Florida’s Barefoot Mailmen

The next time your computer takes a few extra seconds to send an email message, just be thankful you didn’t have to hand-deliver it yourself. Be especially grateful you didn’t have to deliver it by walking sixty miles barefoot in the blazing Florida sun.

That challenging scenario was a reality for the first men to carry mail between what is now Palm Beach and Miami. The United States Postal Service established a route between these two points in the 1880s, but the “route” was only on paper. It certainly didn’t follow a railroad, road, or even a trail. None of these existed at the time. The only reliable trail from Hypoluxo near Lake Worth to Miami and Biscayne Bay lay along the Atlantic coast.

One of six panels in a mural commemorating the barefoot mailmen of South Florida. The mural hangs in the West Palm Beach post office on Olive Avenue (photo circa 1950).

One of six panels in a mural commemorating the barefoot mailmen of South Florida. The mural hangs in the West Palm Beach post office on Olive Avenue (photo circa 1950).

Hence the barefoot mailman. The Postal Service hired mail carriers to walk the mail down from Hypoluxo to Miami, using the firmer sand along the beach as a highway. Shoes were more hindrance than help, so the barefoot mailmen simply didn’t use them. The entire expedition took about a week, the carrier leaving Monday morning and returning Saturday evening. He was typically issued a tin pail, a cup, hard biscuits, coffee, a hatchet, and some matches, all of which he carried along with the mail in a sack slung over one shoulder.

Excerpt of an 1883 map showing official postal routes through Florida. No route connected Miami with the Lake Worth region at this time. Instead, mail for Miami had to come from Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, or Cedar Key via Key West. The "barefoot" route along the Atlantic coast shortened the time required to deliver mail to Miami.

Excerpt of an 1883 map showing official postal routes through Florida. No route connected Miami with the Lake Worth region at this time. Instead, mail for Miami had to come from Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, or Cedar Key via Key West. The “barefoot” route along the Atlantic coast shortened the time required to deliver mail to Miami.

The trip required crossing several rivers and inlets. Carriers stashed boats near all of the crossings so they could get across safely without damaging the mail. Sometimes other travelers would accompany a carrier so they too could use the boats.

One of these crossings was the scene of a most unfortunate tragedy. James “Ed” Hamilton, a young mail carrier, was headed for Miami in October 1887 when he discovered that the boat he normally used to cross the Hillsboro Inlet was tied up on the opposite side. He secured his mailbag in a tree, removed his clothing, and apparently attempted to swim the inlet and retrieve the boat. What happened next is uncertain, but young Hamilton met his end, possibly carried out to sea by a current or attacked by an alligator. He was never seen again. His memory is honored by a memorial plaque at Pompano and a six-panel mural by artist Stevan Dohanos entitled “Legend of James Edward Hamilton, Mail Carrier,” which hangs in the West Palm Beach post office.

Another panel from the Olive Avenue post office mural in West Palm Beach, this one depicting James Edward

Another panel from the Olive Avenue post office mural in West Palm Beach, this one depicting James Edward “Ed” Hamilton rowing his boat carefully past a few alligators (photo circa 1950).

In late 1892, contractors completed the first county-maintained road between Lantana and Lemon City along the coast. The U.S. Postal Service ended the “barefoot” route the next year. Interest in the tradition of the barefoot mailman lives on, however. Theodore Pratt, an author of Florida fiction who lived in the Lake Worth area, penned a successful novel called The Barefoot Mailman in 1943. Columbia Pictures made the story into a movie in 1951, starring Robert Cummings, Terry Moore, Jerome Courtland, and John Russell.

Actress Terry Moore during the filming of Columbia Pictures' film adaptation of Thedore Pratt's The Barefoot Mailman (1951).

Actress Terry Moore during the filming of Columbia Pictures’ film adaptation of Thedore Pratt’s The Barefoot Mailman (1951).

Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more images relating to the early days of Miami, Palm Beach, and other cities along Florida’s Atlantic coast. And don’t forget to share your favorites on Facebook or Pinterest!

