In this era of e-mails, instant-messaging and tweets, it can be difficult to remember the importance of the local post office in earlier times. In many rural communities, the post office was the epicenter of town life — a mixture of civic center, news source, message center and marketplace. This was certainly true during my time in Anderson Valley from the late 1950s to the late 1980s when the Philo Post Office served all those purposes.
During my years in Anderson Valley, the Philo Post Office was located on the southwest side of Highway 128, directly across the road from the current Phillips Hill Winery tasting room. While the southernmost portion of the building was always the post office, the adjacent space was a barbershop in the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, by the time we left the valley in the late 1980s, the barbershop was long gone. Sometime in the 1990s or very early 2000s, during a period when I was no longer visiting the valley, a new Philo Post Office was built across the road next to Libby’s Restaurant and the old post office was abandoned. Just within the last several months, the building was renovated to be the Baxter Winery tasting room, which had yet to open in early February.
The old Philo Post Office was nothing like today’s bright, modern tasting room or even today’s bright, modern post office. Brown, weathered wood gave the building a warm, lived-in look, while overarching oaks kept it cool all year. The service window was to the right of the front door and faced a picture window that looked out over the parking area and Highway 128 just beyond. The public area was “L” shaped, with post boxes along two walls as well as next to the service window. The inner office, which is to say the entire rest of the building behind the counter, looked utilitarian and well used.
Everyone in Philo had post boxes in those days. Because my parents’ summer camp, El Rancho Navarro, received sizable mail deliveries during the summer, we had one of Philo’s four large post boxes, which — back then — were lettered rather than numbered. Our post box was Box O, which caused mild consternation among my parents’ customers. “Box O,” they would confirm. “How small is Philo?”
In truth, not having the post box on a letter never seemed to hinder delivery in Philo. We received plenty of letters simply addressed to “El Rancho Navarro” or to one of us in Philo, California. On one occasion, my father received a letter simply addressed “Dear Old Irv, Philo.” No last name, no state, no zip code; it arrived just fine.
When we came to Anderson Valley in the late 1950s, the Philo postmaster was Marshall Wynn, who lived on Ray’s Road. In the early 1960s, he retired and Thelma Pinoli — who lived just up Highway 128 and whose daughter Linda was in my class at Anderson Valley Unified — became postmistress. My memories of Marshall Wynn are limited, but I recall he wasn’t terribly social. Thelma Pinoli, by contrast, was outgoing and gracious and — with Dot Becker, who was the clerk during her time as postmistress — established a tradition of friendly service that continues in the Philo Post Office today. My father, who collected sheets of stamps, almost certainly had both put aside a couple of sheets from each new commemorative issue so he could add them to his collection.
El Rancho Navarro was a big customer at the Philo Post Office. Campers were required to send a postcard home every week, just so their parents knew they were okay. We also sent material to campers’ families during the year, including a newsletter and an invitation to the annual camp reunion. Other local businesses also must have been big customers, as I was told the Philo Post Office sold many more stamps than the Boonville Post Office in the 1960s.
A visit to the post office wasn’t just about mail back then. One spent time at the post office; a casual conversation with the person manning the counter, maybe a chat with other customers and a quick look at notices on the bulletin board. It was an opportunity to see neighbors, catch up on local news and sometimes even do a bit of business. The latter wasn’t an everyday affair, but it did happen. My brother sold a polled Hereford bull calf during a casual conversation in the parking area out front.
The mail truck dropped off incoming mail as it headed north to Fort Bragg in the morning and picked up outgoing mail on the return trip in the afternoon. For most, it was the ideal situation; we had the day’s mail in the box by noon, but had a few hours more to get our mail out.
It also resulted in my best post office story. In 1976, I took a job in Fort Bragg. I had a little apartment on North McPherson Street, but no telephone. One day I answered a knock on the door to find the postal carrier. “Call your mother,” he said. Startled, I responded, “Excuse me?” “I don’t know what this is about,” he said, “But my postmaster told me to tell the person at this address to call his mother.” So I called her. It turned out she needed to discuss something important with me. Since I didn’t have a phone, she told the postal clerk or postmaster (I don’t know which) in Philo, who told the mail truck driver, who told the Fort Bragg postmaster, who told the letter carrier, who told me. Now that is service!