He Was More Than Just the Mailman
 
The internet encyclopedia known as Wikipedia gives this definition for mail sent by way of computers over the internet: "Electronic mail, often abbreviated to e-mail, is any method of creating, transmitting, or storing primarily text-based human communications with digital communications systems." Even though communicating by e-mail is becoming more and more commonplace today, it would probably seem very foreign to Cecil Lee, a fellow who began carrying the mail around 1945 in this area for the United States Postal Service. During the time Cecil delivered the mail, his job involved much more than just seeing that letters, bills, and other correspondence were safely delivered to the many homes of families and individuals along his route. Much of what Cecil did for those patrons he served didnít have anything to do with the mail service, and certainly would not be allowed this day and time. Even though it really wasnít that long ago, hereís a look back at a time when the mailman also ran a type of errand service as well.

It seems that delivering the mail runs in the Lee family. Two of the Lee brothers, Cecil and Otis, shared a route to begin with, and each one started out carrying the mail on horseback. Otisí route was from Jamestown to Kings Mountain, and Cecilís route was from Alpine to Kings Mountain. Cecil and Otis were the sons of Charlie Lee and wife Catherine Cooper Lee of the Iveyton community. There were total of thirteen children born to Charlie and Catherine Lee whose names were Lena, Roxie, Otis, Cecil, Homer, Herman, Ridley, Leda, Lela, Ala, and R.D. Two infants died at birth.

 

The Lee children's picture was taken around 1948.  Jimmie is on the left and Betty is holding Bruce.

 

It was in the Beatytown community that Ruby Beaty, the young lady who became the wife of Cecil Lee, grew up. She attended school at Alpine, and in later years, and as long as her health permitted, she attended the annual reunions that are still held there. In 1935, Ruby and Cecil decided to get married. By this time, Cecilís parents had moved to an area known as Jayís Flat, now called McDonaldís Chapel. During that period of time, the Short Line bus service ran from Cookeville to Livingston, and then on to Sommerset, Kentucky, and would sometimes make a stop at Storyís general merchandise in Monroe. Thatís where Cecil and Ruby caught the bus and went on to Byrdstown to get married. When they returned to Cecilís parentsí home after the wedding, Cecil had a total of fifty cents in his pocket. The young couple made their home with Cecilís parents for a short time, and then later moved to the Joppa community. Their oldest child, a daughter, Jimmie, was born there in 1937.

Another notable and unusual event took place while the Lee family lived in the Joppa community. During that period of time, nearby land was being cleared for the building of Dale Hollow lake. No one in that area had ever seen a bulldozer before, so when one came through the community with two kerosene lanterns hung on the front of it, and making a tremendous noise as it went along, it scared everyone within hearing distance half to death. Cecil was so disturbed by it all that he ran to the kitchen to get a butcher knife, the only thing he could think of to try and protect his family from whatever harm might be in store from this monstrous machine no one knew what was.

After graduating from delivering the mail on horseback to a truck, Cecil would often haul riders back to Livingston from the various communities along his route. The truck had two benches on the back that came in handy for riders. His route of 100+ miles took in an area from Livingston to Jamestown, and included stops at Alpine, Allred, Crawford, Wilder, Grimsley, Jamestown, Glenn Obey, Boatland, Riverton, Manson, Iveyton, Alpine, and back to Livingston. In the 1950's, the route was changed, and ended in Grimsley. He then backtracked to pick up mail from the Wilder, Crawford, Allred, and Alpine post offices to bring back to the Livingston post office. Wanda Beatty Stephens remembers riding to town on the mail truck to get her very first permanent when she was twelve years old. The beauty shop was in the back of the Model Barber Shop on the square in Livingston. Wanda described the machine used for giving a perm as being run by electricity, and had a close resemblance to a giant octopus. Strands of hair would be wound around each of the coils, and it was necessary to keep a close watch on the hair to prevent it from being burned or scorched. After Wanda was through at the beauty shop, she had enough money to walk over to the B & O Drug Store and get a coke. While she sat on the stool in the drug store, she couldnít help but stare at herself in the mirror behind the counter and admire her beautiful new, very curly hairdo. She waited in the drug store until it was time to catch a ride once more on the mail truck, this time to go back home.

As the years went by, the Lee family grew to include another daughter, Betty, born in 1940, and a son, Bruce, born in 1947. The mountain people all along Cecilís route loved and respected him very much, so it just came natural that they became very familiar with the Lee children, especially Bruce. They watched him grow up during the years Cecil was their mailman. Betty has special memories of going with her father on the mail route. One of their stops in Jamestown was at the Mark Twain Restaurant. At their stop in Iveyton, she could always count on getting a coke there, and after returning to Livingston, the best treat of all would be a hamburger from Carson and Marie Whiteís cafť. Bruce accompanied his dad from the time he could stand up in the floorboard of the passenger side of the truck and peep out the windshield. Cousins who often visited from the north during the summer months loved going on the mail route with their Uncle Cecil.

