Licking Stamps for Fifty Years

J. M . ELSON December 1 1922

Licking Stamps for Fifty Years

J. M . ELSON December 1 1922

Licking Stamps for Fifty Years

February 22, 1918, “Sir:—Mr. James Matthews, Postmaster of Acton, Ont., was appointed to that office in June 1S&6, and he served as a clerk in that office for two years before. He has therefore had sixty-three years’ service in the Acton postoffice, sixty-one of them as Postmaster......Mr. Matthew’s service as Postmaster is probably the longest service of any Postmaster in Canada.” (Copy of letter from Post Office Department, Ottawa, (abbreviated).

"THE public has kept me busy licking postagestamps for over 50 years, and I think I’ll stay at the job.” That decision was made some years ago; it was made in response to a request that he should stand for some important elective office, but the man who has seen more years of service than any other postmaster on the continent was eager for no other honor than his years of faithful public service.

You can find him any day if you enquire at the wicket of the Acton post office, a man beyond eighty-seven, figure quite erect, eyesight good, and hearing almost unimpaired. With his coat off he was among the mail bags that hung on the long iron forms waiting to be locked and sent away to their various distributing centres.. There he is carrying on, careless of the fact that in longevity he is crowding the century mark and in length of service has a record unequalled in North America. The dusty tomes of Washington and Ottawa have been searched. They reveal that James Matthews stands alone among postmasters. He was appointed to succeed his late Uncle Robert Swan, in 1855, the year that Lord Palmerston became Prime Minister of Great Britain and Sebastopol was taken. The postmaster who comes nearest this remarkable term was found to be Silas Hatch of Hatchville, Barnstable county, Massachusetts, who was appointed in 1858, three years after Mr. Matthews.

During all that long span, with its many events of world-wide importance, he has gone on his way, faithfully serving his community and the many governments that have had their glory and passed out.

With sixty-seven years of unbroken devotion to duty he has become an unique figure in this branch of public activity.

“When I came to Acton with my father in 1845,” said Mr. Matthews to the writer, “we settled on a farm on Main Street. It is now, you see, built up with business places. Our family had been pioneer settlers in the Elora and Guelph districts. They chopped some of the first trees in Elora. My father in 1826 built the old log house in Guelph that was long used by the C. P. R. as a depot, and that prior to that was a tavern known as the Priory. Even in Acton I have seen every house go up except two.

“In those days a post office was a simple affair. Then we only had one mail a week, now we’ve eight a day. Then there was a very small amount of money changing hands. Now we sell over $40,000 worth of postage stamps alone every year, besides all the cash that is handled in the postal savings bank and in post office money orders. In the early days the cost of sending letters was very high. Shortly after responsible government was established in Canada the control of the post office was handed over by the British authorities to the Canadian government, but prior to that the postage rate on a letter from Toronto to Montreal was 25 cents. On one from the young provinces to Britain it was $1.00. Of course with development and changes the rate came down till in my boyhood it cost 123^ cents to send a letter to England and 7 cents for one in Canada.

Before the Days of Postage Stamps

“WHEN I became postmaster here in 1855, in

’ “ succession to my uncle, Robert Swan, with whom I was a clerk and who named Acton after his old home town in England, postage stamps had not come into use. People wanting to send letters left the necessary money and I stamped ’paid’ on the envelope.

“After postage stamps came into use it was the custom of most people to lay down the money and leave the postmaster to affix the stamp. With the drop letter boxes this practice has almost entirely disappeared.

“Those were the days of sealing wax. Families with crests would stamp the impression of their crest in the wax. There were few newspapers published in Upper Canada then, so that our volume of mail from the printing press was exceedingly small. Those who did get a weekly paper of any kind regarded it as a treasure to be read from end to end. They would tell the most important news to their neighbors who had no papers. Our mails then, such as they were, had to be taken on horseback, in cutters or sleighs, on waggons or any

He was behind the post office wicket when the Crimean W'ar was fought. IVas there when North fought South. He is there today, the oldest postmaster on the continent


other means of conveyance. We didn’t have fiftymile-an-hour automobiles.”

Through Epochal Days

MR. MATTHEWS has lived through epochal days.

He began his career as postmaster during the Crimean War.

“Yes,” he said when reminded of that fact, “there have been a good many events to look back upon. The main line of the G. T. R. from Quebec to Sarnia was completed in 1856, the year after I started in this office. About that time there was a discovery of gold in the sands of the Fraser and Thompson rivers and there was a wild rush to the West which then seemed like a distant, unknown world. In 1861, as you know, war broke out be-

March 4, 1918. # “Sir:—In reply to your letter of the 23th ultimo, you are informed that the oldest Postmaster in point of service in the United State» is Silas Hatch, Postmaster at Hatchville, Barnstable Co., Mass., who was appointed on August 26, 1858. and is still »erving in that oapaoity.” (Copy of letter from First Assistant PostmasterGeneral, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.)

tween the North and the South in the-United States. Quite a few fellows went over from around here. One of them, Mr. Thomas Statham, of this village, still draws his pension. I remember quite well when President Lincoln was assassinated. The event caused a good deal of excitement. The Canadian Pacific, the Intercolonial, the Canadian Northern, now the National, and nearly all of the other railways of Canada have been built of course since I became a postmaster. As for public events I quite well remember the Fenian raids, the Red River Rebellion and other disturbances and wars. These later happenings are comparatively recent to me.

