Nathalie - Largest Rural Mail Route In The U.S.

Written by Hugh D. Koontz, II, for the Gazette-Virginian in 1974

      The soft, early morning air is clear and crisp as a mountain spring in the drowsy village of Nathalie, and the fields are melodious with ripples under an azure sky alive with summer. Natives claim one can actually hear the grass grow.

      It was not always such a sleepy community, however. Originally part of a great plantation sculptured out of the once unconquered wilderness, the tiny village grew and prospered like corn in the field once the Lynchburg to Durham railroad laid tracks through the area and erected a depot and warehouse.

      Mrs. Rebecca Wimbish was given the right to name the depot after she agreed to let the owners of the line have the right of way through her property. She dubbed the village "Nathalie" after one of the owner's daughters, Natalie Otey. in 1891

      The appellation has stuck since. Strangers passing through and noticing the unusual name have expressed such an attraction for it that they have keen known to baptize the children by the same

      The railroad brought prosperity and a glimpse of the outside world to the pastoral peace of Nathalie. Four passenger trains would load and unload at the depot each day, bringing folks home from shopping trips to Lynchburg and drummers peddling their wares from the city to the north. "People could get on one of the morning trains," remembers one resident, "and go to Lynchburg in about two hours, stay for about four hours. and then come back in the late afternoon after doing all the shopping in the city they wanted."

      Drummers with their satchels of goods could arrive early at Nathalie, make as many sales as they could and return to Lynchburg by late evening. Sometimes these salesmen would take one of the three rooms at one of the village's stores for the night, receiving their meals at the home of the store owner.

      "There was a hotel...but then again there wasn't," recalled one man "Bill Terry constructed a two-story, flat-roofed building in which there were several rooms, a store and a livery stable: but it never caught on for some reason or the other."

      News from the fast moving cities was a commodity not to be shunned in the early days of the 20th century for these rural folks, and each time a train would pull into the depot they would flock in droves to see who had arrived and to gather.

      They gathered about the old depot much like people would return to their childhood church on Easter to see old friends returning, or to hear the latest stories.

      "I can remember when all the roads leading to the little village were blocked for as far as one could see with wagons waiting for fertilizer," remembered another long-time resident. "They had warehouses to store much of the goods in, but the farmers would come in early usually and wait for the train's arrival."

      There were several stores along the main road next to the railroad tracks, but most have been consumed by fire over the years. The lumber yard and Moorefield's Mill are now silent, as is the blacksmith shop built by J.R. Glass.

      Blanche Carter made hats at the village for the local women with ribbons, straw and artificial birds and flowers; but the lady from Maryland's artistic talents were no longer needed once the automobile became vogue ... trips to the shops in Brookneal and South Boston then became the norm for the fashionable of Nathalie.

      It was here that the late Dr. Louis P. Bailey opened his first office with a rocking chair situated comfortably on his front porch to accommodate the doctor's form while awaiting customers. He once remarked that he wore two of the chairs out when he first arrived due to a slow starting business.

      But business soon picked up for the young physician until he claimed he no longer could find the time required to adequately make use of the chair, and he enlarged his office space by moving into a larger building.

      The postmen would deliver the day's mail via horse drawn vehicles, as was the custom in those early days, and the story goes that one carrier, during the season when the river swelled above its normal level, had to swim across the river with his horse to complete his route. Recollections of the establishment of the Nathalie post office are dim today, but the postmaster of the largest rural mail route in the United States says she recalls that the mail originally arrived by train each day from Lynchburg.

      The postmaster, who started as a clerk at Nathalie September 5, 1924, said the office has been moved six times in the past half century, bringing "many changes" to the operation. Nearly 8,000 people depend daily on the Nathalie office for their mail.

      "The rural carriers delivered the mail with horse drawn buggies and, although the routes were short back then, it would still take about eight to 10 hours each day to deliver the letters."

      These rural mail carriers, however, are more than just bearers of news.... they are neighbors who care about the well being of others in the community. Once, not too long ago, one of the carriers was making his daily rounds when he spotted smoke in a nearby field.

      It was a field fire dangerously close to the home of one of his neighbors. No one was home except some children and their mother. The fire looked as if it were going out of control.

      Thoughts too quick for definition raced through the carrier's head as he hopped on a nearby tractor and plowed around the fire to arrest the blaze saving the home. Then he returned to his chore of delivering the day's mail to his other neighbors.

      Little is left today of the old hustling railroad village except E.Y. Wimbish's shop, one of the few remaining flue shops in the state, and a couple of stores.

      The inevitable, and indispensible country store is run by James Henderson today, built in 1926 by his father, Frank, the store still serves as a place to gather on rainy days to discuss agri-business while leaning against the soft drink machine.

      Stray hounds snooze on the front porch while Henderson's own pup, Penny, curls up beneath the shelf of Black Draught when she is not cuddling up to a visitor's leg.

      Up the road is the more modern grocery store run by Louis "Punk" Stanley, who built the store in 1964. One can get anything he wants at the two stores except beer, residents say.

      It is the Catawba Baptist Church, though, that holds these people together now. The third oldest church in Halifax County, Catawba Baptist church was built in 1773, according to church records.

      The newer building that stands today was constructed in 1900 and dedicated on October 4 of the same year. The old building was sold the preceding year for $150. Originally there were only about 100 members in the church, but the rolls have swollen over the centuries to over 250 in 1974 As in most rural areas, this church serves as both a spiritual and social gathering spot.

      "You would have to say that the church is the center of activity out here now," averred one resident. "The little village has changed so much during the years." What has not changed, though, is the people.

      "They are friendly folks. Just call me if you feel sick', they say. Once, a family's home burned to the ground, leaving them with nothing but what they managed to have on at the time of the fire. The neighbors took up a collection the next day to help the family out." One lady compared her life in Nathalie with the lonely existence she once experienced in a large city. She recalled that she lived for some time next door to a man who only spoke to her twice, and then only because the lights went out.

      "It's not like that out here. Everybody knows everybody and everybody cares about one another."

"It's as near to Paradise as I can see."