I went in to buy a stamp and was offered a piece of birthday cake. Had I wandered into the wrong building? From the outside, it did look more like a summer cottage, red geraniums carefully planted in the window boxes. But no, the red, white, and blue flag and the big black letters across the top of the building announced that this was the Lummi Island Post Office. This was the place to buy a stamp, or mail a package, but I was to learn that this post office offered so much more.
``Oh, please have a piece of this delicious cake that Lois baked to celebrate the 103rd birthday of the Lummi Island Post Office.''
I can understand a 100th birthday celebration, but why the 103rd? Do these dear island ladies take turns baking a cake every year to say ``Happy Birthday, Post Office''? No. In fact, when year 100 rolled around, for some reason no one even remembered. Maybe the islanders were too busy that July, smoking salmon, picking wild blackberries, or planning the next benefit.
In 1985 someone did remember that the old PO was getting along in years. It was discovered that the centennial had come and gone without so much as a nod. Everyone agreed that a 103rd-year celebration would do just as well. That explains how, on a sunny afternoon in July 1985, I was introduced to the charms of the Lummi Island Post Office. As a refugee from a big city, I was to enjoy my daily bicycle ride to the post office. On this small island, where all we have is one general store, a tiny library (open three days a week), and one small restaurant, the post office often becomes the social center.
Here is where you meet your neighbors, gossip with friends, learn that a pod of killer whales has just been spotted off the west shore, or how the salmon catch is going. And if you are looking for a workshop to rent, you will certainly get several good leads from the postmaster himself.
Don't be surprised or impatient if you have to wait a few minutes to buy a stamp. The postmaster may be out back checking on the latest batch of salmon he is smoking in the shed behind the post office. One can tolerate this kind of waiting. It's not like waiting in the frustrating lines of a big-city post office.
There is usually a familiar friend to chat with while you wait. Or you can gaze out the window at the blue water and the tall pine trees that grow along the shore. If it is 10 minutes before the hour, you will see the ferry delivering the lastest group of residents and visitors to the island.
So you wait, enjoying the aroma of smoking salmon, and feel sorry for relatives back home in the city who know only the odor of floor wax and paper as they wait to buy their stamps.
If you are a child and live on Lummi Island, a visit to the post office will mean a cookie handed to you over the counter by the friendly postmaster, Jerry Anderson. He keeps a bag full, ready to hand out. I suspect he would sooner run out of 22-cent stamps than cookies.
In its friendliness, I imagine this post office hasn't changed much since it began on July 24, 1880. Some things do change, however. The present postmaster no longer collects the mail with his sailboat, as did Wade E. Beach, the first postmaster.
``Mr. Beach had a cabin near the waterfront, and went to Whatcom (later Bellingham) with his sailboat once a month, or more often, sailing weather permitting.'' This is how Nyleptha Ford, the wife of L. A. (Tubby) Ford, the well-loved postmaster who retired in 1967, described the early days. Her account of the history of the Lummi Island Post Office can be found in the Community Club Newsletter of November 1967.
One thing that has changed is the postmaster's salary. Nyleptha reports, ``In 1941, the monthly salary was $23.00 working an eight hour day, six days a week. After serving the probationary period to qualify for the title of `Honorable,' a notice came from the Post Office Department, First Assistant Postmaster General, Special Administrative-Aide, Washington, D. C., to the effect that the Annual Salary Rate of the Postmaster of a Fourth Class Post Office was fixed at $432.
``Prior to this notice, the salary of the Postmaster was based upon the value of stamps canceled by the Postmaster on the outgoing mail. Letters were 3 cents then! It took a hundred to make three bucks!''
No longer does the Postmaster have to supplement his income by driving a school bus for $45 a month.
Mr. Beach named the post office after himself. On June 1, 1946, the government changed the name to Lummi Island Post Office. It seems Beach Post Office was getting sacks of mail that were supposed to go to Richmond Beach, Rosario Beach, West Beach, Columbia Beach, Ollala Beach, Redondo Beach . . . all of this missent mail coming to Beach, Washington, because of fast but incorrect reading of mail pouch labels.
The Lummi Island newsletter sums it up: ``Anyway, most of us like the name Lummi Island. . . . We wouldn't live any other place, would we?'' And I agree, where else do you go to mail a letter and have the fun of taking part in a 103rd birthday celebration for a post office?