“The Red River affair caused quite astir in those days, for we weren’t accustomed to getting such a large supply of world news every day that we couldn’t digest it. A rebellion in our own country was something to talk about,

I can tell you. I recall that Major Allan, a fine soldier, took a small contingent from this neighborhood. I think the volunteers all came back safely. The Major has since passed away. The Fenian raids, though much earlier, did not disturb us so very much. People were pretty busy in Halton county in ’66 digging out stumps and building log houses for themselves. The Niagara district felt the most of that brief shock.”

When the Trotter Was the Last Word

ELDERLY citizens of Acton when they are leaning back in their chairs like to tell about the fast horses Mr. Matthews used to keep. The village in its younger days was quite a centre for horse trading and training. The name of Ransem Adams, reputed to have been a character in his day, is not forgotten -with the trading end. • That of the postmaster is associated with the trotting events. When the subject is mentioned the eyes of Mr. Matthews brighten. He would be driving yet, he says, were it not for an accident of a few years back when he went to visit a son in Denver.

Prior to this the postmaster drove trotters that carried away the first prize at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901 and second prize at a big show in Detroit. He exhibited his winners at Guelph, Milton, Georgetown and many county fairs.

“I had a span,” he said, “which I called the Grey Eagles. There wasn’t more than five pounds difference in the weight of these grey drivers. Oh, how they could step! I could drive a hundred miles to-day and back tomorrow with them and they would come home strong on the bit. I guess I got to be reasonably well known around for my trotters and often when I wras driving through the country someone would call out to me ‘Hello, Matthews. How are the greys?’ Perhaps the man wouldn’t know me, but of course there’s a friendliness among horsemen even if they’re not acquainted.”

Mr. Matthews remarked further that he had the first buggy in Acton, and it was considered quite a tip-top thing in those times. Most of the vehicles used for trotters were home-made carts.

“And they were rather homely affairs,” he laughed. He will also tell with great pride of an experience with hook and line some years ago when the streams that flow around Guelph, Georgetown, Acton, Limehouse and other Halton county points were better stocked than now.

Twenty dozen in one day! But enthusiastic anglers shouldn’t think of taking the next train to Acton after reading of this good luck. Mr. Matthews says the streams are pretty wrell depleted now. And he should know, for even though he is past eighty-seven he likes as well as ever a day with pole and line along a rambling stream.

“We used to have fine sport around here,” he said, with a flash of youth still in his eye. “Lots of deer in former days.” Pausing he turned to his son and asked: “Do you remember, Chester, that big buck I shot on the hill back of Acton? He was an old fellow with eight prongs on his head. When we got him we found that he carried in his body two bullets which other hunters had lodged there some time before but which had not proved serious.” “Away back in the ’fifties and ’sixties a man could have real sport when he went out,” said he. “We could bring in a deer or a mess of good fish almost any time to replenish the stores of the kitchen. Continued on page 39

Licking Stamps for Fifty Years

Continued from, page 21

These were good old days, after all, in many ways. There wasn’t much money in circulation, of course, but we traded just the same and had a pretty good time. Folks didn’t live as fast.”

While Mr. Matthews has forsaken some of the ambitions of his youth, old friends say that he long made a hobby of collecting patents. Each one looked promising to him, like stock shares when they are done in gold and fancy lettering, but the prospective fortune which loomed up before the zealous inventor and which the inventor passed on for a consideration, to the postmaster, never materialized. Nevertheless when not postmastering he has had a lot of entertainment out of this diversion and like many other men has -grown wiser with every unproductive patent. He can keep them in his storehouse to look at and remind him of the vanities of life, just as other people keep antiquities and curios.

IT IS perhaps -self evident that Mr.

Matthews has never gone in for the spectacular or highly colored things of the world. Men who hold postmasterships for nearly three score years and ten, amidst all the storms and wars of political parties, who has to serve the ins and the outs until the outs become the ins and the ins get out again, has to lead a career which is much like a quiet river flowing on and on without waterfall or cataract. Halton county, no less than other ridings, has had its hard and hot political fights, but Mr. Matthews’ beginning was so far back in antiquity apparently that the Liberals almost forgot he once held Conservative views. Probably holds them yet, for he is conservative enough to keep his own counsel and pass newspapers out to those who come after them without arguing whether the political editorials of those papers are good or bad. In this connection a story is told by one of the leading citizens of Acton showing that Mr. Matthews occupies a sort of “no man’s land” across which neither political party has ventured to sweep.

The name of W. H. Storey is familiar in Acton as the founder of the Canada Glove Company. For many years he took an active interest in Conservative politics and was at one time warden of Halton. He had many a tussle with the Grits. When the tide of battle turned at one time and ran against his party, he went to his opponents and asked them for a favor. He had one request to make, he said, and hoped they would grant it, namely to leave James Matthews alone in his position as postmaster so long as he conducted the office with satisfaction and impartiality. The Liberalsi it is said to their credit, consented to a gentleman’s pact so that the post office has gone peacefully on its way, adding years upon years to make the unique record of sixty-seven years without a break, under one man.

In all that long period, with hundreds

of thousands of dollars passing through his charge in registered letters and other forms, only once, he says, was any money lost. That was some years ago when he had a new man helping him. The registration was not properly forwarded and in transit some one stole the money, amounting to $27.

“I had to make up that amount, but that is all I have ever lost,” he stated.

“There is quite a difference between keeping post office to-day in a fairly upto-date place and keeping it fifty or sixty years ago,” commented Mr. Matthews as he returned again to the past. “In my young days we had only tallow candles for light. There were no stoves, just big fire places, where we piled logs, and toasted our knees.”

One of these days, when no one wants to go fishing or hunting, Mr. Matthews thinks he may sit down and try to figure out just how much water has run under the mill since 1855, but in the meantime His Majesty’s mail comes first, for the train leaves in thirty-five minutes.