The Rural U.S. Post Office at Kerr, North Carolina

© Fred C. Kerr

Postal Cancellations from Kerr Post Office

Figure 1 – Postal Cancellations from Kerr Post Office (from 1894-1953) (provided by North Carolina Postal Society)

This is a story about the post office in the small town of Kerr, North Carolina – a small community created around a train station (depot) on a railroad line which ran from Fayetteville to Wilmington. It was in the southernmost portion of Sampson County, NC. I’m interested because it was where my father and his ancestors grew up. In my research, I found a lot of local history revolved around the community’s post office. I hope to have a complete article on Kerr, NC completed in the near future.

Before 1863, postage rates only covered delivering mail between post offices. Post offices were only located in big cities such as Wilmington. This meant that you had to go to the post office – which necessitated a potentially long trip – to get your mail. Therefore, having a local post office represented a really big improvement in quality of life. If you didn’t have one near you, getting mail was inconvenient and painful.

Unclaimed letters for people residing in what would become the Kerr area were advertised in Wilmington newspapers – for example a notice in the April 23, 1805 Wilmington Gazette that Daniel Kerr (my 4th great-grandfather) had unclaimed mail at the Wilmington Post Office. Such notices were commonplace – having been posted as early as 1795 in Wilmington newspapers.

Until the latter part of 1872, the area where Kerr, NC was located was a part of New Hanover County. Its post office was located in Wilmington. Effective July 1, 1863, this changed for city dwellers because free city delivery – marking the first time street addresses were put on letters – was provided. But people in rural areas like Kerr didn’t benefit from this.

Later, as the railroad lines began carrying mail, the Kerr area received its mail from the Harrell’s Store Post Office (via a route from Wallace, a stop on the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad which ran down the east side of the Cape Fear River.

The story of Kerr’s own Post Office begins in the late April 1890, when Timothy F. Pridgen (a farmer who had also been a postmaster) filed an application with the Post Office Department to create a post office in Kerr. The Post Office Department requested information about where the proposed Post Office would be located and what it would be named. Pridgen responded on May 12, 1890 – telling the Post Office Department that it was to be named “Kerr”, and was located at a depot (named Kerr) on a new railway (the CF&YV RR). Pridgen subsequently was appointed as Kerr’s first Postmaster.

The Post Office Department didn’t require an explanation of why the name was chosen, only that it be a “local or permanent name” that is unique within the state. The application didn’t say why the name was chosen for the Post Office. In the same year, post offices were approved at other stations (Tomahawk and Ivanhoe, which were the station just before and just after Kerr on the railroad line) as well. The post offices came into being following creation of railroad stations at each location a result of the locations. The post offices in towns along the railroad route (Steadman, Autryville [1890-03-04], Parkersburg [May 6, 1890], Garland [May 21, 1890], Kerr [June 4, 1890], Roseboro [June 5, 1890], Tomahawk [June 25, 1890], and Ivanhoe [August 30, 1890]) were all created in 1890 which is when the railroad was placed in operation. This makes sense because mail had to be transported, and roads were scarce during that time.

The Post Office Department sent the request for this information to Pridgen via Hon. C. W. McClammy, a Representative (from North Carolina) in the U.S. Congress, “Congressmen had an important role in establishing Post Offices. At the time, Postmasters were politically appointed, and one needed a congressional sponsor of the “right” party before gaining an appointment. Also, without a Member of Congress to shepherd the application through the red tape, it would likely have languished in the bureaucracy.”5

We may never know the circumstances causing Pridgen to file the application. Questions remain – was it his idea, for whom did he do it, etc.? He had been a Postmaster once before, so he was a logical choice of person to handle the arrangements as well as to assume Postmaster duties. The fact that McClammy was involved delivering the location questionnaire to Pridgen suggests that he or others would have been involved.

The Kerr Post Office was approved, and it opened on June 4, 1890. The Post Office was located near the Kerr Railroad Depot. It operated continuously until it was closed effective July 31, 1953. At that time, all mail was re-routed to the Harrells, NC Post Office.

Kerr wasn’t a big place – in fact, there were only about 400-600 people in 1890, according to information on the town’s application for a U.S. Post Office filled out in May, 18906. That number of people likely encompassed surrounding farms, because the town’s actual population in 1896 was only 25 (1896). Like the town, Kerr’s Post Office wasn’t big. It was designated a fourth-class post office – meaning it was one which generated gross receipts under $1,900 per year. This was the least amount of revenue volume category of all post offices in the U.S., and this status meant that Kerr’s Postmasters received a salary of less than $1,000 per year7.

