Transportation - The Stagecoaches and Mail

by Deborah Glassman, copyright 2004

Say “stagecoach” to most twenty-first century people and the image that comes immediately to mind is the Western “shoot em up” film. Then, because American history is so abbreviated, Americans tend to think that whatever transportation that was in existence a hundred and fifty years ago, is antique in nature, stretching back into the mists of time. The fact is that the closed passenger wagon drawn by multiple horses is an innovation of the late eighteenth century. It had a heyday of around eighty years. Its start was the development of good postal roads and of governments willing to pay for conveyance of the post. Its end was foreshadowed by the development of a road that could take thousands of pounds of load as well as the mails – the railway. But even after the railroads entered our part of the then Russian Empire in the 1870s, the stagecoaches held on. Conveyances that could go where the railroad lines did not, were of great value for several more decades. Slutsk for instance, was not on a railroad line, and passengers wanting to get there from Lyakhovichi had to do so by passenger coach or freight wagon.

The European stagecoach in this time period had a number of forms, the most popular was called a Diligence. Though in other parts of Europe the special needs of the trade led to the breeding of Diligence Horses from the heavy draft horses of the European Atlantic coast farmlands like those in Normandy and the Netherlands; and in the US, popular breeds were the Cleveland Bay and the German Coach horse; in this part of the Russian Empire, the primary horses were those which are today called the Byelorussian Harness Horse which were being crossed regularly with the Ardennes draft horse which were the most popular heavy hauling horse in Russia in the nineteenth century. The Dole from Scandinavia and the Russian Don also played significant roles throughout the area. The larger draft horses were popular everywhere in Europe for the coach trade, they needed to be able to pull loads at 7 to 10 miles per hour for several hours and then do it again the next day. In the US and in western Europe, four to six horses were switched off with others on a journey that might continue twelve to eighteen hours a day and the people would travel around 40 miles a day in the summer and half that in the winter. The coach, those which four horses pulled, would carry eight to twelve passengers, plus baggage, mail, and the driver. Sometimes the driver’s seat was counted among the accommodations and then the coach would carry fourteen. Coaches pulled by smaller teams, carried around six people inside. Competition encouraged lines to offer the latest improvements like strap brace that would suspend the coach and make for a ride less subject to jolting. The fare was by the distance traveled.

The road is so narrow and poor that the other two vehicles have pulled off the road to let the stagecoach pass (high-resolution version)

The small-scale-carrier coachmen of Eastern Europe approached the matter in a different fashion. Keeping four to six horse teams in Europe required either the resources of a government which could leave the teams in authorized way stations while replacements were substituted, or a confidence in law enforcement little in evidence in the region. Small carriers chose the larger horses of Western Europe but tended to operate with only a pair. The more level terrain of the region aided them - steeper inclines necessitated more animals to pull heavy loads. They also scheduled routes that would allow them to travel for around six hours and then after a break continue for another few hours. That would be followed by a stop for the night and they would start again with the same horses the next day. It would be an unusual small businessman in Eastern Europe who would have left a healthy horse in the care of a non-relative. The American horse was a little smaller because it was being asked to share work among four horses but a big horse that could do the job as one of two, could reduce the costs of acquisition and maintenance. You could create a business opportunity with fairly low entry barriers, so it was a field that Jews entered in large numbers.

