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  • Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine

Neither Rain nor Snow nor Sleet - The Downtown Post Office in Depression Era Napa


Downtown Napa, California United States Post Office, 1933-2014.
For decades since, our post office centered the town, a place to run into friends and make friends of strangers. It cracked from the devastating earthquake in 2014, and efforts to demolish it were unsuccessful. Let’s cherish what we had: Downtown Napa Post Office, 1933-2014.

By Stephanie Grohs and Lauren Coodley


In the Thirties, life expectancy in America was 58 for men and 62 for women. The average worker earned $1,368 per year, while 25% of them had no jobs at all. Milk cost l4 cents a quart and bread, 9 cents a loaf. 


Rita Bordwell’s father had helped organize the original volunteer fire department here in the late l800s. She later wrote a history of Napa’s firemen. For the Register, she described the plight of jobless workers in Napa:


John Steinbeck, when he wrote Grapes of Wrath, must have met some who came to Napa in broken down machines wired together, and in trucks with undernourished and sick little children. Mr. Bobst [first business agent, Napa Central Labor Council] went to the Red Cross and begged funds and his wife Flossie made baby layettes for them. I will admit the local boys did try to keep their workers busy, Sawyer Tannery, the prune plants and fruit sheds…but the waiting room in the Labor Temple was filled with unemployed men and women.


Mrs. Otterson [the longtime Fire Chief’s wife] had a kettle of beans and stew on the stove all the time to help feed those unfortunates. Union men’s wives donated blankets and Mr. Bobst put cots in his rumpus room; other families camped in tents on jobsites. Work was so scarce and we had so many unemployed workers that we had to divide the work, giving each two days and Mr. Bobst would say, “Well that will give them bread.”


Just outside of the city, the local Unemployment Relief Committee established four camps where men cut trees and sold firewood. After his inauguration in l933, FDR founded the Works Progress Administration, employing 8.5 million jobless Americans on public works of all kinds, including 650,000 miles of roadwork and tens of thousands of artworks for public places, including post offices. The government constructed about 1100 post offices during the Depression, including in Napa and St. Helena. 


The Napa Register reported in October l93l that: 


The federal government today purchased from the Misses Esterby the fine big lot on Randolph second and Franklin Street that is to be the site of Napa‘s handsome post office building. A check in the sum of $20,000 was duly paid over to the owners of the property, and the government received back a deed for the property.


The house was built in l856, about when the town was founded. The site of the Esterby home was two feet below sidewalk level; after heavy rains, the family had to place plank walkways. Rows of trees, known as Osage orange trees bearing a greenish fruit resembling somewhat larger than a Valencia orange, grew along the Second Street frontage.


The Napa Daily Journal reported in May 1933 that: 


The cornerstone of Napa’s new $100,000 post office was laid yesterday afternoon with appropriate ceremonies by officers of the Masonic grand lodge in charge of the event, with Grand Master Frank W. Mixter officiating.


The St. Helena Star added: 


A large group of St. Helena Masons attended the laying of the cornerstone of the new Napa post office Saturday afternoon, with the Grand Lodge of Masons performing the ceremony. The Masons marched, drummed, and sang from Main and Pearl Street. The grandmaster of the Masons sealed a time capsule with the city directory and newspapers in a metal box in the stone.


The Sacramento Bee announced in August that:


The new $100,000 Napa post office will be ready for occupancy about November 1st.  This has been announced by Postmaster James Gillies. [$100,000 in 1933 is about 2.4 million in 2024 dollars] 


The Napa Register noted that: 


Fred Pond, CWA director in Napa County, tomorrow will occupy room 13 in the new Napa Post Office building, where his headquarters are to be established. 


CWA, Civil Works Administration, operated from about November 1933 to April 1934, employing about 4 million jobless workers. From Room l3, CWA initiated l7 projects, offering much needed work to 399 Napans.


The year ended with the Register reporting thatNapa Post Office Handling Holiday Rush in Fine Style:


The Christmas rush was in full swing today at the Napa Post Office. With 13 extra carriers and clerks hired for the peak period, the volume of mail and parcel post is being handled efficiently and without confusion, Postmaster James Gillies said. The public is getting quick attention in package mailings at the post office, and the waiting lines which formed at the old post office will not be present this year. This situation has been remedied by having clerks on duty at three windows, and a weighing clerk who also sells stamps in the corridor. Postmaster Gillies has installed a new permanent mailbox on the sidewalk in front of the post office for the special accommodation of motorists. The box can be tilted and mail can be deposited in it without necessity of having to step out of the automobile.

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