Stations along the railroad line received and dispatched their mail by Railway Mail Service train (1897). Mail was picked up and dropped off using specially-built train cars (referred to as a “rolling post office”) in which mail was sorted and processed. Kerr’s post office was located in close proximity to the railroad depot and employed what was called a “catch station” or “Mail Crane”8 for dispatching outbound mail pouches to moving trains passing through the depot (1942). The location of the Kerr’s depot and its “Mail Crane” is shown on a 1924 Atlantic Coast Line blueprint depicting the Kerr, N.C. Depot:

Mail Crane

A Mail Crane was a small metal tower approximately 10 feet tall located next to the rail line so that the train would pass it closely. Post office personnel would hang outgoing mail bags on it for pickup – and a mechanism on the passing train grabbed the outgoing mail bags and pulled it into the passing train. At the same time this was occurring, a postal clerk on the train “kicked” (threw out) a mail bag containing mail for the post office out of the train – and it would then be picked up and taken to the post office.

Perhaps the changes in route and timing could have been necessary to accommodate changes in the schedule of the mail train(s). These postal routes originated/ended at train stations or connected to routes that did so.

Postal delivery routes ran between Kerr and neighboring cities. An 1895 postal route went between Kerr and Bland, NC. It ran Monday through Saturday (but not Sunday), originating daily at Bland (8am) and arriving at Kerr (11am). It then returned, leaving Kerr (1pm) and arriving at Bland (4pm). Since RFD services had not been introduced yet, this route no doubt simply delivered mail between post offices. The 1901 Post Office Route Map (1901) shows that the Kerr-to-Bland route was 12 miles instead of 11.5 miles.

While Mail wagons were permitted to run on Sundays without restriction, Post Offices had to remain closed during church services on Sunday. Once services concluded, the Post Office could be open for one hour to deliver the mail.

No pictures of the Kerr Post Office have been found. The following two pictures show what the typical rural post office (Figure 3) and the typical RFD carrier (Figure 4) might have looked like:

1904 was a big year for postal services at Kerr – because in that year the post office was authorized to sell money orders, and it began Rural Free Delivery (RFD) services. RFD brought mail delivery to postal patrons at their homes – they no longer had to come to the post office to pick their mail up.

Customers in a Rural Post Office circa 1938

Figure 3 – Customers in a Rural Post Office circa 1938, location unknown. (courtesy of Smithsonian Institution National Postal Museum)

RFD, c1905

Figure 4 – RFD, c1905. North Carolina, location unknown (NC Archives)

There was a theft of postal money orders from Kerr’s post office – about 399 money orders were reported stolen on April 23, 1951. Unfortunately, no additional information can be found about the theft or perpetrator(s).

Kerr’s Postmasters, Contract Mail Carriers, and Postmen:

The stories of Kerr’s Postmasters and other related persons (mail carriers and contract mail carriers) are varied and colorful. One was a Civil War soldier twice wounded in action and held as a prisoner of war; another was a highly decorated hero in World War I, while yet another was a murder victim. The last permanent postmaster became an ordained pastor.

Six people served Kerr as Assistant Postmaster or as Postmaster between 1890-195. Unfortunately, they all have passed away. They were:

Name Title Date Appointed
Timothy F. Pridgen Postmaster 4 June 1890
Frederick F. Newton Postmaster 18 May 1906
Isaac Manley Newton Acting Postmaster 30 June 1930
Mrs. Mary M. Shaw Acting Postmaster 16 July 1930
Mrs. Mary M. Shaw Postmaster 26 Jan 1931
Herbert H. Pate Acting Postmaster 30 June 1951
Herbert H. Pate Postmaster 27 March 1952
Mrs. Beulah P. Newkirk Acting Postmaster 15 Sept 1952
Kerr’s Post Office was closed 31 July 1953
and its mail was sent to Harrells Post Office.

Timothy Fletcher Pridgen (b.1843-d.1907) was the first Postmaster at Kerr, NC, serving 16 years – from June 4, 1890 through May 18, 190611. He initiated the initial application for the Kerr Post Office. Before that, he had served as the Postmaster of Gravel Hill, North Carolina from August 11, 1875 to October 29, 1889 before coming to the Kerr Post Office12.

He had a very colorful military history in the Confederate Army prior to becoming postmaster. He enlisted as a Private April 26, 1861 in 18th NC Regiment, Company K. He was promoted to Corporal in 1862, and then was captured in May 1862 at Hanover Court House, Virginia and confined at Fort Columbus, New York Harbor. On August 5, 1862 he was exchanged at Aiken’s Landing, James River, VA. He was wounded in the arm in September 1862, and returned to duty November 1862. He was then promoted to Sergeant. In July 1864 he was captured after being wounded in the left thigh by a musket ball at Gravel Hill, VA, after which he was confined in various Federal Hospitals including Washington, DC. He was released in November, 1865 and returned to Elizabethtown, NC.

