story by Derek Doeffinger
photos by Derek Doeffinger and Gary Whelpley
“Nothing can really compare to being paid to be on a boat on one of the nicest lakes in the world,” says crewman John Parsons, then adds, “Delivering mail by boat is a really cool thing.” Just about everybody involved agrees: kids who get to steer it; dockside dogs who get treats added to their owners’ mail, and young campers who tear open delivered cookie packages. Now it’s not zipline cool, but it is Americana cool.
You don’t have to work John’s job to enjoy the experience yourself. The Barbara S. Wiles, a sleek wooden beauty, simultaneously delivers the mail and offers a narrated tour of the lake, with box lunch available. Named after the late mother of several of its current owners, the Barbara sails with the fleet of Mid-Lakes Navigation tour boats (some available for rental). She’s 48 feet long, 12 feet wide and weighs about 9 tons.
The Barbara was built in 1937; the Wiles family acquired it in 1981. Made of cypress with a mahogany interior, she’s powered by two new Yanmar diesel engines. “She is inspected every year by the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and is currently licensed to carry up to 36 passengers,” notes Sarah Wiles, one of her owners. Sarah fondly recalls that until they modified their first mail/tour boat, the Pat II, “We had to hire short high-school girls to serve food under the low ceiling.”
In 2018, her family will celebrate its 50th anniversary as the Skaneateles lake-mail carrier. “One of the best parts of having the mail contract is that it keeps us – as a business and as a family – in touch with our community.” It’s one of only a handful or two of mailboats still making dock-to-dock delivery in the United States, and a source of pride for Sarah’s family.
The voice of Harriet Higgins fades just a tad as she recalls her favorite childhood adventure on the lake. “I water-skied behind the Pat II,” she proudly exclaims. A successful and sophisticated international businesswoman, she seems puzzled that I would ask her why she uses the mailboat service, which costs about a buck a day. “We’ve been using it for generations,” she replies. Like the change of seasons, the mailboat is in the DNA of many lake residents.
Delivery on the water is a bit of a balancing act. As the boat approaches a dockside mailbox, the postal crew-member, who also has other duties, clutches the day’s mail while crouching on the prow. The position changes to kneeling as the boat nears the dock. The crew member gradually edges forward to the boat’s very tip. Then, bracing himself with his left hand, the crew member stretches out his right hand to slip the delivery into the mailbox – or hand it off to the waiting recipient.
Contributing to the entertainment are the occasional antics of the mail recipients. Like Pavlov’s dogs, they and their visitors, neighbors and pets come running when the blast of the boat horn signals its approach. Each stop includes treats for the pups and Tootsie Rolls for the kids.
The best treat for one recipient, Ken Hearst, is his relationship with the crew. “We plan our days around the 11 o’clock delivery,” he says. “It’s the highlight of our morning. We have great camaraderie with the crew, since we see them every day and swap 30-second stories.”
When Ken married Barbara Littlehale a “few” years ago, he married into the family cottage and the mailboat tradition – a boat has brought mail to the Littlehale cottage since 1976. Until his father-in-law built the mailbox, they used to stand at the end of the dock with a fishnet.
The Lourdes summer camp for kids on the southeast end of the lake celebrates the arrival of the mailboat with a theatrical performance. When the boat horn sounds its arrival, the kids flock to the dock. The boat carefully weaves its way between kayakers and slide-equipped swim rafts crowded with waving and leaping kids. The blast of youthful energy is palpable.
Then a group of counselors line up on the dock. When the boat gets into the performers’ predetermined range, they launch into a Rockette-like leg-swinging performance known as the Mailboat Dance. But when the bags and relief packages from home are hefted out of the boat, the dancers quickly disband to haul them to shore for distribution.
In between stops, the captain points out landmarks, and regales passengers with stories about the local history and anecdotes about past residents.
Visit midlakesnav.com for more information.