A Life on the Land-His Own and That of Others

Gregorio Omish is not on most lists of movers and shakers in San Diego County history. He was born in 1879 on the Rincon Reservation and grew up there, an Indian of Luiseño roots.

In the 1900 United States Census, he was living and working as a farm laborer on the ranch of Gustavus Merriam in what is today the Twin Oaks Valley section of San Marco. Gustavus Merriam is known to readers of this blog and others as the first European settler of that area and the man who gave Twin Oaks Valley its name. The nearby Merriam Mountains are also named in this honor.

Merriam prospered as a grower of grapes for wine and brandy and as a beekeeper. But part of the source of his prosperity was his farmhands. In addition to his wife and son, those farmhands also included two Native Americans, one of whom was Gregorio Omish.

In later censuses one can find Gregorio working on his family’s farm on the Rincon Reservation. But he moved around in his work, and in that respect was an example of the pattern followed by many Native Americans in those years.

“In the fifty years between 1850 and 1900 Indian people practiced agriculture when it was feasible but often found the economic rewards minimal,” according to a 1996 essay on Indian labor in San Diego County by archaeologists Richard Carrico and Florence Shipek.  “This is not to say that they did not attempt farming or stock raising but rather that wages paid for labor on other’s farms and ranches often exceeded the economic return of working reservation land.”

Carrico and Shipek cited Omish as an example of that trend, citing sources like the census, newspapers of the day, accounts of other settlers, and personal journals Omish kept. They noted, for example, that “from 1893 to 1910 [Omish] raised wheat and barley for sale, raised and sold livestock, picked grapes, cut and sold wood, hunted and sold quails, and worked as a laborer.”

“Ever the opportunist,” Carrico and Shipek wrote, like most Luiseños, Omish worked at these various tasks as the season or market dictated.”

Gregorio Omish managed to live out his life working the land, dying at the age of 70 in 1949. His obituary in The San Diego Union of May 21, datelined Rincon, was short, but included a sentence more fitting than the reporter may have realized: “He was a farmer and had resided here all his life.”

Sources for this post included historic San Diego County newspapers and the essay, “Indian Labor in San Diego County, 1850-1900,” published on the website, www.kumeyaay.com .

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“Normal School”

A hundred years ago, teachers colleges were called “normal schools.” You had to get approval from the state and as of the early 1890s, San Diego County did not yet have such a school.

“The movement to secure a State Normal School for San Diego was undertaken in 1894,” according to William E. Smythe’s A History of San Diego: 1542-1908. That movement was “due primarily to the great expense and inconvenience experienced by San Diego families in sending their children to the State Normal School at Los Angeles and other institutions throughout Southern California. This expense was estimated at $2,750 per month, and it was obvious that such conditions could not continue indefinitely.”

The first San Diego Normal School opened in May 1899 in a stately building in University Heights. Below is a photo from Smythe’s  book:


Growing enrollment would eventually result in movement to a new campus in Mission Valley in 1931, along with a new name, San Diego State Teachers College. We know it today as San Diego State University.

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What’s in a name? A lot of history.

That’s a favorite theme for me, as I’ve found there’s a lot of history in San Diego County place and street names. Here’s an example.

Bougher Road and Helen Bougher Memorial Park salute two members of a family that resided in San Marcos from 1917 to 1984.

In a 1983 article in the San Marcos Outlook newspaper, longtime resident Louse Fulton Hard wrote that in the days when San Marcos was a small farming community, “Roads were known by their description or the name of the people who lived on them.” It was the latter case with Bougher Road, which today connects Mission and Rock Springs Roads.

Bougher Road was named in honor of William Bougher, who came to San Diego County in the 1880s from Ohio, according to documents in the archives of the San Marcos Historical Society.

Among those documents are a biographical data questionnaire filled out by William’s son Alvin in 1981 for the historical society and the transcript of an oral history interview Alvin gave the same year. Among other things, Alvin Bougher noted that before his birth in 1909, his family had lived for a time on Palomar Mountain, where they were neighbors and friends with Palomar Mountain pioneer Nate Harrison. Boucher Hill and Boucher Lookout Road on that mountain are in fact named for William Bougher. According to Leland Fetzer’s 2005 book, San Diego County Place Names A to Z, the different spelling “probably reflects the pronounciation of the family name,  [as in “bu-ker] adding that “mapmakers seem to have obtained their place name information from interviews, not from printed sources.”

Alvin Bougher continued farming on Bougher Road until 1984 when, in his mid-70s, he moved to Oregon to be closer to his sons.

Helen Bougher Memorial Park is named after Alvin’s wife Helen, who died in 1980.

You can find out more about the Boughers and their place in San Marcos history in my book, Valleys of Dreams, for sale on this blogsite.

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“Dehesa Doings”

“Dehesa Doings” was the name of a column that appeared regularly in the Poway Progress, a weekly that was published out of the Poway Valley from 1894 to 1897.

Each issue offered columns about news in various county communities, with titles like “Poway Points,” “San Diego Siftings” and “Lakeside Letters.”

Each column’s entries ranged from hard news to local gossip and points in between.

The correspondent for each column generally signed them with initials, a partial name or a nickname. It’s possible that they were all aliases for the paper’s editor, George W. Parnell.

“Dehesa Doings” for the issue of January 12, 1895 followed the usual formula, which offers readers today a snapshot of the economic and social life in the valley at that time.

