The Mystery of Michael Pepper

“We are having school—again. A Mr. Pepper. I sincerely hope he can fill the bill, and meet the requirements of the boys. A man is what that school needs. He looks very nice. Rather bald, black hair and eyes, dresses in black, wears a stiff black hat. Is withal a good looking professor. He called at the door Saturday to let me know school had commenced and he wanted to board here, but I vetoed that. Anything but a school teacher in one’s house.”
Eliza Sikes, writing from her farm in Bernardo to a friend in northern California in November, 1881.

I wondered who was this Mr. Pepper? So I did some research.

Michael William Pepper was 34 years old when he came to Eliza’s door.  He was born and raised in Wisconsin, son of an Irish immigrant farmer and a mother who presumably died when Michael was around two. Rather than follow his father’s footsteps into farming, he went to the University of Wisconsin where he earned a bachelor’s degree and went on to get a law degree in 1873. He started teaching in Milwaukee.

By 1878, Pepper was a California resident and was admitted to the state bar. Yet three years later he was teaching in a country school, a low-paying and pretty much itinerant position. What brought him there?

We really don’t know. We do know that between 1890 and 1918 he lived in a number of communities all over the county, including Escondido, Ramona, and De Luz as well as downtown San Diego. In each community he served as a teacher and at times even a principal at schools from Old Town to Warner Springs.

News articles tell us he was highly regarded by many school officials and by his fellow teachers.

We also know that in 1912 he suffered a mental breakdown. “M. W. Pepper, one of the best educated men of the county, was declared mentally unbalanced by a lunacy commission in department two of superior court this morning, ”reported the Evening Tribune of June 8, 1912. “Pepper was a school teacher at Vineyard,” the article stated, adding, “He lived alone and according to County School Superintendent Hugh J. Baldwin he was subject to stomach trouble. As he possessed some money arrangements are being made to send him to a private sanitarium.”

We also know that he apparently recovered his health enough to be living on his own in San Diego, appearing in city directories in 1917 and 1918. He was also listed as a teacher. Whether that was something he said to save face, or he was able to work in the field he obviously loved, hasn’t been determined.

Michael William Pepper died in March, 1920 at the age of 73. The only survivor mentioned in his obituary was his younger brother Joseph back in Wisconsin. Michael was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery.  Although he’s listed in cemetery records, he has no gravestone. A tree marks his burial spot.

M W Pepper burial site

Resources used for this post included archives for the Sikes Adobe Historic Farmstead, U. S. Census records, California Great Registers, historic San Diego newspapers, San Diego city and county directories, University of Wisconsin alumni directories and catalogs, and Milwaukee city directories.

Upcoming History Events

The Congress of History of San Diego and Imperial Counties presents their annual two-day conference: “A Half Century of Local History: Past, Present, and Future,” March 7 & 8 at the Marina Village Conference Center (near Sea World). For details visit .


Runaways-And You Thought Freeway Driving Was Dangerous?

The Poway Progress column on happenings in Encinitas in the January 16, 1894 issue included this item: “Mr. Johnson, who brings meat here, was hurt in a runaway last week.”

A week later the same newspaper’s “County Compend” column included this: “The best rig of J. Chauncey Hayes of Oceanside was demolished in a runaway.”

“Runaway” then meant a runaway horse or team of horses. The use of that single term suggests how often such incidents happened in an era when a horse-drawn vehicle, or “rig,” was the principle means of transportation and commerce. The fate of Mr. Hayes’ “best rig” indicates that, in today’s parlance, his family car was totaled.

A May 1895 runaway on the stage line serving Alpine lasted five miles and resulted in some damage to the stagecoach, according to a brief newspaper account. There was no mention of any driver or passengers so presumably the stage was empty at the time.

A far different and more dangerous incident took place in the city of San Diego in 1882 in the midst of a funeral cortege heading from the church to the cemetery. The drivers of a carriage transporting the pallbearers discovered one of the reins was broken. When one driver suddenly jumped down off the carriage it spooked the horses and they took off.

