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The Legend of Florida's Brave Barefoot Mailmen
A Barefoot Mailman On His Route
Florida's Rich History Includes Real Barefoot Mailmen
Modern day South Florida's Easternmost coastline consists of hundreds of charming, well-kept seaside towns. Elegant condos, bustling seafood restaurants, and sidewalk cafes entice residents and visitors year round. But in the late 1800's its neat, elegant neighborhoods were teeming with alligators and overgrown with lush, tropical vegetation.
How did the South Florida coastal area make the leap from swampy wasteland to preferred vacation destination? It was neither quick nor easy. It took the ambition of businessmen such as Henry Flagler, the brilliance of architects like Addison Mizner, and the courage of fearless men like Florida's own Barefoot Mailmen.
Although the hardy souls who actually walked the dangerous tropical mail routes are the stuff of legend, they were very real and have become a beloved part of South Florida's rich, fascinating history.
South Florida in the Late 1800's
Downton Boynton Beach, 2012
The Story of the Barefoot Mailman
From 1513, when Ponce de Leon first encountered the South Florida coast, until 1885, very little changed. But, from that point on, many visitors discovered the lush tropical paradise and decided to stay. With the number of residents increasing, there came a need for some sort of postal service.
The U.S. Post Office decided to include a route from Palm Beach (then Palm City) to Miami (then known as Haulover Beach, Lemon City). The problem was a lack of roads, railroads, or anything else to connect a route.
That is how how the "Barefoot Mailman" (originally called the "Star") route came to be. When the call went out for mailmen who were hardy enough to walk the route, a legendary group of men answered. They became Florida's own Barefoot Mailmen.
These courageous souls trudged through eighty miles of beach sand and vegetation, in a blazing heat, carrying heavy sacks of mail. They did it all for $175, paid every three months.
The Brave Men Who Became the Mailmen
There were fifteen recorded mailmen, as follows:
- (1st contract) E.R. Bradley
- Louie Bradley (E.R. Bradleys son, and under same contract.)
- Andrew Garnett
- George Sears
- Frederick Matthaus
- Otto Matthaus
- Charles Pierce
- Bob Douthit
- Dan McCarley
- George Charter
- Ed Hamilton (who was killed - possibly by alligators)
- H.J. Burkhardt (The last mailman under contract, and he was probably quickest)
Map of South Florida
The Mailmens' Job Description
Barefoot Mailmen began their routes by crossing the five miles across Boynton, then spending the night at Delray's Orange Grove House of Refuge - a residence originally built for shipwrecked sailors. The following day he walked another twenty-five miles, to Hillsborough Inlet, which he crossed in a small boat kept hidden for that purpose.
By Wednesday the mailman reached Lemon City (now Miami), sometimes traveling by boat and sometimes walking. The next morning he would begin his return. In all, he traveled 136 miles. It would take a carrier until late Saturday to reach Palm City, where he would take a day to rest, then begin the route again.
Some carriers allowed travelers to accompany them, for a fee of $5.00. They felt this was fair, since they had to slow down to keep pace with their less experienced, slower traveling companions.
It is believed that mail carrier Hamilton died during his route, on October 9, 1887. The story is that he was traveling south and reached the Hillsborough Inlet. Unfortunately, the boat which was always kept hidden was nowhere in sight. Apparently a traveler had used it without permission. Hamilton chose to leave his sack on the bank and swim to retrieve the boat - he was never heard from again. The waters were thick with alligators.
Barefoof Mailman Statue - Hillsborough, Florida
The End of the Route - The Beginning of a Legend
When the first county road, from Lantana to Lemon City (Miami) was completed in 1892, the Barefoot Mailman route was discontinued.
However, by that time the mailmens' hard work and sacrifice had become a legend and they were officially part of South Florida history.
In 1973 a concrete and marble statue commemorating mailman Ed Hamilton was created by Frank Varga. It was on display in Hillsborough, Florida until March, 2012, when it was replaced by a bronze statue, since the original had deteriorated significantly. The new monument was also rededicated to all the Barefoot Mailmen.