By Emily J. Minor
The original barefoot mailman probably didn’t have a microphone headset or bottled water or a blue shirt from Macy’s.
And he probably didn’t meet up at the Ritz-Carlton after his route, sitting with the folks who are celebrating Palm Beach County’s centennial at pretty tables set up to catch the perfect afternoon breeze.
But Michael Bornstein is Michael Bornstein — meaning he is a Florida history buff who is extremely ingenious, to put it nicely, and he knows how to make weird things work.
“So many people are from other places, they might not realize that Florida has a history beyond when air conditioning was used,” he says.
That’s why one recent Sunday, the clouds casting just enough cover, the locals sidling up to him like eager school kids, Bornstein walked a 2-mile stretch of beach in his barefoot mailman getup, yakking all the way. In years past, Bornstein — Lantana’s town manager — has walked the stretch from Lake Worth to Miami along the beach. That’s about one-half of the roundtrip route done by the barefoot mailmen of the late 1800s — give or take a few condominiums, a few more people, a few new roads.
Bornstein, born in Jacksonville, says he fell in love with this idea after moving to Palm Beach County in the late 1980s, helping to organize the renovation of the old county courthouse. He then realized that people here “don’t know anything about local history. They associate all their identity with their former place and Florida is kind of like Disneyland to them.”
So he went online and started searching for the perfect barefoot mailman outfit. It’s simple, really: navy blue knickers made from lightweight canvas, suspenders and … OK, the shirt’s from Macy’s.
About 30 people, many of them supporters of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, walked with Bornstein on April 26, starting at the Lake Worth Pier and ending at the Ritz-Carlton in Manalapan.
And because the barefoot mailman is a solitary sort — both then and now — Bornstein had to re-do his speech.
“I don’t usually walk and talk at the same time,” he said. “I’m usually left to my own thoughts.”
The barefoot mailman routes were established in 1885 to get mail from one distribution point to the next from the Lake Worth Lagoon to Miami. The 138-mile round trip took six days and the stories of what happened along the way are that of legend.
One mailman walked naked. Supposedly.
Another was eaten by an alligator. Or was it a crocodile? His body was never found.
Even Bornstein, 46, claims to have walked his “toenail off” on one of his present-day jaunts, brushing it repeatedly against the hard sand.
The walk went quickly on this sunny Sunday, this group of eager, stumbling followers happy to hear Bornstein’s tales. He showed them the proper walk - heel down first, leg extended straight out. With this form, he claims, the barefoot mailman could walk 3, 4, 5 miles per hour.
Folklore, or fact?
Vince Burkhardt has heard a mix of the two all his life. He is a Florida boy whose great-great-uncle Henry was one of the original barefoot mailmen.
The route was stopped in 1893 when a rock road was built to connect Lantana with Lemon City, in what is now Miami-Dade County.
Burkhardt, who actually walked the route for the first time with Bornstein, along with his sister, Cheryl, said the tales of their great-great-uncle Henry were everyday stuff when they were growing up.
“I guess the greatest one about Uncle Henry is he used to walk with his clothes off,” Burkhardt says, laughing.
And, of course, sisters being sisters, Cheryl must pipe up. “I’m not sure that’s true,” she says. But it is deliciously satisfying, this tale that’s been batted around their whole lives, so even Cheryl Burkhardt, a woman of sound mind and logic, cannot quite abandon the iffy details. It would be like walking away from her childhood.
“Who knows?” she muses, clinging just a bit.
“Let’s just say Uncle Henry wore very light clothing.
“That sounds better.”