Long before the days of modern telecommunications, and in many areas, even newspapers, the mail system represented one of the few links our early pioneer families had to the outside world.
Prior to 1837, there were virtually no post offices in the rural areas of, what would later become, Lambton County.
Consequently, a pioneer settler often had to make an arduous trek through the uncleared bush and swampland of the region to retrieve his or her mail from a major centre such as Chatham, London or Sandwich (Winsdor).
In many cases new settlers moving into the district from the 'Old World' would drop off mail along the way to some of the established settlers. Welcomed as this was, it often took months for a letter to arrive at its desired destination, if, in fact, it ever arrived.
The first post offices in LambtonCounty were opened on February 6, 1837 and were located in Plympton, Moore and WarwickTownships and the Port of Sarnia.
From that humble beginning, mail service spread steadily as Lambton’s hinterlands were cleared and developed and its population continued to expand. By 1911, a peak of 89 post offices had been established within the county and as early as the 1890s, postal services were well established even in the slower to develop areas of South Eastern Lambton.
In DawnTownship, for example, post offices had been established in the small outposts of Oakdale, Edys Mills, Bentpath and Garville. Most of these functioned as an adjunct to a general store, but many simply operated out of the appointed post master’s home.
Having a post office established within their own municipalities was a big step forward for those living in the sparsely populated communities of rural Canada at that time. However, at a time prior to the advent of the automobile or at least before it was in wide use, picking up the mail was still a hardship for many rural residents.
While the first residential rural mail delivery began in Montreal on Oct. 1, 1874, another quarter century would pass before rural mail delivery was a established universally across Canada. And that came largely through the efforts of a Petrolia resident named Joeseph E. Armstrong.
Dubbed the “Father of Rural Mail” by some historians, Armstrong was a Petrolia business man and Member of Parliament who represented the electoral riding of Lambton East from 1904 to 1921.
He was born in York County and after receiving a classical education, which included a stint at an elocution school in Philadelphia, he moved to Petrolia where he met with some success in oil production and the manufacturing business.
After serving on Petrolia Town Council for a number of years, Armstrong was elected MP for Lambton East in 1904 and immediately started lobbying for the establishment of free rural mail delivery, secure in the knowledge that the Canadian Postal Service could play a tangible role in the continued development of rural Canada as it headed into the 20th century.
Armstrong worked long and hard to have the Laurier government establish a system of rural mail delivery. A perusal of Hansard, the official record of the House of Commons, reveals many eloquent speeches on the subject delivered by the “Member from Lambton East.”
After much debate, in 1907 Armstrong presented a motion on the floor of the House of Commons calling for the establishment of a Canadian rural mail system, only to be met with opposition from the government benches.
However, with an election in the offing, then Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier, fearful of losing the farm vote, did an about face on the issue. On the eve of the 1908 general election, Laurier announced his government would indeed bring in legislation to pave the way for a system of free rural mail delivery.
Joeseph E. Armstrong died in Petrolia in 1937 after receiving head injuries from a fall on the ice near his stately old home on Gem Avenue, which still exists today.