The Star Route: When Service and Caring Reigned Supreme

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Virginia and Bill Yowell covered 110 miles a day on their combined U.S. mail Star Routes in western and northwestern Albemarle County in the 1940s and ‘50s. The many extra services the conscientious Boonesville couple provided to their customers for 15 years ended in 1956, when the Crozet–Boonesville section was reassigned to the rural mail service. Photo by Vera V. Via; Courtesy of Paul Yowell.

Mrs. Virginia Shiflett Yowell began carrying the mail in 1941. In addition to individual mail boxes, her rural Star Route served the general delivery post offices at Boonesville, Brown’s Cove, Doylesville, Dyke, Mechum’s River, Mission Home, Mountfair, and White Hall (designated Moorman’s River until June, 1941.) Her husband James E. “Bill” Yowell likewise handled a Star Route between Boonesville and Charlottesville.

Congress, in an effort to lower mail transportation costs in the mid-19th century, awarded contracts to low-bidders who agreed to “provide for the due celerity [speed], certainty [dependability] and security of such transportation.” Postal clerks tasked with processing the many records began to replace the three contractual requirements with three asterisks (***) or stars. The USPS official historian noted, “The bids became known as star bids and the routes became known as star routes.”

The Commonwealth of Virginia implemented Rural Free Delivery (RFD) mail service in Virginia in 1896. On postal Star Routes, private contractors provided their own means of transportation, be it horseback, dogsled, boat or what-have-you, and later, by motorized means. As private contractors operating their own conveyances, they were not subject to some of the restrictions imposed on regular USPS mail carriers.

A post office was established for the Episcopal Church’s mountain missions work in 1906. Mission Home P.O. served that remote area on the Greene/Albemarle Co. line until 1980. The building in the background was the mission’s hospital. Courtesy of Phil James Historical Images Collection.

Albemarle County historian and Daily Progress columnist Vera V. Via, of Free Union, talked with Bill and Virginia Yowell in 1956, during a period of transition in local mail delivery.

“The circle they served is mainly in the mountains,” wrote Miss Via, “and until recent years most of the roads were gravel or dirt. The year after Mrs. Yowell took the route, the flood of 1942 washed out bridges all over the county, and she says there was no travel between streams except on foot or by horse. The mail piled so high in the post office that something had to be done. Therefore, Mrs. Yowell and a friend, Mrs. Herbert Morris, went as far as the washed-out bridges. They took the letters in bags on their backs, waded across the streams, and walked to the post offices. A man on horseback met them from the Mission Home and took the mail for that post office. Three days a week, they managed to get the letter mail out to the various post offices where patrons could walk in to pick it up. The flood damaged the Yowell’s car, but the mail did go through.”

These trying and rigorous experiences led Mrs. Yowell to give up her mail route, but her husband won the bid for the contract, and the sometimes-daunting job turned into a family effort. Mrs. Yowell helped her husband when needed, as did their children as they got older.

“It may have been during the flood of 1942,” continued Miss Via, “that people living along the [Yowell family’s route] learned the Yowells could give more service than rural mail carriers. As star route carriers, they have been allowed to take passengers, and as the mountains are without bus service, for many it has been the only means of transportation.

Elizabeth Short Blackwell succeeded her father-in-law Perminia E. Blackwell as postmaster in 1943 at Doylesville, western Albemarle County. That post office, located inside the store of P.E. Blackwell & Son, closed in 1956 when the Star Route that serviced it was discontinued. Courtesy of Rodney Rich.

“Another service which the star route carriers can give is doing errands for people on the route. For some years now, Mrs. Yowell says many people leave their grocery lists and money in their boxes and Mr. Yowell picks them up and leaves them at the store. After the orders are filled, Yowell picks them up on his return and delivers them back to the mailbox. Mrs. Yowell says on some occasions he has had as many as ten orders to fill a day. With the closing of the star route and opening of the rural route from Crozet, this extra service will end.

“Yowell has often been called upon to get the doctor, or get a patient to the doctor, as much of the area is not served by telephones. It is a small wonder that many on the circle feel the change will be a disaster. The mail will still go through, and on time, but the route has lost a neighborly service.

“About a third of the circle is being added to the star route which Mrs. Yowell now holds from Charlottesville to Free Union and Boonesville. Mrs. Yowell bid this several years ago, and the couple combined the two, with Mr. Yowell running both at times, or part of one and part of the other. They leave home about 6:30 a.m. daily for Charlottesville, and get back to Free Union with the mail at 8 a.m. He goes to Boonesville by 9 o’clock.

Sugar Hollow native James C. Blackwell Sr. and White Hall Postmaster Janet Patterson Steppe, at the General Delivery window at White Hall (formerly Moorman’s River P.O.), western Albemarle Co. Mrs. Steppe was the last full-time postmaster at that location. Photo: Phil James.

“Mr. Yowell runs one leg of his route and gets back to his home for a 11 o’clock dinner, and then starts again on the circle, returning home about 4 p.m. Mrs. Yowell said it is not unusual for riders going into Crozet or Charlottesville to stop off for the 11 o’clock dinner with them before going on with Yowell. Mrs. Yowell takes this in her stride, sets them a place at her table and sends them on well-fed.

“Mrs. Yowell picks up the mail at Boonesville at 1:30, goes on to Free Union, and from there carries the mail into Charlottesville, arriving usually around 2:30. She usually has passengers, and also does errands in Charlottesville for neighbors.”

One must note that not one of those “extra services” was required of star route carriers. Even as they fulfilled their mail contract’s three precepts of celerity, certainty and security, the Yowells raised six children, entertained friends, and were faithful participants at Gentry’s Methodist Church and other community functions.

Mr. and Mrs. Yowell and their family lived out their faith within view of their neighbors and mail customers, taking the time to share a ride or run an errand (or ten), to care for the sick, to share their dinner table with whoever was present. They knew their neighbors and, in knowing, knew how to be a neighbor. 

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2021 Phil James 

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