Olivenhain: The Bitter and the Sweet

How does a place in north San Diego County, occupying former Mexican rancho land, wind up with the German name for “olive grove?”

In 1880 Warren and Frank Kimball, already big landowners in National City, Chula Vista and Jamul, found themselves owning the 4,400 acre Rancho Las Encinitas.

They advertised the rancho for sale, and in 1884 they found a buyer in Theodore Pinther, a German immigrant then living in Denver who had an idea to develop a German-speaking colony in his new country. By June of 1884 twenty people had signed up as fee-paying members of the Colony of Olivenhain.

The rancho land was purchased on October 3, 1884. On October 31, the colonists, by then totaling 67 men, women and children, boarded a train in Denver and headed west.

It turned out that conditions on the rancho were not quite what the colonists had been led to expect. Promotional brochures had promised the immigrants a rich, well-watered soil that was already yielding an abundance of olives. The reality was quite different.

The colonists began digging wells, but, time and time again, they came up dry. “The colonists finally realized the awful truth,” states a website on the colony’s history, “the land lacked sufficient water!”

There were other revelations too, such as overcharges on land prices, secret sales commissions paid to Pinther by the Kimball brothers, and other provisions of a contract originally written in English and only provided in German translation at the demand of increasingly irate colonists.

Pinther and another leader were literally forced to leave the community and the colonists demanded a new contract from the Kimball brothers. A team of arbitrators, including banker Jacob Gruendike, were brought in, and a new deal was negotiated.

Many of the colonists left. But the small group who stayed began to work the land and make the best of it. A report in the San Diego Union on May 23, 1889 called Olivenhain “beautiful and prosperous. Many of the first settlers, through the fraud and misrepresentations of their agents, suffered much loss and disappointment, and some of them had to look elsewhere. But those who remained are thriving….”

Among their most successful crops in that period were sugar beets, which inspired a San Diego Union article in September 1890 with a pun for a title, “Beats Other Beets.”

The article was reporting on an analysis of county beet crops for sugar content. The analysis was conducted by by J. D. Spreckels, who knew something about sugar.

“The latest analysis shows that Olivenhain, Leucadia, La Mesa, and Otay produce beets richer in sugar and with a greater coefficient of purity than is required, a gratifying fact that will have its bearing on Spreckel Bros.’ decision as to what portions of the State shall have the ten sugaries they contemplate erecting.”

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers, the website of the Olivenhain Town Council, http://www.olivenhain.org/ , Leland Fetzer’s 2005 book, San Diego County Place Names A to Z, and the 1890 book, Illustrated History of Southern California, by the Lewis Publishing Company.

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