“The rainfall last Saturday registered 1.25 inches, making a total to date of 4.85 inches,” the column began. “The click of pruning shears is heard throughout the valley.”

“J. S. Harbeson spent Saturday and Sunday at his bee ranch,” the column went on, mentioning the name of the man whose name is now affixed to the canyon the Dehesa Valley heads.

Locals were invited to an upcoming event at the local schoolhouse, “consisting of a literary and musical program, followed by a dance given by members of the athletic club.”

The “Dehesa Doings” correspondent was listed simply as “Olives.” That might tell you something about the Dehesa farm scene at the time, as borne out by another item: “Mr. Allen estimates his olive crop at 30 tons, making a yield of about three tons of fruit per acre, as he has ten acres bearing.”

Sources for this post included historic San Diego County newspapers and the book, San Diego County Place Names A to Z, by Leland Fetzer.

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County Fair Ag Exhibit

A visit to the San Diego County Fair is an annual routine for my household, as it is for many. If you go, I hope you’ll check out the agricultural exhibits, to see where a lot of your food comes from, and the role that agriculture still plays in our county.

The ag hall also includes a great historical section mounted by the Friends of Farming, a group of farmers and farm supporters formed to support the efforts of the San Diego County Farm Bureau.

The county farm bureau celebrated its 103rd birthday earlier this year.

It was early in 1914 that Congress passed an act creating a Cooperative Extension Service under the Department of Agriculture. This act offered to hire local advisors, working with agricultural colleges (like the then new UC Davis), to provide advice on up-to-date farming methods.

“A county farm bureau representing 20 percent of the farmers in a county had to be operating before a farm advisor could be appointed for the county,” according to one of the county fair exhibit placards.

San Diego farmers were soon flocking to the idea of setting up their own organization. Farmers in individual communities met to form local branch clubs which would then meet to form a countywide bureau.

On February 20, 1914 over 1,500 farmers, many with their families, showed up at the Spreckels Theater. In morning and afternoon sessions they elected bureau officers and heard speakers such as two deans from the University of California’s Agriculture Program, Thomas Hunt and H.E. Van Norman (the latter also a president of the National Dairy Association), and B. H. Crocheron, state leader of the new agricultural extension program.

“This is beyond comparison the biggest piece of agricultural business that has ever been put through in San Diego County,” reported the San Diego Union on February 21. “It means that the farmers scattered over miles of territory have at last united under one banner, that the farming industry has taken unto itself a backbone, and that from now on the progress of one will in a large measure mean the progress of all.”

And the Farm Bureau is still going strong. Check out their exhibit at the fair.

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“San Diego Gets First Sight of Farmerette”

That was the headline of an article on page 2 of the San Diego Evening Tribune of August 20, 1918.

“Enter the farmerette!” began the article. “She isn’t new, in some sections of California, but her appearance here yesterday was the signal for many questions about the branch of the service to which she belongs.”

“Farmerettes” were the nickname for members of the Woman’s Land Army of America (WLA). The WLA was established in 1917 in the wake of America’s entrance into the First World War one hundred years ago. It was one of a number of public and private efforts to promote food production and conservation during the war

The WLA was established “by a consortium of women’s organizations—including gardening clubs, suffrage societies, women’s colleges, civic groups and the YWCA,” according to a 2009 article written by Elaine Weiss for Smithsonian Magazine.

From 1917 to 1919, the WLA trained and sent more than 20,000 city and town women to rural America.

Here’s an undated photo from the Library of Congress archives of a California WLA member driving a tractor:

The farmerettes referred to in the August 1918 Tribune article had “hiked down from the farmerette camp at Elsinore” on “a four-day furlough from their government work, which consists of planting tomatoes, tending the ground and plants, harvesting the crop….and canning the product for the consumption of the United States soldiers and sailors….”

The visitors clearly made an impression. A few weeks later, on September 16, one of the Tribune’s social columns included this item: “Miss Hulda VanWagenen, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. D. B. VanWagenen, has gone north to join the woman’s land army. Miss VanWagenen left with a group of workers from Los Angeles today for Saticoy, Ventura County, to pick plums.”

Ten days later, another Tribune article noted “A number of local girls and women have joined the woman’s land army.”

“Like Rosie the Riveter a generation later,” wrote Weiss in Smithsonian, “the Land Army farmerette became a wartime icon.”

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers, Smithsonian Magazine, and Legacies, magazine of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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Poway Then and Now: Two Photos Tell the Story

The photo above is courtesy of the archives of the Poway Historical and Memorial Society. It was taken in 1916 and it shows what was then called the Poway Methodist Episcopal Church. Please note the building’s isolation, surrounded by grassy meadows on all sides. Note also the dirt road running by in the foreground.

Now note the next shot, courtesy of yours truly, taken recently:

That photo shows the same building, known today as the Community Church of Poway. The surrounding meadows are now filled with homes, apartments, and shopping centers. And that dirt road has become the paved and busy Community Road, in the heart of a bustling city.

In 1916 the Poway Valley was an unincorporated rural area populated by a few hundred people. It remained sparsely populated and predominantly rural until 1954, when its residents voted to connect to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which brought a steadier water supply courtesy of the Colorado River.

How much of a difference did that new water supply make? Four years after the Colorado River water started flowing in, Poway’s population had jumped from less than 400 to 2,800. Two years later in 1962, it was up to 4,700. Poway was incorporated as a city in 1970.

The abundant water supply made all the difference. The pictures tell the story.

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