The slightly yellowed paper is about the size of a diploma. Folded into eighths, Post Office Department is authoritatively spelled out in Old English font. Swirling cursive proclaims the appointment of Joseph Bobinger to Postmaster on the 18th day of March, 1878 by the Postmaster General of the United States, David M. Key.
“Now know ye, That confiding in the integrity, ability, and punctuality of the said Joseph Bobinger, I do commission him a Postmaster, authorized to execute the duties of that Office at Cabin John…” The lower left corner bears the raised red seal of the Post Office Department, used between 1837 and 1970: a galloping horse and rider, mail bag strung to the saddle, encircled by the words ‘Post Office Department United States of America.’ The lower right bears a small signature ‘D.M. Key.’
America’s postal service was created in 1775 when Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first Postmaster General by the Continental Congress. By 1885 postage cost about 2 cents per ounce, and there were nearly 43,000 post offices in the United States, including one right in Cabin John. With the assistance of local historian Richard Cook, the Cabin John Citizens Association acquired the Bobinger postmaster certificate for $177.50 at a Feb. 1 eBay auction. The seller, a dealer in old paper items, stumbled across this document some years back at a local flea market.
Joseph Bobinger and his wife Rosa are better known as builders of the legendary Cabin John Bridge Hotel, which began as a modest guest house and refreshment stand along Conduit Road (now MacArthur Blvd.). He migrated to the U.S. from Germany, and came to this area to work as a stonemason on the Union Arch Bridge. With his artistic temperament and business acumen, Bobinger was a prominent local figure. In the mid 19th century, candidates for Postmaster were proposed by the community or previous employer. The Postmaster was often a sideline to a primary job such as shopkeeper, or in Bobinger’s case, hotelier.
In 1890 nearly 41 million people, 65% of the American population, lived in rural areas and had to collect their mail from a post office. According to records, Bobinger was the Postmaster at the hotel for a mere five months. As the hotel’s popularity as a summer resort rose, the post office was moved closer towards the canal, and Michael McQuade took over the mail. By 1891 Andrew J. Jackson assumed the role of Postmaster, and the post office was relocated back to MacArthur Blvd. near its current location. That building burned down in 1893.
Beginning in 1894, another prominent name in the Cabin John story was named Postmaster. A 1917 Evening Star newspaper article wrote, “A pretty cottage with a wealth of flowers and big gardens. That is the home of the postmaster, though the post office building and general store are a few yards farther on and set somewhat back from the Conduit Road, so that a semicircular drive, beaten by the hoofs of many horses and ground by the wheels of many country wagons and carriages, leads up to the store porch.”
That general store was Dennis Touhey’s, “a place where people could let off their political opinions. People would just go after their mail, and they would meet here casually, like around the cracker barrel in the good old days,” said local resident Charles Smith in 1913. Touhey served as Postmaster for thirty years during boom times for the mail. In 1900, the Post Office Department operated over 76,000 branches, the largest number in its history, though that number had fallen to 59,000 by 1910.
During the late 1800s demands for goods by mail grew. In 1912 Congress authorized the Parcel Post service, which allowed the posting of goods up to 11 pounds. (An Ohio couple actually mailed their 8 month old baby to his grandmother a few miles away for 15 cents!) Marketing and merchandising through Parcel Post boosted the growth of mail-order houses, and that same year Sears saw a five fold increase in orders. At one time at least 20 different models of Sears mail order homes were represented in Cabin John, though many have since been demolished.
From 1925 to 1936 Charles Scott and his wife ran the post office within their small shop at 77th Street and MacArthur Blvd. Mrs. Irene Carper took over as Postmaster and shopkeeper in 1936. Dennis Touhey’s granddaughter Ruth Shuff briefly served as acting Postmaster when Mrs. Laura McKelvey took over in 1944 (initially under her maiden name Linkins). Mrs. McKelvey built a small frame addition to her home on 77th Street, and as noted in a 1976 Village News article she “originated the graceful custom of wrapping stamps in waxed paper.” Mrs. McKelvey retired after 27 years, and the newsletter honored her long service with a poem:
Our Little Post Office
Have you been by
The house on the hill
Where the colors fly proudly
At the wind’s will?
In a small room
Three ladies about
From morning to noon
And evening thereabout
Our mail handling,
With care and proficiency,
‘Tis time we are saluting
Our ladies, gratefully.
Thank you Mrs. McKelvey, Mrs. Shuler, Mrs. Clark
Organizational challenges in the 1960s led to the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act, and the transformation into today’s United States Postal Service. Mrs. Shuler, having helped Mrs. McKelvey for 14 years, took over as Postmaster in 1972 and helped move Cabin John’s post office to the north end of the Clara Barton School. The post office moved to its present location in the 1980s and LaVerne G. Baptiste assumed the postmaster role in 1989. The current postmaster, Jonathan Black, started in 2007.
Panels depicting Cabin John’s history hang from the walls of the post office today thanks to the efforts of several residents back in 1998. The postal service continues to play a fundamental role not only in American life but in the community. The Cabin John Post Office even delivers and picks up the mail at 91-year-old Mary Morgal’s front door so that she does not have to climb down the stairs to her mailbox. A little bit of the “cracker barrel in the good old days” in that.
By Rachel Donnan
[See photos by accessing the article in the Village News Archive: 2020 May Newsletter]