by Sheila Mason Gale
When I grew up in Canterbury on the far end of North Society Road, I thought everyone had a "mail lady" like we did. What I didn't know, at the time, is that our mail lady was the first woman mail carrier in Connecticut. Her name is Frances Vaclavik.
Her grandfather, Edward Lovell, was a book publisher in New York and his dream was to have a farm in Connecticut. When he retired, he moved to Canterbury to become a farmer and his son, Ralph (Frances' father), came home from WW I to help for one year, but he never left. Frances and her sister and two brothers grew up in Canterbury and attended a one-room schoolhouse on the green, which is now our Canterbury Library.
Frances began as a mail carrier in 1942 when it cost three cents to mail a letter and one cent for a postcard. She drove 28 miles (12 were dirt roads) to deliver mail to every house in Canterbury. The post office was in the former Bennett house just north of the intersection of Route 14 and Route 169, and consisted of two rooms and a closet.
The Mail Carriers Association didn't have a formal meeting place in 1942, so they met in various members' homes. It was at one of these meetings that Frances learned she had the distinction of being the first woman mail carrier in Connecticut. When the meetings took place, the men would meet in the living room and the women would gather in the kitchen. When Frances came on the scene she recalls the ladies craning their necks to get a look at this young twenty-year old stepping into a man's world. One older Canterbury woman was overheard to say "it's a man's world and she won't last a year!" They never thought she was "strong enough" for the job, but they were wrong, she was a mail carrier for thirty years.
Times were different then and Frances went beyond the call of duty in her job. She tells of a house bound elderly woman who lived on Gooseneck Hill Road that would leave, not only her mail in her mailbox, but also her grocery list and Frances would pick up her groceries and deliver them along with her mail the next day. At Christmas time, she would help parents keep Christmas presents a surprise for children. When large items like skis and sleds arrived she would hold them at the post office and then deliver them on Christmas morning. This is an example of what our elders refer to as the "good ol' days".
There were touching moments too, like opening P.B. Smith's mailbox on a hot August afternoon and finding a cool glass of homemade root beer that Jean Smith had left for her. Also, Joe Kulaga, on Water Street, always told her if she ever got stuck in the mud or snow, just give him a call and he would use his tractor to pull her out. Another family told her where their house key was in case she ever needed to use the phone. She also knew Dr. Helen Baldwin who would often be waiting by the mailbox with her sister Lucy when Frances arrived. Frances delivered Dr. Baldwin's N.Y. Times which was often used as a bee swatter. The reason she had bees in her car was because bee hives, along with chicken and ducks were all delivered by mail and there were sometimes a few runways.
In 1956, Frances took some time off to have her third child. By this time there were sixty miles of road in Canterbury and the substitute driver couldn't complete the route as quickly as Frances could. This greatly disturbed the many dairy and egg farmers in Canterbury that did not get their checks in time to get to the bank by 3:00pm. So Priscilla Botti circulated a petition to create two routes in Canterbury. The postal service agreed and Frances only had to deliver to half of Canterbury and Addison Davis did the other half.
When Frances retired in 1972 she devoted more time to her husband Ed, her children and grandchildren and her gardens. Her flower gardens are breathtaking and just a walk through them makes you appreciate her hard work as well as her appreciation of beauty and nature.
I'll always think of Frances Vaclavik as my mail lady, but she is really an example of conscientious and caring public servant that went out of her way to help the people on her mail route.