Jews competed as drivers in this field on an equal footing. Aside from the evidence of many anecdotes about Jewish coachmen, (as well as wagoneers, draymen, and carters) is the linguistic heritage. Yiddish includes – partchik, bala gola, ferdman, furer, furman, schofer as some of the terms reserved to coachmen and cab drivers. These are not including those job titles that, while dealing with wheeled transportation, do not suggest passenger travel. In some communities Jewish coachmen formed trade associations with other drivers. In some they had sufficient numbers to have their own schul. When much, much, later, the government of Poland in the 1920s wanted to enforce segregation, they authorized separate seating in schools and separate loading areas for Jewish cabbies in the same legislation. But the common experience of the nineteenth century was not to be abusive or cavalier of the feelings of Jewish drivers. All Jewish teamsters were considered a group essential to the self-defense of Jewish communities- they were accustomed to travelling armed and ready to defend themselves and their freight or passengers from highwaymen or bandits. Many towns have reports of disturbances between Jewish and non-Jewish drivers at inns and supply stations, and both sides appear to have been ready to do physical damage to the other. It is probably a part of the reason that so many of the Belarus (though then Polish) town fire brigades included Jewish teamsters and cab drivers – they were used to working with the horses, racing to a scene, and were seen as tough enough for the job. The network of inns, supply stations, and post offices, also required the skills of blacksmiths, farriers, harness makers, wheelwrights, and other artisans. Because for so long, the Polish nobles, and the subsequent Russian government, profited from keeping their workers on farms uneducated in trade and craft, it was frequently Jews who sought these skills. So just as the inns themselves were largely operated (on lease) by Jews, the skilled crafts related to keeping the nineteenth century passenger coach industry “on the road” were largely performed by Jews. Jews who wanted to use any of these skills as their passage out of the Russian Pale, found that they now had skills that could get them employed among the household servants of a Jewish First Guild merchant entitled to live outside the Pale. Jewish merchants were not allowed by law to hire Christians, so if he wanted transportation he needed a Jewish driver. Some of the first Jews into St Petersburg, Moscow, Riga, or Warsaw, got there as drivers employed in the households of other Jews. Hoteliers and big-city carriage houses then had a trained group of drivers to draw from and largely employed Jewish drivers for their guests who were transported in karetas (translated as hackney in an end of the nineteenth century publication) - described as small closed vehicles pulled by two horses able to carry 2 - 4 people. Leather interiors and rubber tires were part of the amenities. A single trotting horse would pull the lichachi, a closed carriage for two and the isovtchiks, which were also two seaters but with open sides. Karetas were contracted in advance and lichachi and isovtchiks were usually flagged on the street. Coachmen were also used to dealing with the strange little barriers that surrounded the Pale. The Pale of Settlement was a huge area but many of the Empire’s major cities were off limits to Jews. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 1932, tells of an incident in Polock, Vitebsk in the time of the Czars. A military academy in that town in the Pale graduated its students and wanted to take them to St Petersburg. Transportation by coach was the accepted means of travel but all of the local coachmen were Jews and Russia’s capital was one of a number of cities off limits to Jews. The functionaries of the Academy had to apply for permission for the transport and received a compromise ruling for part of the distance of travel. In other cases, the records of the different governors’ offices also show them giving short passes to Jewish drivers on essential business. Later this was formalized and Jewish coachmen and freight haulers were allowed to leave the Pale with freight or passengers for two weeks. Looking at the legislation, special permitting, and other documentation, it becomes clear that a critical infrastructure component – transport of people and freight – had been left largely in the hands of a group that was not considered desirable by the Russian government. The only significant item of transportation that they managed to wrest from this group was the mails. And the Jews played a small but significant role in that traffic as well.

The Roads

Eighteenth and nineteenth century roads could be classed as: postal roads, military roads; commercial roads; and local roads. Lyakhovichi is noted in Slownik Geografczny’s 1880 article on Nowogrodek powiat’s military roads - Well-kept military roads are maintained from Nowogrodek through the town of Horodyszcze to Stolowicz; from there to Molczad and Polonki; from Nowy-Mysz to Polonki, Nieswisz, Kleck and Lachowicz. There were three postal roads in the province that year too: from Nowogrodek to Minsk, from Nowogrodek to Lida, and from Nowogrodek to Nieswiesz and Sluck. Lyakhovichi was on the third road. Stagecoach and wagons were the main passenger and freight transport in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Students going to the yeshivot in Slutsk in the 1890s taking trains or traveling on river transport, transhipped to stagecoaches in Lyakhovichi because Slutsk was not on a train line.

Naka the Coachman

Here is a first-person story of a Lyakhovichi stagecoach. It is from the chapter in the Slutsk Yizkor book titled, My Youth in Slutsk, by Yakov Patt. It can be found in more detail at Slutsk Yizkor Book.

The city of Slutsk stands before my eyes exactly as I saw it in my young years when I studied in the Slutsk Musar Yeshiva, where the great Gaon Reb Jakov-David was the yeshiva dean. Reb Jakov David Slutsker, who founded a Musar – Yeshiva in Slutsk depended on how much I remembered from the yeshiva dean from the Slobodker Musar – Yeshiva. He had to send students to the Slutsker Yeshiva in order to help them with it and to establish the yeshiva. Although I was only young then, I had already studied one year in the Slobodker Yeshiva and was even famous – it is really not nice to talk about it now – as the “Bialystoker genius.” Therefore when the request came from the Slutsker rabbi, the mashgiach Reb Note Hirsch, who was the big boss in the yeshiva, called me and he told me a secret. He was thinking of sending a group of his best students to the yeshiva, but he had also thought of sending with them a couple of young boys who he believed would help establish the yeshiva there. He wanted me to be one of them.His speech greatly inspired me, and I was the youngest of the Slobodker group to be sent to Slutsk.

