, although she learned enough to be a union leader and later a private art teacher. In 1920 the Census recorded her living as a lodger in Scotland, CT, only a few miles from Willimantic, and unemployed. She subsequently showed up in several Willimantic street directories, living in the Thread City in the late 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. She moved around a lot, residing in a series of low-rent, working-class apartments, almost all of them in older buildings later demolished in Willimantic’s 1970s urban renewal.

Hooker was living in Willimantic in 1925 when the American Thread Company announced a 10% cut in the piece rates it paid its workers. The cut came on top of other cuts made a few years earlier, as ATCO attempted to bring wages back to pre-World War I levels. On Feb. 17, a delegation of workers affiliated with the United Textile Workers of America and led by Hooker (her title, according to the Willimantic Chronicle and Hartford Times, which reported on the event, was president of the Textile Union Council) met with plant manager Don H. Curtis. Curtis declined to rescind the pay cut. That evening, Hooker and other labor leaders called a “mass meeting” at Willimantic’s Central Labor Hall. Four hundred workers — 1/6 of the factory’s labor force — attended. They voted 320-80 to strike if the cut was not canceled. Two weeks of “determined” negotiations followed. On March 5, a second mass meeting at the Labor Hall, chaired by Hooker, unanimously voted to strike. They were promised support by Mary Kelleher, a UTWA organizer from Pennsylvania. The strike began on March 9 at 7:15 a.m. Over the next several months, ATCO replaced the 2,500 strikers with 1,700 replacement workers. By September, the strike was mostly over. The Union lost.

Tracing Hooker’s movements before and after the strike is like chasing shadows – the 1920 Census showed her as unemployed; the 1930 Census recorded her living in Hasbrouck Heights, NJ (a suburb of Passaic, the scene of another bitter 1926-27 textile strike – one wonders if she went there to participate), with her older married sister Carrie and working at her old occupation as a straw hatter; and 1920s, 30s, and 40s Willimantic street directories failed to list any occupation for her (although such information was recorded for almost everyone else who was employed). Was she blacklisted in Willimantic after the 1925 strike failed, and had trouble finding work? Why had she come to Willimantic from New Jersey in the first place? Was it because, like many working class Americans, she was following friends and relatives? Her sister Mattie and brother Dwight also lived in Willimantic, although she never lived with them. Why did she return to New Jersey? Was it simply to reconnect with her sister, or was she somehow involved in the Passaic strike? Why did she come back to Willimantic in the 1930s? Did she perhaps live with a lover? No – the people who lived at the same addresses as she did all changed with each move, and the majority were working class couples. Were her friends in the union taking care of her after the strike?

The 1925 ATCO strike was debilitating for the Union, Willimantic, and Hooker. It lasted nine months — or more, depending on how you measure these things — and involved thousands of workers. The union was fairly new at the ATCO mill, and most of its members were women and immigrants. Several of the women strikers were arrested for verbally abusing strikebreakers; in June Celia St. George, Jeanette St. George, and Caroline Kozek found themselves in court and fined $10 for name calling. To protest the eviction of strikers from their tenements – and to dramatize that the evictions would leave families homeless – the union conducted a parade of baby carriages. In June, the UTWA also erected tents on the outskirts of Willimantic, to house evicted strikers. In July the UTWA ominously threatened a general strike against ATCO’s other plants – and perhaps even other textile factories – if no further progress occurred, although the general strike never materialized. Evictions began in earnest that month, with deputy sheriffs removing furniture from the homes of strikers Joseph Aubin, Moise Morrisette, Nelson Chamberland, Marie Theroux, and William Chalifoux. None of the evicted families opted to move into any of the twenty tents the UTWA had erected, which as of July 16 were occupied by only “two or three caretakers.” Tempers frayed. When a state police officer claimed to have been “manhandled” by strikers, Willimantic Police Chief Allan MacArthur ordered that all parades and marches cease. Amy Hooker organized a committee of herself, two women strikers, and three men to beg MacArthur to rescind his decision. He did, but only after Hooker promised that pickets would stay on the sidewalks, and confine all parades to the morning hours. In September, the UTWA opened a commissary store at 166 Jackson St. in Willimantic to provide food and clothing for strikers and their families.

ATCO’s strategy of hiring replacement workers proved successful. The plant reopened on May 11, 1925, after having been closed for two months, and production continued throughout the rest of the strike. As the months dragged on, the union’s position grew increasingly weak. By the end of September, it was clear that the strikers had lost and that management had won. A few of the strikers returned to work. Others remained in the area, but took new jobs with other companies. But most simply moved away and never came back. In July the next year, plant manager Don Curtis announced the strike over. Hooker and Mary Kelleher insisted that it was still on, but if it was, it was in name only. In August, 1933, the UTWA officially declared the strike over. The 1700 to 1800 workers then at ATCO – some strikebreakers, some former strikers like who asked for their old jobs back – did not belong to a union. The union was broken. When in 1934 a general textile strike occurred on the east coast of the United States from Maine to Georgia – and involved several smaller mills in Willimantic – ATCO was not involved. “In Willimantic,” declared the Hartford Courant, “the large American Thread Company mills with 1800 employees have not been unionized.” The 1934 strikes, too, failed. The UTWA would not return to ATCO’s Willimantic plant until the 1950s, and by then Connecticut’s textile industry was already in sharp decline.

