The `lady mailman' remembered


"Many wondered how a woman was going to do it. She did it, and she did it magnificently, as well or better than most men. She brought friendliness, courtesy and efficiency always. She never failed us once."  - Gordon Sargent, Longbeach resident. September 30, 1958

It's been 40 years since Connie Cummins delivered the mail up and down the North Shore, but her legend in these parts still looms large.

"It was a long time ago that's for sure," Cummins told the Daily News from her Victoria home Thursday.

The year was 1944 and life in the Kootenays was far different than it is today. The Second World War was raging overseas and there was a lack of men to fill what was thought of as traditional male occupations.

Connie was a mother of two daughters and her husband, Con, had the mail contract for the Nelson area. In February of that year Con's driver for the rural route east of the city became sick and thus sealed Connie's place in the local history books.

"The driver on the rural route fell ill and wanted to quit," Connie remembers. "So I was basically stuck . . . in those days the mail had go out come hell or high water. So I just loaded up the car and away I went with it and learned the route along the way."

Starting at 6 a.m., Connie would begin sorting the mail for the day, she would then hop in her vehicle and deliver mail to more than 500 families from the eastern border of Nelson to Balfour - 54 miles a day, six days a week. At the time it was the longest rural route in Canada.

"I had two children in school at that time so I would get them started with their breakfast in the morning and I went on to do the mail," said Connie, who is now 86-years-old.

For the first year, Connie delivered the mounds of letters and parcels in a car. However, after about a year on the job she got behind the wheel of a jeep and her image was secured.

"I had one of the first jeeps in the area because it was just when they came out," she said. "A car dealer saw me with a sedan car and he said `I think you need a Jeep' and let me use it the next day. It was a lot better because I could get right up close to the boxes and I didn't have to get out of the car so often." In the summers she would have the top off and a sun hat blowing in the wind. In the harsh Kootenay winters Connie would don the parka and head out into the snow.

In 14 years she never missed a day, except in November, 1947 when two of the most blizzardy days the area has seen hit.

Mail in the late-1940s and early-1950s was a much more cherished item than it is today and Connie became a smiling symbol of correspondence and information exchange.

"I used to keep pretty good time and there would be many people who would come up and stand at the mail box and wait for it," she said. "They would be there visiting with their neighbours and waiting for me."

Connie Cummins headed off for her final rural mail route in her Jeep on September 30, 1958.

Rose Donaldson lived in Harrop when Connie would deliver the mail. Now living on the North Shore, Donaldson said she will never forget the famous female postie.

"She was a real nice lady, always had a sweet nice smile for people," said Donaldson.

"We would all be there waiting for her. That was just one of things you did, you waited for the mail lady. She was always on time, she must have been because I don't remember her ever being late."

In 1952 Connie's mail route adventure became the subject of a National Film Board documentary called "The Mailman Is a Lady."

Film producer Jack Long came to the Kootenays and followed Connie on her route for one day over ferries, up mountain roads and along the winding highways. The result was a film which won Long and Connie national acclaim. In those days the NFB films would be played at the movie theatres and that's where Connie first saw it.

"It was kind of fun to see myself up there on the movie screen," she said. "I got letters from several people across the country saying they had seen it." Even 40 years later the movie is still making Connie's face familiar to Canadians. A clip from "The Mailman Is a Lady" was used earlier this week on a CBC television news program about rural mail contractors.

After travelling 227,136 miles in her jeep and making hundreds of people happy every day, Connie hung up the mail bag after her last run on September 30, 1958. Along that last drive down the North Shore, Connie was hugged, showered with gifts and praised with kind words.

"People said they missed me after I left," she said this week.

Born and raised in Nelson, Connie moved to Victoria six years ago to join one of her daughters and her four grandchildren. She said the grandkids like to hear the stories about how grandma delivered the mail through sleet, snow and whatever else Mother Nature could throw at her.

As far as Connie's relationship goes with her own postie? Well, times have changed since the 1940s.

"We say `good morning' that's about all," said Connie.