ENCINITAS — While questions about the future of the U.S. Postal Service dominate the national headlines, members of San Dieguito Heritage Museum, Encinitas Rotary Club and Solana Beach Presbyterian Church helped to preserve an important piece of the federal agency’s past — a turn-of-the-century Rural Free Delivery postal carriage.
The wooden coach (made of hickory and painted oil-black), along with its four large red wheels, was removed from a storage unit last week in Encinitas and brought to the museum at Heritage Ranch for permanent display.
At least 20 Rotarians gathered at the museum on Aug. 29 for the group’s national day of service — which had been postponed indefinitely in April due to COVID-19 — and helped retrofit a covered outbuilding to serve as a carriage house for the heirloom.
Kerry Witkin, president of the Encinitas Rotary Club, told The Coast News this was a typical Rotary project.
“This is the sort of thing that (Rotary) has done forever,” Witkin said. “A lot of members of our club are also members and representatives of other organizations in town, such as Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, Heritage Museum, among others. When there’s a project to be done, we really like to put our stamp on it so that what we do today lasts for years and years. This is just one of another long string of projects we really enjoy doing.”
Along with the carriage house, the Rotary Club also refurbished a large outdoor platform that the organization hopes will serve as a COVID-19-safe outdoor space for weddings, ceremonies and other events to help generate much-needed revenue for the museum.
Jay Clark, photo archivist and senior docent at the museum, said he continues to seek information about the carriage’s provenance and has been in touch with the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. and the Goshen Historical Society of Indiana.
“Most likely, from all the pictures I’ve seen, this was made by a manufacturing company in Goshen, Indiana, around 1910,” Clark told The Coast News. “That’s as close as I can get right now.”
Rancho Santa Fe resident Barbara Bray first donated the carriage to the Heritage Museum in 2001, and it was on display for several years at the museum’s original location on Vulcan Avenue. In 2005, the antique was placed in storage where it remained until last week.
These types of Rural Free Delivery carriages were drawn by a single horse to deliver mail to rural farms and residents in San Diego County, a free service established in 1896. Prior to Rural Free Delivery, residents had to pick up their mail at the local post office.
The wagon’s enclosed cab also offers protection from the elements, allowing postal workers to operate per the agency’s motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
While these vehicles were typical of Rural Free Delivery in the area and across the country, Clark said he does not believe this exact carriage operated in Encinitas.
Over the past few weeks, collective excitement about the carriage grew and rumors began to circulate about exactly what the museum had on their hands. One of the first rumors, since proven incorrect, was that the vehicle was a horse-drawn postal dray, a type of wagon or cart without sides similar to a flatbed truck.
The second rumor is there are only two of these antique carriages remaining in the U.S. — one at the San Dieguito Heritage Museum and the other on display at the Smithsonian.
Based on Clark’s conversations with Smithsonian representatives, this also cannot be confirmed.
“The Smithsonian only has one postal carriage and it doesn’t look anything like this,” Clark said, suggesting the vehicle might even be more unique than previously believed. Clarks said he is still awaiting confirmation and will provide more information once it has been confirmed.
Regarding the current issues about funding the U.S. Postal Service, Witkin said it shouldn’t even be a political question.
“I would hate to have to depend on a horse-drawn postal carriage to bring the mail,” Witkin said. “When it gets to that point, we’ll really be in trouble.”
The postal carriage is currently available to view at the San Dieguito Heritage Museum.