The Short But Busy Life of the Town of Barham

Before there was a town of San Marcos in the San Marcos Valley there was the town of Barham.

The town was founded in 1883 by John Barham and his father James. It covered 640 acres around what is today the southeast corner of San Marcos Blvd. and Rancho Santa Fe Road.

A post office opened in May of 1883. By 1884, the town included a blacksmith shop, feed store, and a weekly newspaper. John Barham operated a farm and also ran the feed store and worked to develop the town. His father James, who had his own homestead, also served for a time as an overseer of the local road district for San Diego County.

Here’s a photo of John Barham, his wife Olley and son Thomas circa 1911, courtesy of the San Marcos Historical Society:

Barham family








Another town leader was William Webster Borden. In 1884, he founded a weekly called Our Paper, which subsequently became The Plain Truth. Published every Saturday from “Barham, San Diego Co., California,” Borden’s paper combined local and countywide news and gossip with religious instruction and not a little humor.

In an August, 1884 item Borden explained to readers that he’d received a letter from a reader he referred to as “Kus-T-Mur, which with all respect to the writer, we cannot conscientiously publish, as our salary is limited and we do not feel justified in employing a bodyguard…”

An issue early in the newspaper’s first year enthused that Barham was “on the boom,” reporting that “Mr. John Schmaker of Los Angeles (a carpenter by trade) has put up a house, plowed land and planted some crop since the first of May.” The article went on the report the coming of two other new residents who built houses and planted crops.

Making a living, however, was difficult, with water scarce and transportation limited to a few wagon roads. The fortunes of town founder and namesake John Barham reflected those difficulties.

An item in the February 9, 1884 San Diego Union reported that Barham “desires to sell his stock of goods and rent his building.” Just two weeks later, however, the Union announced that “Johnny Barham has changed his mind in regard to selling out; he has laid in a $2,000 stock of goods and believes that ‘opposition is the life of trade’ and will sell ‘cheap, for cash.’”

By April of 1884, the Union was reporting that Barham had enlarged his store and was making arrangements to put up a “steam flouring mill” and a “whiskey mill.” In July of that year, according to the Union, Barham had “20 big stacks of grain and will commence threshing next week.”

Yet, by 1887 John Barham had sold his land and store and left San Diego County. In a 1980 oral history interview for the San Marcos Historical Society, Barham’s son Thomas said his father “sold out due to the general dry weather conditions in the area.”

Another factor affecting Barham’s fate involved the coming of the railroad. When it arrived in early 1888, the line ran two miles north of Barham, much closer to a townsite set up in 1887 by the San Marcos Development Company. The latter site became a stronger attraction for investors and new settlers than Barham.

Early in 1888 Barham’s post office closed. In December of that year William Webster Borden (who’d also been the postmaster) changed the mailing address of his newspaper from Barham to San Marcos. In 1889 the Barham schoolhouse was moved to the San Marcos townsite. Borden himself would later move to Carlsbad.

The town of Barham faded into history. Today two streets in the City of San Marcos, named Barham and Borden, are all that remain to recall the early settlement. Neither of them happens to be anywhere near the site of the old, lost town.

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers, the book San Marcos: A Brief History by William Carroll, and the archives of the San Marcos Historical Society.

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