Ochopee, Home of the Nation’s Smallest Post Office

Florida’s unique history owes some of its splendor to great people and great visions. In many cases, however, the most interesting tidbits have happened when no one was expecting it. That’s certainly the case with Ochopee, home of the smallest post office building in Florida, and most likely the smallest in the United States. The people of Ochopee hadn’t planned to have such a cramped space for handling mail. If it hadn’t been for a serious tragedy, the tiny settlement might never have had such a distinction.

Map of Southwest Florida showing Ochopee and the nearby Gulf Coast. Naples is located northwest of Ochopee along U.S. 41 (1953 map - Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

Map of Southwest Florida showing Ochopee and the nearby Gulf Coast. Naples is located northwest of Ochopee along U.S. 41 (1953 highway map – Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

Ochopee got its start in 1928 when the James T. Gaunt family purchased a few hundred acres in Collier County on either side of what was to become the Tamiami Trail. The Gaunts were farmers, and they intended to set up a major tomato-growing operation. Farming on the edge of the Everglades was no easy task, of course. The family and their workers lived in surplus Army tents when they first arrived, which made the heat and mosquitoes a daily torture.

A view of the terrain near Ochopee, mostly marshes with a few heads of palmetto (1942).

A view of the terrain near Ochopee, mostly marshes with a few heads of palmetto (1942).

In the first year, the Gaunts and their business partners wrestled a real settlement out of the muck. They hired a large workforce to tend and harvest their tomatoes, mostly African-Americans from Miami and Georgia, with a few local Seminole families as well. The Seminoles lived in their own chickees near the company property, while the African-Americans typically lived in houses on the site. One of the workers’ quarters was called “Boardwalk” because for much of the year the only way to get between the houses was by boardwalk. Wages ranged between $1.00 and $2.50 per day, plus free utilities and health insurance.

Seminole workers in the tomato fields of the J.T. Gaunt Company - Ochopee (circa 1930s).

Seminole workers in the tomato fields of the J.T. Gaunt Company – Ochopee (circa 1930s).

By 1932, the Gaunt Company had a substantial village to serve their tomato farm, but it didn’t have a name. That year, the family decided to establish a post office, but they wanted something a little more special than “Gaunt” or “Gaunt Farms” for a name. According to one of the family members, Someone asked Charley Tommie, a local Seminole, what the native word for “farm” was. Charley replied “O-chopp-ee,” and the Gaunts decided that would be the name of their growing settlement. The post office was established in August of that year, and postal business was carried out in a corner of the company store.

One night in 1953, a fire broke out in the boarding house at Ochopee. It spread quickly to other buildings, and with the nearest fire department being miles away at Everglades City, residents were forced to fight the blaze with buckets of water from a nearby canal. Postmaster Sidney Brown was able to get his records out of the general store, but when the flames were finally extinguished, the building was a total loss. The next day, when the mail arrived, Postmaster Brown needed someplace to conduct business. A member of the Gaunt family pointed out a nearby shed used to store irrigation pipes and hoses, and with that the nation’s smallest post office building was adopted. Gaunt Company workers moved the building to a more convenient location, installed a counter and work space, and it was ready for service.

Ochopee Post Office (circa 1940s).

Ochopee Post Office (circa 1940s).

Since then, the Ochopee post office has been as much a tourist attraction as it has a place of business. The Florida Photographic Collection contains a number of photos of the building from various angles and at different times. Some visitors assumed the locals built the post office that size originally as a novelty, but Ochopee residents knew better. Their post office, like so many curiosities in Florida’s past, was an accident of history.

Postmaster Sidney H. Brown in front of the Ochopee Post Office. Brown managed to save the records of the post office from the fire that destroyed this building's predecessor in 1953 (photo circa 1960s).

Postmaster Sidney H. Brown in front of the Ochopee Post Office. Brown managed to save the records of the post office from the fire that destroyed this building’s predecessor in 1953 (photo circa 1960s).

Does a landmark in your community have a story like that of the Ochopee post office? Tell us about it by leaving a comment or sharing on our Facebook page!