A journey of a day and a night took us as far as Baranovici. We sat there on the train to Lyakhovichi where we arrived early in the morning. It was late autumn. The fields were sunk in mud. A large stagecoach pulled by two horses, not heroes, took us from Lyakhovichi to Slutsk. The journey lasted about ten to twelve hours, if not more – a long trip. The passengers who filled the stagecoach were for the most part Jews. It was a cold night so people were wrapped in fur coats with lambskin hats on their heads. In our area these hats were called “kutshmes.” The highway was narrow and wound between fields and forests throughout the entire gloomy road. We also went through villages. The dress of the peasants was White Russian – colorful scarves on the wives’ heads and the men wore large coats of coarse cloth. All of them went around in bast shoes, tied around and laced up the foot. I see the road and the stagecoach before my eyes. Jewish merchants, storekeepers, are traveling. They talk about leather and about oats and among them, a young boy traveling to study Torah in far away Slutsk. I was at the time around Bar-Mitzvah age. From traveling and shaking so long one becomes bored. One wants some fresh air. The driver knew this. From time to time he stops the horses. They will drink and also must be given oats. Meanwhile he let his passengers out on the highway to freshen up a little, to breathe. Everyone takes a rest and then, back on the stagecoach and we travel further until we have, thank G-d, arrived in Slutsk.

Mr. Vitaly Charny, currently of Birmingham, Alabama and originally of Minsk, Belarus, suggests that we add both fura and furmanka to our terms for coaches, and to place furman in the list of driver terms. Suggestively for another article, he offers berlina for a river barge. These are, he points out, old terms not currently in use.

Streets and Places in Lyakhovichi
Named in Directories and Reminisces

Market Place at the east end of town is a large paved street with masonry buildings on both sides, cobble-stoned streets, and a field “big enough for a soccer field” originally for the fairs allowed from the 1400s. The buildings are often two-storied with separate businesses on both floors or a business and an apartment.

Riyadn Street: Is this Rejtan Street, named for the noble family? In the 1800s this street was filled with open air meat shops and wooden stalls operated by those who sold produce and baked goods. They were replaced sometime before WWI with stone buildings, though the same purveyors remained.

The Grainaries Bakeries, feed stores, and farmer-supply enterprises filled this area. The man described as the “wealthiest in town” in Avrom Lev’s reminisce, had a farmer’s supply store. He sold kerosene, axle-grease, tobacco, and other sundries, to those running farms in the area. This kind of business made him wealthier than other men who were described as merchants with enterprises from Lemberg to Kiev.

Between the Shops Two rows of businesses whose nature ran from a leather business that the Ditkowskys ran for over forty years to a “colonial store” which was an upscale drygoods store whose patronage included Countess Rejtan. The row’s diversity continued with small iron workers, schools for young children, tailor shops, glass shops and haberdashery.

On the Other Side/“Yener Zait Mark” The far side of the open field next to the Market Place. There were a few businesses, the abandoned fire brigade station, and one of the town’s pumps.

The Rampart is a street of residences of the wealthy and established. Each house is surrounded by gardens, orchards, and might include a small pond. This is the beautiful area in which the generous Rabbi Edel the Compassionate, decided to put a hospice for sick and care-needy Jews in the 1880s.

Unnamed Alley connects “The Rampart” and Sanitarian Street, two wealthy residential areas.

Sanitarian Street: Not only the homes of wealthy Jewish householders are on this block in the 1910s, but the homes of established Polish Catholic merchants and professionals. Government offices are also on the block in that same period, including: the volost court, the zemski administration, the gendarmerie, the jail, and a private medical clinic. This street was the promenade route for young strollers who in an old European tradition, would walk and pretend not to be looking at the young people of the opposite sex. As Western European values started entering the area at the turn of the twentieth century, it was also where young Jewish people who were engaged but not yet married, would walk together in the evenings.

Death Road: Sanitarian Street leads to the road that takes you to the Old Jewish Cemetery and the New Jewish Cemetery. One established Jewish family resides here in the 1910 period, but most of the small houses on the road belong to impoverished Jews.

A small bridge, across from “the Wenger” at the end of Death Road. This bridge takes you to the Synagogue Courtyard.