In 1896, T.F. Pridgen is listed as operating a General Store in Kerr’s Depot.

The 1900 US Census listed his occupation as “Railroad Agent”, while US Post Office records show he was also Postmaster at Kerr.

He died on January 27, 1907 at age 64. It is said he was the first person to be buried in the Harmony Presbyterian Church Cemetery at Kerr.

Frederick Ferdinand Newton (b.1860-d.1930) was Kerr’s second Postmaster for 24 years – from May 18, 1906 until June 29, 1930. He was Kerr’s longest-serving postmaster.

He was the 6th son of Isaac Milton Newton, a large farmer and slave owner near Kerr. A biographical sketch noted that he had been a frail youth, but was described as a very likeable, honest, upright and Christian man who was a deacon in the Baptist church and Sunday-school teacher17. He taught school until age 29, when he married. When he was 30, he worked as an enumerator for the 1890 U.S. Federal Census in Sampson County, NC18. He was primarily a farmer (1910, 1920, and 1930 US Census).

He is remembered as a good man who had many unfortunate things befall him and his family.
On May 21, 1891 a disastrous fire destroyed his house, barn, stables, and smoke-house, leaving him without means to support himself or his family. Advertisements were placed in two issues of The Progressive Farmer (a Winston-Salem, NC newspaper) on June 23, 1891 and on August 18, 1891 by the Executive Committee of the Hickory Alliance, No. 2,173 (North Carolina State Farmers’ Alliance), Kerr, NC asked for contributions to support “Bro. F. F. Newton, Kerr, N.C.” as a result of this fire. He then built a log cabin that the family lived in until about 1910.

His misfortunes continued when, in April 1915, his 9-year-old son Carlton (Edward Carlton Newton 1906-1915) was accidentally shot and killed by his 11-year old brother (Leonard Carlyle Newton 1903-1930). The children had been playing with their father’s new gun.

Then, at age 70, on Saturday, June 28, 1930, as he walked home for lunch approximately 2½ miles through the woods through Sellers’ field, he was brutally attacked, beaten, and robbed (of $2.00). His body was found just before sundown that day. The attack left him with life-threatening injuries, and he died the following day of a fractured skull (1930a, 1930m).

The murder and subsequent trial and appeals received extensive press coverage. Following an investigation, two young Negroes (Chevis Herring, 23 years old, and his brother, Ernest Herring, 22 years old) were charged and convicted – both received the death sentence in separate trials. Ernest maintained his innocence in committing the murder, but he was there when it occurred. Chevis Herring was executed, but left a note before his execution in which he confessed to the crime but stating that his brother was innocent. This resulted in a second trial where the death sentence against Ernest Herring was commuted to life imprisonment.

Isaac Manly Newton

Isaac Manly Newton (b.1896-d.1952) (known by everyone as “Manly” instead of Isaac) was Kerr’s 3rd Postmaster. He held this job for only 2 weeks from June 30, 1930 to July 15, 1930 – apparently filling in following the death of his father, Frederick F. Newton. This was the shortest tenure of any of Kerr’s Postmasters. He was born in Kerr, North Carolina.

Isaac Manly Newton (b.1896-d.1952) (known by everyone as “Manly” instead of Isaac) was Kerr’s 3rd Postmaster. He held this job for only 2 weeks from June 30, 1930 to July 15, 1930 – apparently filling in following the death of his father, Frederick F. Newton. This was the shortest tenure of any of Kerr’s Postmasters. He was born in Kerr, North Carolina.

He had a very remarkable story. He was a “professional farmer” who enlisted in the US Army July 26, 1916 in Clinton, NC, and was discharged April 9, 1919 at Camp Jackson, SC. He fought in World War I, and was one of only 200 soldiers from North Carolina who were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He won the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy” in France.

The citation for his medal says:

“The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Corporal Isaac M. Newton (ASN: 1316085), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in action while serving with Company H, 119th Infantry Regiment, 30th Division, A.E.F., near Bellicourt, France, 29 September 1918. With another soldier Corporal Newton attacked and destroyed two enemy machine-gun posts, 200 yards in advance of our lines. While the other soldier stood guard at the entrance of a dugout, he entered it and brought out 75 German soldiers and three officers, who were taken back to our lines as prisoners. Home of Record: Kerr, N.C.”

