by Esther J. Perne
Creative mailboxes, dock-loving dogs, excited children reaching for the mail (adults, too!), sights of shorefronts that are never seen from the land, and the occasional platter of freshly baked brownies are at stake these days as the great but not too late mail boat discontinuation debate goes on.
As interested parties lobby for politicians to pull strings, patrons to pay the differential, or the post office to wax sentimental, the mail goes through — just as it has for 103 years. It is a service integral to the traditions, history, economics, tourism, communication and perhaps even security of the area.
Currently run by Jeff and Tammy Holman, the Great Pond Water Route delivers mail six days a week, for roughly four months each summer, provides a unique pontoon boat ride for paying passengers, and is a link among the lake community.
Although records are sparse from the United States Postal Service in terms of water routes and locally in terms of "mailmen," the independent contractors who bid for the route, it is a fact that the Great Pond Water Route is the last inland one in the state. (Several coastal routes still exist.) In recent years both the Long Lake route in Naples and the Lower Richardson Lake water delivery in Andover have been canceled.
As for local mailmen, two names stand out: Webster and Curtis.
The Websters, grandfather Charles, father Harold and two sons David and John kept the route running from 1943 to 1991. Captain Bert Curtis began the water service in 1900 out of the Belgrade Mills Post Office. (The name changed to "Belgrade Lakes" in 1901).
Curtis plied the lake in a 35-foot steamboat, the Belgrade, which had a large boiler and smokestack in the middle and a canvas top with curtains that could be let down. When Curtis, who was also a guide, took parties to an island on Great Pond he would pull the curtains around the boat so the women could change into swimming clothes.
Between Curtis and Webster, a Mr. Cooper, Verne Foster, Leon Richardson, and Charles Guay each ran the mail boat for several years.
When David Webster was interviewed in 1992 he had tales to tell about a drowning prevented, a marriage ceremony held, a runaway boat diverted, and being duped by a parrot who he thought was a person calling for him to bring the mail to a camp. The role model for Charlie the mailman in the popular movie On Golden Pond, Dave had the experience in 1981 of transporting the entire On Golden Pond cast from Lakewood Theater around the route.
Although Dave started helping out in the post office as a teen and worked his way up to mailman in 1943, he left to serve in the military and younger brother John, age 15, took over for six years. At the time there were 100 stops in Rome, North Belgrade and Belgrade Lakes on the 35-mile route — although Dave always maintained that with all the turn-arounds, coves, detours, and back tracking the route was a lot longer.
The Websters' boat, the Rainbow, referred to as Public Boat No. 168, was an open launch capable of carrying 15 passengers. It had been acquired from the previous mailman, Charles Guay, who preceded Dave as carrier for four years before leaving for military service. Until 1947, the Rainbow had a rigid canopy top, but a freak heavy May snowstorm broke it off.
In those days package pick-ups were weighed at the Belgrade Lakes Post Office and the fee collected the next day. One year the water route included diaper service and every year as many as 100 packages were delivered daily. Pine Island Boys Camp and Joyce and Hoyt's Islands tourist camps made use of the mail service, although Hoyt's also sent its own boat to the post office.
In a 1951 article by local historian Pauline Plourde, she outlined changes of the past 50 years that would surprise Captain Bert Curtis. They included the elegance of some of the summer cottages, the less conservative costumes on the tourists, boy and girl campers and swimmers, the flags that had been erected by the Belgrade Lakes Association to mark the previously unmarked reefs, and the electric lights strung across the narrow, rocky stream — it was not yet dredged — that flows from Great Pond to Long Pond.
Changes in cottages, markers, and costumes after 100 years would surprise the captain far more, but the friendliness of the dogs, children, and lake-users he would find unchanged. Now, that's worth the occasional platter of freshly baked brownies.