Jim Conner, Not-So-Mild-Mannered RFD Mail Carrier

by Paula Bosse

jim-conner_dmn_092240

by Paula Bosse

The man in the photo above looks like every character actor working in Hollywood in the 1940s. But he wasn’t an actor — he was a retired Dallas postal worker who began his career in 1901 as a rural mail carrier when the Rural Free Delivery (RFD) system was implemented in Dallas. (Before this, those who lived beyond the city limits — generally farmers — had to trek to a sometimes distant outpost — such as a general store — to pick up their mail.) RFD service began locally on October 1, 1901, and an 18-year old Jim Conner was one of six men hired to work the new mail routes beyond the city.

conner_FWregister_090101Fort Worth Register, Sept. 1, 1901

In 1940, The Dallas Morning News ran an interview with Conner in which he talked about his early postal route:

Snow and Ducks Added Thrills to Mail-Carrying Job for Jim Conner Way Back in 1901

“Giddap, Fiddler, it looks like rain.”

Familiar words those, back on Oct. 1, 1901, when the first rural free delivery was started on six routes out of the Dallas post office and Jim Conner, on Route 5, clucked to his horse, Fiddler, and started out.

Jim Conner, then an 18-year-old boy, had to fudge a little on his age to get the job, and chuckled considerably this week while here visiting from his home in Athens as he told some of his post office friends of his experiences.

Conner said that when the routes first started his No. 5 was a thirty-two-mile jaunt. Sometimes he went by horse cart, sometimes on horseback. He has made it on a bicycle and he reached the height of perfection one year when he chugged out of the post office in one of the first one-lunged, chain-drive Brush automobiles in Dallas County.

Familiar words and scenes then to many but to few today who can remember when the establishment of Route 5 closed the independent post office at Bachman’s Branch called Rawlins, and ran within a half mile of another post office called Letot.

“I used to go out Cedar Springs Road to Cochran’s Chapel,” Conner said. “Then on out to within a mile of Farmers Branch, over to Webb’s Chapel by way of the famous Midway Church and School corner which is now Glad Acres Farm, and then back in on Lemmon Avenue.”

It was an eight-hour trip in fine weather, but on bad days it took from twelve to fifteen hours. J.M. Haynes was postmaster in those days and only once did Conner fail to go. That was the year of the big snow. He remembers it as about four inches, but badly drafted over roads.

His pay was $500 a year and he had to keep two horses, a cart, a buggy and saddles, and often he rode the route on horseback as much as five months straight.

He remembers one year, 1905 he believes, when there was a great duck flight over the Southwest. Ducks flew in huge droves and once, when a large flock of geese headed straight for him, he fired his pistol into the air to scare them, and accidentally killed a goose.

His bondsman was James M Cochran, known as Uncle Jim, and said to be the first white child born in Dallas County. Conner retired in 1935 because of a new law covering thirty years’ service, but still in middle-aged vigor.

He remembers many of his patrons as well as if he had seen them yesterday.

“There with Dr. Arch Cochran; Bill Cochran, once chairman of the Dallas County Democratic Committee; Bill and Bud Taylor,” he said, reviewing his route again with Sam Berry in the mail supervisor’s office. “There was the Bachman family, J.W. Slaughter and Mack Dooley, the best hog raiser I ever saw. The Cool family, J.M. Merrill, Albert Latham, the Cox family, the Lively family and Bob Harrison, that I remember offhand.”

In those days, too, rural carriers were permitted to write subscriptions to newspapers and periodicals and many a time he has written subscriptions for the Dallas Morning News. There were several persons on the route to have been taking it before he started carrying the mail, he said.

Many months he made his feed bill by writing subscriptions, but later the Post Office Department ruled against further solicitation by the carriers.

Since his retirement Conner has moved to a farm near Athens, where he spends most of his time. However, during spare time, and whenever he comes to Dallas, he goes by the post office to visit with old friends.

Below, an example of what those early RFD mail wagons looked like (click for larger image).

rfd_real-photo_1907-ebay

So. A delightfully nostalgic walk down memory lane with an avuncular-looking guy we all kind of feel we know. I thought I’d do a quick search to see if there was an obituary — there was: he died in 1956 at the age of 73, survived by his wife, 11 children (!), 22 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren. But in addition to the obit, I found something else: a report of a shooting, an arrest, and a charge with “assault to murder.”

conner-charged_dmn_010218DMN, Jan. 2, 1918

What?!!

Though the account of the incident is described as being “somewhat vague,” on New Year’s Eve, 1918, Jim Conner shot a soldier named Jesse Clay after “words” were exchanged at the corner of Beacon and Columbia in Old East Dallas. There had been bad blood between the two in the past, and the New Year’s Eve situation apparently escalated quickly. Clay had been walking down the street with a lady-friend when Conner’s car came to a stop next to them. Clay (described as being drunk at the time) forced his way into the car, and Conner, fearful of being attacked, reached for a gun in the back seat. The two tussled and, after they were both out of the car, Conner saw that Clay also had a gun. This was when Conner shot him three times, intending, he said, to merely wound him. Clay shot back but missed. (The entire account, as it appeared in The Dallas Morning News on Jan. 1, 1918 can be read in a PDF here.)

The soldier was badly injured, with two of the three shots hitting his chest. He was not expected to live. Conner had surrendered to police at the scene and was charged with “assault to murder.” The last report on this incident that I could find was on Jan. 3, in which Clay was described as being in “very critical condition.”

So what happened? As Conner spent a full career as a postal employee, it seems unlikely he was tried for murder. I used every possible combination of search words I could think of but found nothing more on this case. The story just disappeared. I did find a 1943 obituary for a Jesse P. Clay (killed while working on an Army Air Force Instructors School runway when he was struck by the wing of an airplane coming in for a landing), and it seems likely that it was the same guy — he was about the right age, he was a career military man, he lived in Dallas most of his life, and he was born in Kentucky. I assume the soldier in question (who would have been 37 at the time of the shooting) survived his gunshot wounds and that charges against Conner were either dismissed (with Conner pleading self-defense?) or settled (perhaps the military intervened to keep the story out of the press — this was during the height of WWI). Whatever actually happened, it seems that both men were able to move on from that really, really bad New Year’s Eve, a night I’m sure neither forgot.

My favorite little detail in the story of this sordid shooting was the line in the initial newspaper report in which it was revealed that one of the (potentially deadly) bullets was “deflected by a packet of letters and a steel comb.” How appropriate that the thing that probably saved mailman Jim Conner from a murder rap was “a packet of letters.” (…And a steel comb, but that doesn’t fit in with my narrative quite so well. Although Mr. Conner does look quite well-groomed.)

packet-of-letters_dmn_010118DMN, Jan. 1, 1918

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Article titled “Snow and Ducks Added Thrills” and the accompanying photo appeared in The Dallas Morning News on Sept. 22, 1940.

Real-photo postcard of Hillsboro, Wisconsin RFD mail wagon is from Ebay.

The DMN account of the bizarre 1918 shooting can be read in a PDF, here.

An informative site on history of Rural Free Delivery — with lots of photos — can be found here.

“RFD”? Wiki’s on it, here.

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Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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