Fighting Plagues Old and New

We’re in a situation right now affecting the health as well as the economic and social well-being of all San Diego County residents as well as our fellow human beings across our region and across the world. So I felt the need to look for historical lessons about another plague.

Right now it’s worth remembering that humanity defeated smallpox in 1979. An Associated Press dispatch printed in The San Diego Union of October 19 1979 noted that “On October 26, officials of the Geneva-based World Health Organization which led the final assault on the virus, will travel to Nairobi to declare that smallpox has been eradicated.”

“Over the centuries,” the article noted, “smallpox killed, blinded or permanently scarred hundreds of millions.” But a worldwide campaign to educate and vaccinate people had reached the point where there had been no new cases reported since 1977. A Union article in December of 1979 stated: “Smallpox experts, saying no one has collected the $1,000 reward offered by the World Health Organization since 1979 for anyone reporting a verified case of the disease, recommended that the U. N. General Assembly drop the offer.”

The triumph of humanity over smallpox is one of the examples cited in a recent Time Magazine article by Yuval Noah Harari, a historian and philosopher. At the beginning of the article he makes an important point: “…while short-term quarantine is essential to stop epidemics, long-term isolationism will lead to economic collapse without offering any real protection against infectious diseases. Just the opposite The real antidote to epidemic is not segregation, but rather cooperation.”

Below is a link to the full article. I recommend it as important food for thought in this time of a new plague. Stay well everyone!

Link to Time article: .

A New Source for History Seekers

I spent last week at RootsTech2020 in Salt Lake City. RootsTech is an annual conference for genealogical researchers. Readers may recall that my historical research and writing work includes partnering with my wife in a family history research business, StorySeekers. Family history is history in microcosm; genealogy and the broader history of local communities, regions and nations are inevitably inter-related.

While attending a conference seminar, “Mexican Families of Early California,” I learned of a great new source for historical records, the Early California Population Project (ECPP). The “ECPP is a database compiled by the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. It consists of transcriptions from California mission registers from 1769 through 1850. These hand-written registers, as the library’s website explains, “are the books or folios in which mission priests recorded every baptism, marriage and burial conducted by that particular mission.”

These records offer vital info on Hispanic, Indigenous and Anglo-American people who interacted with the missions during that era, which is to say a big chunk of humanity. And I’m happy to say that the list of missions whose records can be found at ECPP includes the two historic San Diego County missions, San Diego de Alcala and San Luis Rey.

I’ve just begun to dig into this database. If you’d like to check it out, visit ,then click on “Access the Database.” When you get that far, I strongly advise you to then click on the “Help and More” tab to access their User Guide.

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Back Country Bounty

Periodically I like to remind readers of the days when San Diego County was a largely rural, sparsely populated area where the main occupations were farming and livestock raising. Here are two photos providing visual evidence of what much of the county looked like in 1887. They’re from the book, Picturesque San Diego, which was published in the fall of that year.The caption for the first one reads: “Escondido—Old Ranch House and Orange Orchard.”



Then here’s one labeled: “View in Poway Valley”

Things hadn’t changed that much a couple of decades after those photos were taken.

“Thousands of Acres are Sown to Grain” proclaimed the headline of an article on page 5 of the San Diego Evening Tribune on August 9, 1909. The article dealt with agricultural output in the “back country,” which in those days was the name applied to any part of San Diego County north of Old Town.

The article presented some statistics summarizing argricultural production over the previous year.

The report focused on “the country in the vicinity of Escondido and Ramona.” But it showed how clearly intertwined those towns were with adjacent communities by explaining that the “statistics on the Escondido portion of the county cover Escondido valley, Bernardo, Poway, San Pasqual and several smaller communities.” At that time, Escondido was the only incorporated city north of the city of San Diego. Bernardo, Poway and San Pasqual were unincorporated farming villages.

The article reported that “about 6,000 acres have been sown to barley” while “almost twice as many acres are in hay while the balance of the land is divided between wheat and oats.”

But a new set of crops was moving in on the grain fields, as indicated by reported shipment out of Escondido of “seventy-eight cars of lemons, forty seven cars of oranges and ten cars of honey.”

That was railroad cars they were talking about, and of those 135 railroad cars of produce rolling out of Escondido’s rail hub, “not more than five carloads” went to San Diego. The rest went to Los Angeles.

In addition to Picturesque San Diego, sources for this post included historic San Diego county newspapers and the book, History of San Diego 1542-1908, by William E. Smythe.

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What’s In A Name? The Produce Salesman and The Theater Producer

Current San Diego County residents might not be familiar with the name Villa Caro, but it was the name of a ranch of 600 acres or so between the city of San Diego and the El Cajon Valley in the early 1900s. The San Diego Union reported in its real estate column on April 15, 1909 that a then-prominent attorney, James Wadham, had purchased a ranch house and five acres of ground on the ranch.

The Union article noted that the property was considered “one of the beauty spots of the back country, commanding as it does an unobstructed view of the El Cajon valley and surrounding country and mountains to the east and north.”

The article went on to say that “the land purchased by Mr. Wadham is only a small portion of the Villa Caro ranch. The remaining portion of the original property is to be divided into small tracts and made one of the choicest districts for suburban homes in the county. This is to be done by Messrs. Fletcher and Gross.”

Ed Fletcher and William Gross first met as tourists on a visit to Yosemite National Park in 1901. At that point in time Fletcher, 29, was a transplanted New Englander who’d settled in San Diego where he got involved in the produce business and was doing well enough that he was getting interested in buying and developing property. Bill Gross, in his early 40s, was a Philadelphian who’d become a successful theatrical producer back east and had come west for a little rest. As they enjoyed the scenery Gross expressed an interest in moving west. Fletcher talked up San Diego.

Gross subsequently moved to San Diego where he and Fletcher became good friends and business partners, investing in real estate in places like the Villa Caro ranch. By October of 1910, Fletcher filed a plan with the county for a new subdivision within the ranch property, which the partners chose to name Grossmont Park.

The rest, as they say, is history. Not to mention realty.

Sources for this post included historic San Diego city and county newspapes and The Journal of San Diego History.

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Light Over Darkness, Literally and Figuratively

Most accounts of San Diego history cite March 16, 1886 as the day the first street lights were turned on in the city of San Diego. In one particular area downtown, the new technology made a difference notable enough to rate an item on page 3 of the April 7, 1886 San Diego Union. The anonymous reporter found some measureable improvement, noting “on good authority it can be said that profanity has decreased at least one half, as has also the trade in court plaster and ointment.”

A court plaster, dear readers, as I just found out myself, was a piece of cotton or other fabric soaked with glycerin or a similar liquid to adhere to the skin and thus treat a wound.

How did street lighting save people medical expenses? Well, according to the Union, “By actual count, there have been but two people come to grief on the corner of Fifth and E streets since the light has been turned on, while during the time the streets were in darkness but few men of all that traveled past this locality in the night escaped from either a muddy splashing or a heavy fall.”

As for evidence of reducing profanity, the article stated, “During this dark period the air in that vicinity was absolutely blue with any but choice epithets heaped upon some unknown and careless contractor, while now the traveler nimbly picks his way around the bad crossing and says nothing.”

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers and the book, City of San Diego and San Diego County: The Birthplace of California, by Clarence Alan McGrew.

Also please note that I’ll be giving a history talk, “Picturesque San Diego: Images and Stories from the Past,” for San Diego Oasis on Wednesday, January 8 at 1 p.m. at the Serra Mesa-Kearny Mesa Branch Public Library. To register for the class visit and select class # 321.

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