The other driver leaped off, followed by each of the pallbearers “as the team without guide or line left the procession and ran wild over the adjoining, uneven rocky ground,” according to the account in the San Diego Sun. The driver of another wagon, Luis Machado, got down from his wagon, harnessed one of his horses, and took off in pursuit of the runaways. He managed to catch up to them and subdue them.

The drivers and the pallbearers, uninjured, still managed to make the funeral, the Sun reported.

In a July 1896 incident a Poway Valley resident, Miss Louise Cravath, matched Mr. Machado in courage and horsemanship, if not success. Driving a buggy led by a two-horse team on a trip from Poway to Escondido, she stopped at a neighboring family’s place to take some produce to market for them.

“While she was out of the buggy the team was startled by some noise and started off without their driver,” reported the Poway Progress. Cravath, “ being an expert with horses, made chase for and overtook them, and would have stopped them at once, but by some means she fell, or was thrown so that the buggy wheels passed over her with, fortunately, but little injury…”

The gutsy Louise wasn’t finished. “Our heroine,” stated the Progress, “at once secured and mounted a horse, determined not to be beaten in that fashion, and started off after the runaways.” Unfortunately the horse, apparently belonging to her neighbors and so not familiar with Cravath, reared and threw her off its back.

The runaways ran up a knoll covered with rocks and boulders “where the team and buggy became separated after considerable damage to the latter,”the article stated, adding, “We are glad to state that the young lady escaped with but little injury.”

Those runaways turned out okay for the animals and humans, if not the vehicles. However, more serious incidents took place as well, leading to fatalities for people as well as livestock.

Upcoming History Events

Jim Bregante talks about life in Little Italy and the San Diego waterfront from the 1930s to the present on Wednesday, February 19 at 10 a.m. at the Rancho Bernardo Historical Society Museum. The program is the latest in the Rancho Bernardo Historical Society’s Speakers Series. For further information go to


Celebrate Valentine’s Day with tea at the Sikes Adobe Historic Farmstead. Seatings for tea, sweets and sandwiches are planned for three Sundays in February, the 9th, 16th, and 23rd.  A $10 ticket includes tea and snacks plus a tour of this historic 19th century farmhouse. For further details go to .

Escondido: They Had A Plan

Old newspapers are a great source of history, and not just in the headlines or regular news columns. This was one of numerous items listed under “Real Estate Transactions” on page 3 of the San Diego Union, March 10, 1886: “Escondido Company to Escondido Land and Town Company, all that tract of land known as the ‘Rincon del Diablo,’ containing 12,633 77-100 acres; $104,042.56.”

“Many tracts of from ten to forty acres can be sold as soon as the surveyors shall have completed their work,” read a brief news item, datelined Escondido, immediately following the listing.

The Escondido Land and Town Company (ELTC) was organized in the early 1880s by a group of businessmen led by Jacob Gruendyke and five brothers, A. Richard, William W., John R., George V. and Charles F. Thomas. The company purchased the vast rural acreage of the former Mexican land grant Rancho Rincon del Diablo with the goal of building a town. The ELTC had a plan.

They hired a surveyor to plot out townsite lots. Simultaneously they began constructing a fine hotel to house prospective land buyers. The three-story, 100-room Escondido Hotel was up within the year.

The company built a headquarters, shown here courtesy of the Escondido Public Library’s Pioneer Room:

Escondido Land and Town Co

They also built some model homes and even a “model ranch,” a working farm to demonstrate the advantages of Escondido’s climate and soil.

They created a newspaper, the Escondido Times. The Escondido Times inaugural issue, published May 1, 1886, was undoubtedly printed in the city of San Diego since the paper predated the city of Escondido’s existence. Since there was likewise no readership yet in Escondido, the ELTC paid for the distribution of the Escondido Times across the United States. By late 1886 the paper was being published locally, but ELTC was still paying for the national distribution of 1,000 copies per issue per year. For at least the next three years, the company also paid for two full columns of advertising in each issue.

Looking at copies of the Escondido Times from that period on microfilm in the Pioneer Room today, one finds that ELTC ad campaign readily apparent. Every issue carries front page ads with prominent photos of the Escondido Hotel, palm trees, and fields of lush crops, accompanied by articles on the wonderful climate and fertile soil of what ELTC called “the sunkist vale.”

