The Journal of San Diego History
July 1963, Volume 9, Number 3
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By Margie L. Whetstone

Looking down unpaved Grand Avenue from the porch of the hotel.As Escondido will celebrate the 75th anniversary of its incorporation as a city on October 8 of this year, a brief account of its colorful history since that autumn day in 1888 appears to be in order.

The Indians were the first folk who found the Escondido Valley a good place in which to live, and they built their tiny villages here more than four thousand years ago, according to the late Malcolm Rogers, the well known archeologist.

These early people and their descendants left many legends and artifacts which add color to our history. Mrs. Elizabeth Judson Roberts has preserved many myths in her book Indian Stories of the Southwest, which is long out of print and a booklover’s prize. Felicita Park, according to another source, was the judgment Grove where Indians accused of various crimes were punished by imprisoning them on the trees. It was in this grove, too, that the Felicita Pageant which, was written and directed by Dr. Benjamin Sherman, was performed annually from 1927 to 1932. It is the romance of an Indian girt who cared for an American soldier who was wounded in the Battle of San Pasqual on December 6, 1846. Dr. Sherman drew his material from Mrs. Robert’s book.

Scouting parties from the San Diego Mission found the Indians living here and pressed them into service as shepherds and caretakers of the Mission flocks. When the Act of Secularization was passed in 1832 it broke up the large holdings of the Missions. The Indians who had lived at the Missions were given small parcels of land, but they had not learned the significance of ownership or property, and were soon cheated out of their holdings.

Men in political favor then found it easy to acquire large parcels of this land. Thirty ranchos, as they were called, were distributed in San Diego County. One of these was Rincon del Diablo; it was granted in 1843 to Juan Bautista Alvarado, who had been regidor of tiny Los Angeles pueblo and of San Diego. This grant, consisting of 12,633 acres, now Escondido Valley, was called Rincon del Diablo, meaning “Corner of the Devil”. The origin of the name is not definitely known. A suggested explanation is that during the Mission period, this section was not under the jurisdiction of either San Luis Rey or San Diego Missions. Anything not held by the church belonged to the devil, so this Spanish grant became Rincon del Diablo.

Senor Alvarado built a rather pretentious six-room adobe on a little knoll in Dead Horse Canyon, about a half mile south of “the Tepee” as a home for his wife, himself and their six children. Alvarado died on the ranch after only three years’ residence, and some time in the 1850 the heirs sold it to judge Oliver S. Witherby of San Diego, who also was a member of the Boundary Commission, and San Diego’s first representative to the state legislature. It is reported that he was a jolly bachelor, who loved good food and dancing. Friends from San Diego would ride out on horseback to the Rancho, dance all night, and return to the city the next day.

Judge Witherby sold the property in 1868 to the Wolfskill brothers, John, Josiah and Matthew, of Los Angeles, for $8000, and the Valley was known as Wolfskill Plains for a while.

The land boom of the 1880s penetrated to Rincon del Diablo, and the first settlement was made near the present site of Jesmond Dene on the McDougall ranch, where a postoffice called Apex was opened with Mr. McDougall as postmaster. He was succeeded by Thomas W. Adams on June 28, 1883, and the name was changed to Escondido April 24, 1884.

According to a deed dated October 1883, a group of investors from Los Angeles and San Diego bought the grant from the Wolfskills for $128,000, but a year later sold it to a so-called Escondido Company. This is the first time the name Escondido appears on a document. The Spanish name Escondido means “hidden” and was probably chosen because the valley is surrounded by foothills. On March 1, 1886, the Escondido Company deeded the grant to the newly formed Escondido Land & Town Company, which proceeded to subdivide the valley into small farms and lay out the town site. The Company even built a few houses in town, so that prospective residents would have places to move into while they were looking for property to buy. The need for water was urgent, so the first city wells and Pipe systems were started.

In 1887 a 100-room hotel was built at the eastern end of Grand Avenue, on the present site of Palomar Hospital. A real estate brochure dated that year describes the hotel as one of the finest and best equipped in Southern California. For many years it served as the social center of the community, and many well-known people were entertained there as guests.

A branch line of the Santa Fe railway was extended to Escondido in 1887, and was a great boon to the community in the transportation of passengers and freight. As an inducement to the railroad company to build the line, the Land and Town Company offered a $50,000 bonus, which the railroad collected by laying the rails across the creek bed where the bridge was not completed. As the Land & Town Company had just erected a two-story building and opened a bank, they did not have the capital to proceed as planned. The company advertised for a buyer and A. W. Wohlford, who was living in the midwest, read the advertisement and was interested. He later came to Escondido, bought the building and bank, and was prominent for many years in the financial development of the city.