There is only one known photo of Amy Hooker, taken many years later. She is the older woman on right. This photo — of Amy standing next her niece Mildred Bartholomew — was probably taken sometime around 1950, when she was 63 and living with her sister Carrie Hooker Varley in Hebron, CT. At the time Amy was unmarried (in fact, she never married), taught art to private pupils, was active in the Grange organizing musicals and first aid training, and was otherwise leading a quiet life. Who would know that, a quarter of a century earlier as a young woman of 38, as President of the Willimantic Textile Council — an affiliate of the United Textile Workers of America — she stood on picket lines in Thread Mill Square and the stage of the Gem Theater and — in words of one-time Connecticut State Troubador Hugh Blumenfeld — “dress[ed] down American Thread.” She paid a great price for her temerity, never again finding employment in the Thread City. A quiet life. Except for 1925, when she led a union, organized pickets, headed marches down Willimantic’s Main Street, bargained with plant managers, police chiefs, and mayor, and stood on a stage in Willimantic’s Gem Theater rallying thousands of angry workers. Even quiet people have their day.

There is a lot more I would like to know about Amy Hooker. I will keep chipping away, checking further sources during odd moments I have free. She is someone whose story should be told.

Doing Hard History

Doing Hard History

by Jamie Eves

One of the highlights of the year for public historians in Connecticut is the annual conference of the Connecticut League of History Organizations, held this year on June 3 at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. The conference provides a chance to network with other public historians, and to learn innovative new ways to present history to the general public. It attracts dozens of museum professionals and volunteers, members of local historical societies, and even a smattering of academic historians, from across Connecticut. There were 21 different workshops this year, running concurrently in four, hour-long “breakout sessions,” so it wasn’t possible to take in everything. (A colleague absolutely despises concurrent breakout sessions, but pretty much all conferences these days have them, and I confess that I have gotten used to them.) There was also a keynote talk during lunch.

Four of us from the Windham Textile and History Museum (the Mill Museum) went this year: me, Bev York the Museum’s Educational Director, Kira Holmes the Vice President of our Board (and a worker at Mystic Seaport), and my wife Kit, a longtime volunteer at the Mill Museum. Kira and Kit co-taught a workshop on fundraising. Among the four of us, we were able to attend a majority of the workshops. Keeping in mind the State of Connecticut’s new social studies curriculum guidelines that expand the teaching of African American and Latinx history in public schools, I particularly looked for workshops dealing with how museums could help schools teach those themes.

I was excited to learn in one workshop about the Witness Stones project, begun in Guilford, CT, but now also duplicated in West Hartford. The goal of the project, according to Guilford’s Dennis Culliton and West Hartford’s Elizabeth Devine and Tracey Wilson, is to incorporate the history of enslaved people into Connecticut’s cloud of historic monuments and sites. The names and histories of Connecticans who were not enslaved already blanket our landscape, in the form of street names, other place names, and plaques on historic houses. But enslaved people as individuals too often have been ignored and forgotten — even though they, too, played vital roles in creating colonial and early 19th-century Connecticut. Enslaved people lived in almost every colonial Connecticut town – indeed, Connecticut had more slaves than all of the other New England colonies combined. The center for the New England slave trade was Newport, RI, but prosperous Connecticut farmers and shippers traveled to the Newport slave market regularly, looking for slave labor. So Culliton, Devine, Wilson, and others began looking for the histories enslaved persons in their towns’ histories and records, identifying each person when possible, and placing small paving stones near the locations where they lived. The stones bear inscriptions like “[Name of Enslaved Person] was enslaved on this site in [year],” or “[Name of person] was emancipated here in [year].” Other information about them is recorded, too. In both towns, schools played important roles in the projects. More information about the West Hartford project can be found at https://sites.google.com/view/westhartfordct/witnessstones/home.

The history of Connecticut’s enslaved people is an example of what is known as “hard history.” It’s “hard” because the research is difficult. Even the names of enslaved people often were not recorded – as a team of researchers at Hartford’s Ancient Burial Ground led by CCSU History Professor Kathy Hermes found out when they discovered dozens of brief burial records for persons called simply “a negro.” But it is also “hard history” because slavery and race are difficult and emotional subjects. As with most difficult subjects, we have a tendency to avoid talking about them. But they also are important subjects, and avoiding them leaves us with incomplete histories. That was the point made by Melissa Houston, the Educator at the Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center in Ridgefield, and Cheyney McKnight, a consultant who worked with her. “As a white woman, I had to get past taking the subjects of slavery and racism as attacks on me personally,” Houston said.

Enslaved people – along with African Americans who were legally free, but did unpaid work – lived at Keeler Tavern in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Houston and McKnight talked about how they learned to incorporate them and their stories into the Museum’s popular school tours. Similarly, West Hartford’s Devine and Wilson – both retired social studies teachers – talked about how their project helped make African American history more relevant in their town’s public schools. They made their research – including documents – available to teachers, and then worked with the teachers to develop relevant class projects, such as writing stories and creating art about the enslaved people. The consensus was clear: the history of African Americans  (and Native Americans) in Connecticut must forthrightly deal with the fact of 17th, 18th, and early 19th-century slavery, but at the same time acknowledge that enslaved people (the term “slave” implies that being a slave was the person’s only identity, while the term “enslaved person” both acknowledges that that they were people, and that their enslavement was something that was imposed on them and not the whole of their identity) were living, breathing human beings with hopes and dreams and wants and loves and longings, people who contributed greatly to the creation of Connecticut.

All of us – public historians and teachers alike – need to do more hard history. The Mill Museum does some, but there is need for more. On Monday, I got some good ideas about how to go about it.