The company also invested in getting the Santa Fe Railroad to build a line from Oceanside to Escondido. Service began in January 1888. The railroad made the new town an important shipping point connecting local farm products to markets in Los Angeles and across the country. It was also crucial for the promotion of the town as a destination for travelers, settlers and investors.

When the Santa Fe erected a depot on the west end of Grand Avenue, the Escondido Hotel, which stood on a knoll on the east end of the street, inaugurated a free shuttle service to and from the depot by horse-drawn, surrey-topped bus. Specially organized “Booster Excursion” tours brought crowds of tourists and prospective settlers.

The company’s plan worked. Escondido was incorporated as a city on October 1, 1888.

Upcoming History Events

Celebrate Valentine’s Day with tea at the Sikes Adobe Historic Farmstead. Seatings for tea, sweets and sandwiches are planned for three Sundays in February, the 9th, 16th, and 23rd.  A $10 ticket includes tea and snacks plus a tour of this historic 19th century farmhouse. For further details go to .

Vista’s Rose Parade Moment: A Five-Foot Avocado

How important was avocado growing in Vista?

Take a look at this banner headline on the front page of The Vista Press for the week of January 6, 1928:

Vista Press banner headline Avocado float

“Vista did herself proud at the Pasadena Tournament of Roses last Monday with her beautiful and novel avocado float,” the article began. The float was sponsored by the Vista Chamber of Commerce and assembled by a committee composed of chamber members along with members of the local horticultural society. The article saluted the backers and the assemblers for their “enthusiasm and teamwork” in creating the float.

The float, 10 feet long by 27 feet wide, was, in the words of the article, “intended to represent the rolling lands of the Vista district, the whole surrounded by an immense avocado…”

The base was a field of foliage, including strawberry vines interspersed with white and pink carnations, poinsettias, pepper boughs and holly. There were some small avocado trees representing an orchard, and “at each corner of the float a larger avocado tree bearing fruits was placed,” read the account.

Dominating this scene was a giant avocado, “which was 42 inches in diameter and 60 inches in height.” The big fruit was made out of thousands of avocado leaves, “pinned on in such a manner that the large imitation of a fruit was very realistic and attracted undivided attention while it was passing the countless thousands who lined the route of the great parade.” One man was even said to have thought the big fruit was made of “wax or plaster of paris…”

The float was entered in Class A-2 in the parade competition and “was awarded a special prize, a silver cup, which is now being suitably engraved and will be forwarded soon to Vista. “

The article concluded by stating that “Thousands of people were impressed with the novelty of the float and immediately began asking about Vista, and where to find this great land of the avocado and other subtropical fruits—‘The Subtropic Empire.’”

It’s not evident how much the nickname “Subtropic Empire” caught on, but the title of “Avocado Capital of the World” was prominently associated with Vista for a number of years, according to Harrison and Ruth Doyle’s book, A History of Vista. Until the late 1940s, Vista was home to the largest avocado packing plant in the United States. But as the Doyles and other chroniclers of San Diego County’s agricultural history have pointed out, the title of “Avocado Capital of the World” was traded among a number of north county communities over time. That, however, is a story in itself.

To read the entire 1928 Vista Press article, visit the Vista Historical Society website, . The home page contains a digitized archive of the newspaper. Click on the year 1928 and find the January 6 issue.

Upcoming History Events

“The Archaeology of Childbirth” is the subject of a lecture this Saturday, February 8 from 11 a.m. to noon at the San Diego Archaeological Center. Cara Ratner, M.A., Education Program Director at the center, will discuss the biology and evolution of human beings in relation to childbirth and the cultural and archaeological aspects surrounding it.  Free to center members, $5 per person for non-members. For further details, visit and click on the “Events” tab.


Celebrate Valentine’s Day with tea at the Sikes Adobe Historic Farmstead. Seatings for tea, sweets and sandwiches are planned for three Sundays in February, the 9th, 16th, and 23rd.  A $10 ticket includes tea and snacks plus a tour of this historic 19th century farmhouse. For further details go to .