Synagogue Courtyard: This courtyard contained two Hasidic synagogues - the Lechovicher and the Koidanover, 2 artisans synagogues, the Groyser Beis Midrash, and possibly the remains of the synagogue destroyed in the 1874 fire. It is not clear which synagogue was destroyed in 1874 as some sources say it was the Kalte Shul, the oldest Jewish synagogue, that Lord Rejtan had offered to rebuild. Not all synagogues in town were in this courtyard, the Stoliners met at a big building on Market Place. The one time presence of the Lubavichers was remembered for years, but it is not clear where their prayer house was located. The Yeshiva which had met in the Groyser Bais Midrash at one time, may have had its own building, but more research is needed.

Kletsk Street: At one time Kletsk Road led directly to Kletsk town on the same side of the river as Lyakhovichi. But the town of Kletsk. picked itself up and moved across the river, when rebuilding was needed some centuries earlier. The road’s name still was kept and the street was inhabited by Jewish community leaders, and wealthy merchants. It had long been a home for established merchants and leaders of the Polish (Roman Catholic) community and the majority of the street in this time period was still non-Jewish. The estate of the Rejtan family was one of the beautiful landmarks of this block.

Shortcut from back of Kletsk Street to Pinsk Street No name and not clear if the passage is more a habit than a pathway.

Pinsk Street: This street housed the wealthiest householders, as well as poor families with wife-run small businesses. The benefactor of three shuls and the owner of masonry buildings on Market Place, Abran Yankel Kaplan, lived on this street, as did others of his wealth and standing. But it also was the home of a small-scale dairy owner whose wife sold butter, and another man who made the poor living of a teacher of small children. Still when one man struck it rich and was nicknamed the “New Prince” ("der nayer naggid” ), he spent his money buying shops, creating a credit bank, and building two fine houses on Pinsk Street.

"Street that’s not a Street": This little negatively named alleyway still was big enough to house businesses and residences including stone houses and the offices of dentists, the homes of melameds, shochets, a barber, and a quack doctor.

Mislebozh Street: Mizlebozh Street and Tatarskaya were the strongholds of the Tatar community in Lyakhovichi, but there was a long history of the Jews and Tatars sharing those streets. Still, this was not a particularly Jewish section of town before World War I. The Jewish tradesmen who lived here were not grouped together, one family of Jewish weavers had a house so isolated at the end of Mislevozh Street, to be thought by some to not be in any town at all.

Tatars Street: In the unembarrassed way that old maps call places Jew Road, the street got its name from its long-time residents. Their mosque was here and their officials lived here. Their homes were well built but not showy, they were reputed to invest more in the infrastructure of ponds, ice-houses, butchering sheds, etc. than fancy houses. Their gardens and orchards were famous throughout the region and relationships between the Tatars and their Jewish neighbors were cordial. The lower end of Tatar Street, closer to the town, included a number of successful Jewish merchants in large attractive houses.

Additional street names including: Vengerskaya, Svyatoyantskaya, Sventsyanksaya, Ozhevichskaya, Klabidschenskaya, Kanalnaya, and Gozhevitskaya, appear in the property records. From the correlations of property owners it appears that “Sventsyanskaya” is the “street that ain’t no street” and Kladbischenskaya is the road that the Jews titled “Death Road” for its path to two Jewish cemeteries.

We know Lyakhovichi’s little river didn’t connect it to any river traffic with other cities - the Vedma, the “little Witch” was not sufficiently deep, but did we ferry across it, run logs down it, or use it to earn any livelihoods at all?

Lyakhovichi’s Vedma River

Jewish Letters from Lyakhovichi

Many letters left Lyakhovichi by cart and rail, destined to relatives in Eretz Israel, the United States, Cuba, and Argentina.

These letters to Israel were part of a large lot posted for sale on ebay in 2004 and the vendor, who regretfully told me that he could not scan the letters for research purposes, nevertheless allowed us to include this image on our research site.

Letter to Israel (high-resolution version)

Lyakhovichi to Baranovichi 1901

Postal money orders and postal banking in general was one of the prime methods for safely moving currency around the Russian Empire. This image was found posted on the site “Old Byelorussian Letters” of Lev Kolosov. Mr. Kolosov provides a great deal of important information on Belarus’ postal history on that site.

