Editor's Note: The annual Benton Reunion held June 7, 2008, featured a tribute to the late Moses Walters (1899-1981). The presentation included recordings of songs sung by Moses and a video from CBS that had been broadcast by Walter Cronkite on the Evening News with Charles Kuralt interviewing Moses in 1969.
Moses, who carried the mail for more than 60 years in Magoffin County, Kentucky, was best known as the last contract mail carrier on horseback in the United States. Moses was the son of Molly Benton and Brad Walters and the grandson of John and Rebecca Lykins Benton. Mosey, as he was called by family and friends, was rich in intelligence and was very proficient in the areas of math, history, and music. He passed the teacher's examination and taught school for one year at a school located at Puncheon in Magoffin County.
Moses Walters' family shares the following article about his years of dedicated service.
Joyce Benton Joseph - 2008
Molly Benton was only 14 years old when she married Brad Walters, a man who was 13 years her senior. She was 16 when her first child, Alonzo, was born. Two years later, on September 10, 1899, Moses was born.
Isolated from the larger world, Moses was reared in his parents' humble home in the mountain region of rural Magoffin County, Kentucky.
We know little about Moses' early childhood, but we can surmise that he and his siblings did not have an easy life. Families at that time in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky generally worked hard and struggled just to put food on the table and provide basic necessities. Oral history tells us that Molly was a good and dedicated mother who worked extremely hard to care for her family. She would often rise long before dawn to begin chores while her husband remained in bed.
Family stories indicate that Brad was lacking as a husband and father, and that he was a poor provider for his family. Molly, on her deathbed, confessed that once when times were so very hard, she seriously considered killing her husband, even hiding an ax under their bed to be used that evening. An unexpected visit and overnight stay by her uncle, Paris Benton, interrupted her plan. Moses never knew this.
Moses Walters stood in front of the Stella Post Office in Magoffin County, Kentucky, in the mid-1970s. In the background is his horse, Patsy. Wearing his mail bags, Moses traveled his delivery route up Cow Creek for 60 years becoming somewhat of a legend.
(Photo courtesy of the Salyersville Independent.)
The day following Moses' 12th birthday his dear mother died of tuberculosis. She was only 30 years old, and she left behind six children. Her suffering and dying would have an impact on Moses and his young siblings. To compound her suffering, less than two months before she died, Molly's young brother, Sewell Benton, was kicked by a mule and died at the age of 26.
Those who heard Moses sing in his later years recall that many of his songs had to do with religion and mothers, reflecting the love that he had for his own dear mother. He often cried when he talked or sang about her.
After Moses' mother died, his father moved away with another woman, abandoning his six children. All they had was an old mule. No one took them in. They cared for each other and reared themselves. Moses would tell of walking to their nearest neighbor and asking for milk. The neighbor woman, Mrs. Caldwell, would divide the milk she had for her children to share with the Walters children. Another neighbor recalled once when Mrs. Caldwell actually poured half of the milk from each of her children's glasses into a pan Moses had brought with him.
His father died seven years after his mother, when Moses was 19. We do not know if there were any contact between the father and any of the children after he had abandoned them.
Moses never married.
Most of the Walters children attended school, but some did not go regularly. Moses was the exception. He not only went to school every day he could, but when he came home from school each evening, instead of playing with his siblings, he did his homework and spent hours studying and reading.
We do know that Moses received a pretty fair education, and that something peaked his interest in learning and in music. Moses was extremely well read, and he continued his studying and learning well into his later years.
As a young man, he studied for and passed the teacher's examination, and then taught one year at a school located at Puncheon in Magoffin County.
People remember that Moses was the only man in the community of Cow Creek to read a newspaper every day.
These words, written in 500 B.C., are chiseled on a post office building in New York City: "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
Moses Walters, who delivered the U. S. Mail by mule and horseback up and down the roads of Magoffin County for approximately 60 years, put those words into practice. Not because he was instructed to do so, but because he knew his neighbors needed their mail and the other things he delivered. They depended on him.
In addition to the mail, Moses often carried various other items on his horse or mule. He carried many things that the neighbors shared with each other. For instance, when the Reeds' cow went dry, a neighbor on the creek sent milk each day to the Reed family, by Moses, as he delivered their mail. One lady sewed and patched clothing for the neighbors and these items were sent back and forth. When someone was ill, neighbors sent food; and when someone had an abundance of vegetables from the garden, they were shared with those in need. To help fulfill the needs of his community, Moses was always willing to carry and deliver many things, in addition to the heavy mail bags and mail order items, such as crosscut saws, tractor tires, and baby chickens.
Moses worked for the carrier who had a contract with the postal service. As payment for his work, Moses was provided room and board and was paid $5 a day.
Moses was the "alarm clock" on his route in the mornings for many of his neighbors. The children knew it was time to get ready for school when he rode by singing. Neighbors also recall that he always sang the same songs in the same order each and every morning.
One time a mail inspector came to examine the local post office, and his first impression was that Moses was not smart enough to carry the mail. After talking with Moses for just a short time and listening to his knowledge of math and history, however, the inspector agreed that he was outwitted by Moses, and he left.
How long Moses actually carried the mail on horseback is a bit unclear. We do know that he was delivering the mail as early as 1917, when he was 18 years old, and that he continued until 1977 when he was 78 years old.