He received a hero’s welcome when he returned to North Carolina, including being given a gold watch at the Sampson County Fair (held in Clinton) on November 10, 1919 – credited with what was called “…the second biggest individual feat of the world war…”.

He died tragically – at age 56 on August 22, 1952, two days after a tree fell on his back, fracturing his spine. The accident occurred at a used auto parts store that he operated in New Bern, NC.

Mrs. Mary Madeline [Fennell] Shaw (b.1884-d.1982) [aka: Mrs. Dudley G. Shaw] was Kerr’s 4th Postmaster (serving as Assistant Postmaster for 9 months – from July 16, 1930 to January 26, 1931, and then as Postmaster for the next 20 years – until July 19, 1951). She was born December 26, 1884, in North Carolina, and died April 24, 1982 in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is buried in Harmony Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Kerr.

Herbert H. Pate (b. 1928, d. 2015) was Kerr’s last permanent Postmaster (serving as Acting Postmaster for 9 months – from June 30, 1951, and as Postmaster for 6 months – from March 27, 1952 to September 15, 1952). He also continued working for the Post Office as rural letter carrier rural letter carrier when the Kerr post office was closed and the route moved to Harrell’s store from 1953 until he retired in 1983. He was born August 4, 1928 in Wilmington, North Carolina, and died on November 21, 12015 in Atkinson, North Carolina.

From approximately 1977 onwards, he was an ordained minister. By 1977, he had received his certificate of candidacy as either an ordained minister or local pastor in Wilmington, NC (1977, p. 173). From 1999 until his death in November, 2015, he was the Pastor of Harmony Presbyterian Church.

Mrs. Beulah P. Newkirk (b. 1913, d. 2004) was Kerr’s last Postmaster (serving as Acting Postmaster for 6 months – from September 15, 1952 through July 31, 1953, when the post office was discontinued). She was born on July 27, 1913, in Lillington, North Carolina and died in Sampson County, North Carolina. She is buried at Harmony Presbyterian Church.

There were also two contract mail carriers (Harvey R. Smith, Parkersburg, and O. W. Canady, of Tomahawk) who picked up mail at Kerr and transported it, and Billie H. Hall, a Rural Free Delivery Mail Carrier serving Kerr

Harvey R. Smith, Parkersburg, contractor. He was mentioned in a single Postal Department Bulletin describing Star Route 18480, which gave him a contract to deliver mail from July 1, 1940, to June 30, 1944. Very little is known about him.

O. W. Canady, of Tomahawk, contractor. He was mentioned in a single Postal Department Bulletin describing Star Route 18480, which gave him a contract to deliver mail from July 1, 1939, to June 30, 1940. Very little is known about him.

Mr. Billie H. Hall (Rural Free Delivery Mail Carrier about 1924-1942). Although he served as a rural mail carrier from Kerr’s Post Office. Very little is known about him. He provided a statement at the August 20, 1943 hearing to abandon and dismantle the station at Kerr, NC. “I wish to state that my personal observation has been for eighteen years as a rural carrier from Kerr, and at that time there were four stores facing the Atlantic Coast Line. Since that time the agency has been abandoned, and it has deteriorated the business there down to one store adjacent to the railroad. I wish to state at this time in the rural section there are seven stores that have personally asked me to see if an agency could be re-established, so that they could use the facilities of this office. I have several times and on all occasions been asked by these business houses to look after drop shipments of freight and express at this office, which I have done.

I personally feel that the abandonment of this depot would be a serious handicap to these business men at this time.”

Rev. Herbert H. Pate, the last permanent Postmaster for Kerr, and Pastor of the Harmony Presbyterian Church at Kerr from 1977-2015, contributed information regarding the Kerr Post Office that was used in this research. Unfortunately, he passed away while this research was still being conducted. His generosity and helpfulness contributed much – and he will be greatly missed.

Rev. Herbert H. Pate

I am indebted to a number of individuals contributed significantly towards making this research move from a concept to a reality. Special thanks must go to Stephen A. Kochersperger, Senior Research Analyst, Postal History, U.S. Postal Service, Washington, DC and to William Creech, Archivist, Textual Reference Archives Branch, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington, D.C. Richard F. Winter of the North Carolina Postal History Society provided the Postal Cancelations from Kerr. Information regarding Frederick F. Newton and Isaac Manly Newton were provided by John Newton and photographs by Robert Newton of Philadelphia, PA. Information regarding Kerr was contributed by Mrs. Peggy Carter, currently living in Clinton, NC, and her mother, who lives in Kerr and operated the Anders Grocery Store. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to exchange emails with Rev. Herbert H. Pate who graciously told me many things about his work as Kerr’s last permanent Postmaster. I am indebted to him for his kind help to this research.