Money order 1901

“Lyakhovichi Winter 1941”

Despite its late date and the uncertain circumstances of our community in the year it was taken, the sleds moving people and goods around Lyakhovichi, are representative of a whole other dimension in the local transportation picture. Provided by Tomas Wisniewski and identified as “along the main street in Lachowicze”

The Mails

The Mails are closely tied to the geography and infrastructure of the region. Smooth roads put in to facilitate faster travel of messages from Polish and Grand Duchy chancelleries encouraged more than horseback movement along them. Closed coaches carrying mail and packages for government officials could also accommodate paying passengers. The carriages of the nobility were designed to carry one or two people who were not comfortable on horseback, but these closed public conveyances could carry sufficient people to quickly amortize the cost of the equipment.

Small businessmen identified the opportunities and found it attractive. But the effective movement of the mail was the primary concern of the Polish and Russian governments. Russia was no stranger to the advantages of postal roads and the carriage traffic they encouraged. Russian closed-carriage mail service predated most of the rest of Europe’s coverage and predated permission for Jews to live within its borders. The Russian Empire had introduced a government-operated mail service in the mid seventeenth century. It instituted international coverage (Russia to Riga and Poland) in 1668 and 1670. Its internal mail system successfully carried mail from Moscow all the way to Siberia by 1698. When Russia acquired Poland-Lithuania it acquired a territory on which postal roads had been recently built. The Polish Republic’s two capitals – Krakow and Vilna, with chanceries in each, meant a good deal of communication went back and forth. We do not yet know when the three Postal roads through Nowogrodek powiat were put in but they were there when the next-to last Governor had a series of maps published in the 1770s.

In 1783, Empress Catherine II established a standard postage rate for all of Russia and a single postal service. Postmarks from her administration still exist, showing the names of towns where posted. By the 1795 acquisition of our town by the Russian Empire, the postmark wording had been standardized in Russian and German replacing the Russian government’s earlier French postmarks. Hand stamping with marks from different cities begin appearing in this time.The first known postmark is supposed to date from the early 1800s but we are interested in any Lyakhovichi postmarked materials, please contact us if you have any whose image we can share.

When Alexander I was Czar, Russia had more than 450 post offices and more than 5,000 postal officials. It relied heavily on coaches and built a network of coach stations where it could change horses and keep the mail moving. Jewish innkeepers were frequently not allowed to bid on these projects and found themselves in competition in areas where they had paid a nobleman for the right to be the exclusive provider of traveller services. But their coexistence with the government waystations, suggests that either their reputations, their prices, or their facilities, remained desirable to travellers. Eventually it was the government facilities that morphed into more restricted-use centers – post offices, not inns. In 1800, Russia was developing its mail coach system at the same time that England and the US were developing theirs. In 1800, there were stagecoach lines between London and Edinburgh and between New York and Philadelphia, and in Russia, between Riga and St Petersburg. Extracted from “Stagecoaches and the Mail in Lyakhovichi” by Deborah Glassman, copyright 2005.

Old Lyakhovichi area Postcard

The Post Office in Lyakhovichi before WWI

Avrom Lev’s reminisce of Lyakhovichi before World War I, translated by Neville Lamdan, A Walk through my Devastated Shtetl, gives a very real face to the postmaster and post office in our town. Reb Shloime Potshtalion, so named for his position as postillion (postal delivery), lived in a very small unattractive house on Kletsk Street. It was his home and the local post office both, and according to Lev, an important part of the social scene for older unmarried teenagers. The house is described as “tumble-down” but even years later, the horse with its fine bridle and the coachman who drove it morning and evening to the railroad station to pick up the mails and bring them back to Reb Shloime’s station, was remembered as impressive. Or perhaps it was the man hired to be a “whipcracker” in front of this official of the Russian mails, or the armed guard who rode behind, that made it seem of such importance. Lev was young enough in the time period he wrote about, to be even more marked by the other activities of the Reb Shloime’s office. In the morning, businessmen came to collect their mail very quickly after the 9AM pick-up from the train station. Reb Shloime delegated the station driving to another, so he was at the post office to hand out the business mail. Then he spent the day delivering mail to all of the business and residential streets of the community. In the evening he napped until the driver picked up the evening mail at the train station and then Reb Shloime sat in his post office, delivering the mail to those who came for it. The evening mail delivery was a highlight of the day for the young people. With their parents’ tired from a day’s work, it was not hard to convince them to let the teens do this task. They would fill the small public room, front porch, and front yard of Reb Shloime’s post office, where by the light of the kerosene lamp, he would call out the names of the recipients. But according to Avrom Lev, the young people went regardless of whether they expected mail. They could chat; they could flirt, they could gossip, at length. He blesses Reb Shloime as the guileless, and unwitting matchmaker of the community for all the young couples brought together at those evening mail calls.