A trolley line from the depot up Grand Avenue to the Escondido Hotel was constructed, but it is questionable whether it was ever used except by railroad handcar crews. A horse-drawn bus from the Hotel did, however, meet the train each evening for years, and a reporter from the local paper was always on hand to greet people.

Now it is 1905, and the setting sun illuminates the quiet little community, the High School is at the far right.

The Escondido Land & Town Company donated alternate blocks on Grand Avenue to the University of Southern California as an endowment for a seminary, which was to be operated as a feeder for students to the University. The brick for the seminary, which was built on a sightly knoll overlooking the city, was made in Escondido. The college functioned only a few years, and in 1894 a High School district was formed and the building was acquired from the University of Southern California. The Land & Town Company also gave lots to any religious group which wished to build a church.

The now famous Wyatt Earp, then a tavern owner in San Diego, was one of the judges of the horse races at a County Fair held in Escondido in 1889, on the Fair Grounds north of town. Sam Brannan, who is reputed to have been California’s first millionaire, spent his last years in Escondido. He planted a fig orchard here and hoped to make a fortune on it, but died penniless.

The people who settled in Escondido in the early nineties were well educated and in comfortable financial circumstances; they built many beautiful homes, some of which are still standing.

On October 8, 1888, Escondido was incorporated as a city with a simple form of government consisting of five trustees elected by the people. These trustees in turn elected one of the five to be president or mayor; A. K. Crovath was the first president. The voters also elected the city clerk, city treasurer and marshal.

About 1891, the Escondido Irrigation District was organized and bonds in the amount of $350,000 were issued; they were sold to Henry W. Putnam of San Diego, for the construction of the Escondido Reservoir, lated named Lake Wohlford. A period of depression followed, and many people were not able to pay their irrigation taxes; finally, a compromise was worked out, whereby the land would be released from the bonded indebtedness upon payment of 43% of the amount due. The burning of the bonds was the occasion for a joyful celebration on Admission Day, September 9, 1905, and a crowd of three thousand people gathered at the Lime Street school grounds in what is now Grape Day Park. When the papers went up in flames, men tossed their hats into the air and women waved their handkerchiefs; judge J. N. Turrentine gave the speech of the day, which was loudly applauded.

All is bustling activity as the train from San Diego pulls into the old Santa Fe station, some time in 1910.On September 9, 1908, the people of Escondido started holding an annual celebration in remembrance of the burning of the bonds. It was called “Grape Day” because grapes were then one of the most important agricultural products of the valley, and each yearly celebration, tons of free grapes were distributed to the crowds. W. L. Ramey of the Escondido Lumber Hay and Grain Company, and Sig Steiner, early store owner and civic leader, were the originators of Grape Day, the community’s largest event for many years.

The education of its children has always been foremost in the minds of the Escondido residents. The first school was built near the Rock Springs Road in 1880 and Elizabeth Judson Roberts, who has ben mentioned before, was the first teacher. This school was soon outgrown and a two-story, brick building was erected on the present site of Grape Day Park; it was named the Lime Street School. At the present time in the city there are two high schools, two junior high schools, six elementary schools and several parochial schools.

With a population af about 1200 in 1900, Escondido began its slow but steady climb to prosperity and a population of more than 24,000. Factors which have contributed to its growth have been the citrus and grape industries, and hay and grain farming. Lemon production was at its prime for two decades, starting from the late twenties; Escondido once boasted the largest lemon packing house in the world. Avocados were first planted here in the twenties and are still a big business. A large packing plant is maintained for the handling of the fruit.

The acquisition of water from the Colorado River aqueduct made farming more diversified. Now the orchards are being removed to make way for homes and subdivisions, and the Chamber of Commerce has been successful in attracting light industry to the valley as a means of broadening the tax base.

The next seventy-five years will no doubt see more drastic changes in Escondido than those of the years just narrated. May they bring prosperity, happiness and peace to the no longer “Hidden Valley!”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A long-time resident of Escondido and active in the founding of its Historical Society, Margie B. (Mrs. R. Roy) Whetstone has several hobbies which, fortunately, include writing and the collection of historical information