In those early days, it was not at all uncommon for Cecil to find medicine bottles left in mailboxes that needed to be refilled. He has made many trips to Winningham Drug Store to get medicine refilled for someone along his route. In fact, Bill Winningham even today still calls Bruce "Lark Hite," a fellow Cecil refilled prescriptions for on a regular basis. Another errand Cecil often did was take shelled corn to the mill for some of his patrons and return the next day with a bag of meal. Betty told me much of what her father did for people along his route no one ever knew about. He was considered an especially good friend to most of the mountain people he served. If canning supplies were needed, the wives along the route knew they could call on Cecil to bring what they needed. At one of the homes along his route, a mentally challenged young boy sat on the front porch in warm weather and tore up newspapers most of the day. Cecil would always make sure he brought along old newspapers for this home.

 

Jimmie and Betty stand out in the front yard of the Lee family farm house that was once located in Copeland Cove area of Overton County. 

 

The Lee family lived on a 100+ acre farm in the Copeland Cove area until Cecil later purchased a smaller farm of about 50 acres that remains in the family today on old Highway 42. Jimmie attended school at Henard through the fifth grade. Betty went to primer and first grade there. Both the Lee girls had very pale, blond hair when they were small, and the other kids at Henard thought this was something unusual. In fact, on one occasion, some of the older girls used poke-berries and dyed Jimmieís hair. The stain could not be washed out, and for some time afterward, Jimmie had to go around with poke-berry colored hair. Oren Frank Huddleston would sometimes ride his bicycle to school at Henard, and both the Lee girls got to ride with him once in a while. One rode on the handlebars, and the other rode behind Oren Frank.

Neighborhood children and school mates of the Lee children knew they were always warmly welcomed at the Lee house. Bettyís friends and classmates who lived in rural areas of the county would often spend the night, especially after ball games. And if Cecil Lee gave Betty a quarter when she had company, he gave each of her friends a quarter too. He had one rule that everyone knew and understood. No matter what, everyone went to church on Sunday.

After moving from Copeland Cove to the farm on old Highway 42, Betty recalls how they would watch for their dad to get home from the mail route in the late afternoons. His usual stop before coming on home would be at Penningtonís Grocery to fill up the gas tank. When they saw him pull in, they took a path from their house up to Penningtonís. and then rode back home with him. Christmas Eve stands out in Bettyís memory as being a very special time. It was always after Cecil got back home on this particular night that they shared their holiday together. She has some very happy memories of those special Christmas Eve nights after their dad got home from the mail route. The Christmas season was also a time when the mountain people always left small gifts in the mailbox of homemade candy or bags of fruit for Cecil and his family. That tradition continues today with son Bruce.

When Bruce started to school, he would still accompany his dad on the route on Saturdays, and everyday during the summer months. He was only sixteen years old when his dad suffered a heart attack, and even though Bruce was underage, he was allowed to fill in for Cecil until he recovered. Certainly no one else knew the route any better than Bruce did. Bruce began carrying the mail full time when he was around twenty, and continues on today in his fatherís footsteps, even though he had planned at one time to possibly get into the barber business. He knew his dad preferred that he stay on and help him. He and his wife, Christine, still live on the family farm just off of old Highway 42. Bruceís mail route still includes part of his fatherís old route. He delivers mail to homes on Highway 52 beginning just outside of Alpine and then goes on to Grimsley. He then backtracks to pick up mail in the Wilder, Crawford, and Alpine post offices to be delivered back to the Livingston post office. All tolled, members of the Lee family have served as mail carriers more than sixty years now.

The passing of Cecil Lee was felt not only by his immediate family, but many of the mountain people he served were touched as well. Because times were usually hard for most families along Cecilís route, the entire community went together to buy flowers for his service. A young man with Downs Syndrome who was especially fond of Cecil was brokenhearted upon learning of Cecilís death. He came to the funeral home, and as he walked down the aisle to pay his last respects, he cried out Cecilís name over and over again.

Two things Ruby especially enjoyed all her adult life were square dancing and singing. In fact, she danced the final time on the night before she suffered a stroke that later took her life. That last dance took place at the nursing home where she was a patient, and her partner was David Moore, a former minister of First Christian Church of Livingston, where she was a long time member.

Many changes have taken place in our world since the days when Cecil Lee faithfully carried the mail over the many miles of his route. And it seems that along with the passing of this very respected man, the small favors, the rides into town on the mail truck, and all the extra things Cecil did to help the people he cared about have disappeared too. And part of the reason for this is not because people are not necessarily as caring as they used to be, but the regulations covering the postal service are much stricter these days. But no doubt all the extra things Cecil did continue to live on in the memories of the people he served as well as his family. And thereís one thing for sure, in todayís world, we might be able to communicate quickly through e-mail, but there is just no way that compares to the personal contact and the going that extra mile that took place almost daily in the life of a rural mail carrier named Cecil Lee.

 

This photograph taken of the Lee family was made in 1961.  From left to right - Cecil Lee, Ruby Lee, Jimmie, Betty, and Bruce.