Official postal department records confirm that Moses was the last contract carrier on horseback in the Eastern United States.
As a mail carrier, Moses became somewhat of a celebrity. First, Kentucky newspapers wrote about him. Then the Postal Service recognized him. Then Charles Kuralt interviewed him for CBS' On The Road, which was later broadcast by Walter Cronkite on the Evening News.
Moses, who had been out of Kentucky and his mountains only once in his life, became a local celebrity. Hundreds of letters came from across the nation to the local post offices telling Moses how much people liked seeing him on television. Some people even visited Magoffin County just to meet and speak with Moses.
Moses' popularity came from the fact that he delivered mail by horseback in the 1970s.
Most little girls today dream about being one of the many television stars. When Melanie Arnett was a little girl, her hero was Moses Walters.
When she was four years old, Melanie's family moved into the community where Moses delivered the mail. She was so intrigued by him that she begged her grandmother to make her some "mail bags," like those Moses used, so she could play "mailman." One day, while she was with her grandmother at a dry goods store in West Liberty, Melanie spotted a blue-checked fabric with a pattern exactly like the mail bags Moses carried. She had to have it. It was just like his. Her grandmother, again, sewed another mail bag, this time made from the blue gingham material.
Melanie watched Moses, almost memorizing his mannerisms, and tried to imitate them. She remembers that he would put all the bags around his neck, climb on his mule, then separate the bags; some to the right and some to the left of his body. Some would even be pushed up under his arms. She was so curious that she questioned him about every article of his clothing, even his boots.
To play, Melanie would fill her mail bags with junk mail, wrap her bags around her neck, placing them as she had so intently watched Moses do, and then pretend to deliver the mail up and down the road where she lived. It was her favorite game.
Melanie had mail bags like Moses, and she knew how to wear them like Moses, but one thing was lacking. She cried and pleaded for her dad to buy her a horse so she could ride like Moses. Finally, for her seventh birthday, her dad bought her a pony. She said she was so very happy. Now she could ride around on her pony with her mail bags around her neck and pretend to be Moses.
As Melanie grew older, she could not part with her blue gingham mail bag, so her grandmother made a quilt from the fabric.
Today, Melanie, a librarian in Magoffin County, shares her memories of Moses with her young daughter, Gracie.
Moses planted seeds-of-song that will never die. He often studied the book Music With Shaped Notes. He learned new songs by singing the notes. Being mostly a loner, most of the songs Moses sang were lonesome tunes and memories of his mother.
In addition to his singing ability, Moses also taught himself to play the fiddle, and he became quite good at playing and singing.
Few could compete with Moses on his knowledge of Math. He had thoroughly studied Ray's Book of Higher Math, and he would gladly tell how to solve any problem. Moses mastered the material in his Study Guide for the Teacher's Examination.
This simple country man, who delivered mail on horseback to his neighbors for over 60 years, was rich in intelligence and knowledge, but those attributes were often hidden from those around him.
After undergoing surgery in 1977, Moses returned to U. K. Hospital in Lexington for one of his follow-up visits. Because he often had to sit for lengthy periods, he became nervous. Edwin Benton, his first cousin, who had been taking him to the doctor, sensed his apprehension and began asking him how to find the cube root of numbers. Just as Moses began to explain how this was done, the surgeon walked in.
After listening for a moment, the doctor asked Moses to wait. In a few minutes, the surgeon returned with his co-workers who listened intently. They were amazed at Moses' mathematical skill. Just picture medical doctors and staff taking notes on their papers as Moses Walters, a 78-year-old retired mail carrier from Eastern Kentucky, taught them how to find the cube root of numbers.
For many people who knew Moses Walters, he was the man who delivered the mail while riding a horse or mule on the backroads of Magoffin County, but, to a few who were closely acquainted, he was a man of quick wit and much learning, a lot of which was self-taught.
In the subject of history, for example, Moses was very well read. He enjoyed studying such books as The Complete Works of Shakespeare, U. S. History, and How To Improve Your Latin. He kept books with him while he was riding his mule and carrying the mail. When he wasn't singing, he was reading and studying.
Moses would respond quickly to questions asked of him about history. Not only could he recall any historical event, but he was able to describe fully the dates and details surrounding an event.
By the time Moses retired from delivering mail on horseback, he was 77 years old, and the severity of enduring 60-plus cold winters and hot summers had taken its toll.
Moses Walters, the rural mail carrier, the musician, the mathematician, after spending 81 years living a simple life and humbly serving his fellow man (most of those years in a saddle) died January 26, 1981, in West Liberty, Kentucky.
During his lifetime, Moses saw 16 men become President of the United States. He read about the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk when he was 14 years old. The mail he delivered brought news of WWI and WWII, Korea, and Vietnam; the giddiness of the Twenties; the despair of the Great Depression; and the awe of a man walking on the moon. Moses Walters, who could sing notes and calculate cube roots in his head, experienced all of that from Cow Branch in Magoffin County.
Although "Mosey," as he was affectionately called by his friends and neighbors, left no descendants to bear his name, he left to each of us, his extended family, an opportunity to share his life-story with others.
Joyce Benton Joseph, 184 Birch Branch Road #1, Salyersville, KY 41465; 606/349-3910; [email protected], shares this article with our readers.