By Annlia Hill
The US Postal Service traces its roots to 1775 when Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first Postmaster General. Local postmasters were commonly appointed to reward political supporters; newspaper editors and local politicians were often named. In small towns such as Laguna Beach, the job often fell to a local storekeeper and the post office was located in his store.
In 1891, the first post office in Laguna, under the name “Lagona Beach,” was located in the Brooks House, a hotel with a store, barbershop and post office. The postmaster was William H. Brooks. William and his brother Nathaniel, the “fathers of Laguna Beach,” settled in Laguna in 1876. William homesteaded 169 acres at Arch Beach (now Diamond Street). During the 1880s real estate boom, Arch Beach was a separate community. It was granted a post office with Postmaster Oliver Brooks in 1889, two years before Laguna. The wooden Brooks House, on the site of the colonnaded building just south of Main Beach at Greeter’s Corner, burned down in 1893, and Laguna’s mail was transferred to the Arch Beach post office.
The US Post Office Department controlled the names of individual post offices and, for a time, insisted on one-word names. In 1894, the Arch Beach post office closed, and the “Lagona” post office was reborn under Postmaster Washington M. Boring. Boring had settled in Orange in 1882 and was running the store in the Brooks House when it burned. Following the fire, he moved with the store to the Hotel Laguna building and later ran the post office there. In 1901, he became “custodian” of the new Orange County Park (today’s Irvine Regional Park).
Joseph Yoch, the next postmaster, served as a Santa Ana City Councilman and an Orange County Supervisor. By 1889, he had a cottage in Laguna Beach, and in 1895, he bought the Hotel Laguna, which included the post office and store. “Mr. Yoch is postmaster but the business of both store and post office is mainly attended to by his courteous and obliging deputy, Mr. Nicholas Isch.” (Santa Ana Blade, July 8, 1898).
“Nick” Isch, Joseph Yoch’s brother-in-law, was appointed postmaster in 1903. Joe Thurston recalled: “As it was an event when the mail came in, most of the people would come around at about that time of day and all those who would wait for the distribution of the mail would sit on the railing in front of the store and cut niches in it while swapping stories with each other.” (South Coast News, Nov. 22, 1935) The grocery store/post office was on Laguna Avenue and was immortalized by Laguna Impressionist Joseph Kleitsch in his painting “Old Post Office,” held by the Laguna Art Museum (see his work now through Sept. 24 at the Museum). The old store building was torn down in 1923.
Blanche B. Brown was postmaster in 1920, but she died after serving less than three months. In 1892, women comprised less than 10% of postmasters, today more than 55%. However, we know little of Postmistress Brown. She listed her occupation as stenographer on her voter registration and was the first custodian-curator in the Laguna Art Association’s small gallery nestled in a eucalyptus grove beside the Hotel Laguna. After she died, Nick Isch went back to handling the mail temporarily.
During the tenure of Brayton Norton as postmaster (1921-1934), the Laguna Beach Post Office was raised to second class after yearly receipts topped $8,000 (a first-class post office needed $40,000 in yearly receipts). The post office box rentals also grew from 27 in 1921 to 515 in 1926. “The jump from third to second class will give Laguna Beach better service. Employees will be recruited from the civil service, and there will be enough help so that the window will remain open all day. At the present time, the window is closed during the hours for distributing the mails.” (Santa Ana Register, Jan. 7, 1927). Norton had previously served as assistant postmaster under Nick Isch and was a newspaper correspondent and writer of short stories and the novel “El Diablo” (1921). Later, Norton went into real estate and served for many years as general manager of the Laguna Beach County Water District.
Things changed with the next postmaster. If you’ve got mail, the postman would deliver it.
Annlia is a 50-year resident of Laguna Beach and married to a fourth-generation Lagunan. Having walked nearly every street and alley in town, she has observed firsthand the artistic charm and imagination of residents.