El Modena Post Office
(January 25, 1888 – July 22, 1961)
Here is another example of where a community was named for a post office, rather than the other way around. The community here had originally been known as Modena (after a town in Italy), but that name was refused by the Post Office Department, so the first post office in 1887 was named Earlham (after a Quaker college in Indiana). But after less than a year, someone hit on the idea of combining a Spanish “El” with the Italian “Modena” and El Modena was born.
It was not all smooth sailing, however. In 1910, some grammatical purist got the Post Office Department to change the Modena to Modeno, to match the masculine El, ignoring the fact that the name was a hybrid. “About twenty-five years ago it was Earlham. Then the name of this place was changed to Modena, but that was easily confused with Madera and Modesto so the ‘El’ was prefixed and it has been El Modena since then. But ‘Uncle Sam’ has been studying Spanish and determined to correct the mistake, according to the rules of grammar, and not allow a masculine article to limit a feminine ending noun. So the El Modena post office for some months has been El Modeno and will so continue. However, mail will continue to be passed out to the proper parties, even if the ending stroke of the name is an upward right curve instead of a horizontal right curve. This action does not affect the El Modena school district, or the name of anything else that has borne the name El Modena, excepting the post office. As it now bears a masculine name there need be no fears entertained of any further trouble.” (Santa Ana Register, 10-27-1910) It took sixty years to undo the damage, and by then, the El Modeno [sic] Post Office had been reduced to a branch of Orange.
In 1919, the Post Office Department announced plans to close the El Modena Post Office (there are some indications they may not have been able to find anyone willing to serve as postmaster). “When El Modena people learned that the post office at El Modena was to be discontinued they sent a petition to Washington, D.C., asking that they might keep their post office. Their request was granted nd the post office is to be installed in the El Modena Store with Mrs. Lee Barnett as post mistress.” (Santa Ana Register, 4-11-1919)
John H. Vestal, 1888-1889
John Vestal (1840-1915) was the brother of David Vestal, who was running the El Modena Store at the time. He later moved to Whittier.
Richard Pearson, 1889-1896
Richard Pearson also later lived in Whittier, where he served as City Treasurer in the 1910s.
Olive H. Mills, 1896-1899
Olive Mills’ husband, Milton H. Mills, bought the El Modena Store from David Vestal shortly before she became postmaster. She was related to the Crist family, prominent local pioneers. Like a number of El Modena Quakers, the Mills later lived in Whittier.
Ella Burrows, 1899-1902
By the time, the El Modena Post Office was simply seen as an extension of the El Modena Store. An advertisement in the Los Angeles Times (4-6-1901) offers for sale a “Country Store, doing $800 cash business per month; post office in store; storeroom, fixtures and 7 good living-rooms, rent $12.50 per month; sell at invoice; cash only.”
Lillie M. Douglas, 1902
Lillie Douglas served as postmaster for just seven months before resigning.
Mary K. Janeway, 1902-1904
Mary Janeway’s husband, Daniel, owned the El Modena store while his wife was postmaster. They then moved to Whittier where Mrs. Janeway died sometime before 1921.
Daniel W. Lentz, 1904-1909
Daniel Lentz was the next to run the El Modena Store. He sold out in 1908 and died in Orange in 1918.
Andrew G. Lentz, 1909-1911
Andrew Lentz was Daniel Lentz’s brother, who joined him in running the El Modena Store in 1909.
Josiah S. Tabcott, Jr., 1911
Grace Z. Lentz, 1911-1913
The Lentz family continued to own an interest in the El Modena Store until 1917 when they sold “The entire stock and fixtures of the El Modena Store … consisting of fancy and staple groceries, hay and feed, notions, dry goods, boots and shoes, etc.,” all the store fixtures, and a “corrugated iron building.” (Santa Ana Register, 1-9-1917)
Mamie C.A. Roelands, 1913-1919
The Roelands family came to Orange in 1908, then had a five-acre ranch at El Modena, which they sold in 1918. Mamie Roelands lived in Santa Ana in later years.
Lois R. Barnett, 1919-1924
Lee and Lois Barnett came to the area from Texas and in 1919 bought the El Modena Store. Mrs. Barnett served as postmaster for the first five years, followed by her husband. Like other early owners, they lived upstairs over the store.
Thomas L. Barnett, 1924-1940
Though listed as Thomas in the Post Office Department ledger, Barnett is always called Lee in local sources. Lee Barnett ran the El Modena Store until 1940 when he sold out and retired as postmaster. He died in 1953.
Oliver H. Umberham, 1940-1955
Oliver Umberham was running his own grocery store in El Modena when Barnett retired. “Umberham will move the post office to his store building as soon as remodeling work is completed. He takes office February 1, when Barnett retires because of the age limit for postmasters. Umberham was chief clerk for the Southern California Edition company in Santa Ana for nearly 17 years. Mr. and Mrs. Umberham have one son, Chester G. Umberham, an employee of an oil company at Newport Beach.” (Santa Ana Register, 1-24-1940) Though past 75, Lee Barnett was not completely ready to retire yet, and served as Umberham’s assistant for some time.
Chester G. Umberham, 1955-1961
When Oliver Umberham retired in 1955 his son, Chester, took over as postmaster. When El Modena was reduced to a branch office in 1961 he was named the first superintendent.
(You can find more about Orange County’s post offices and postmasters here)