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The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Spring 1984, Volume 30, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Reviews Editor

A History of Vista. By Harrison and Ruth Doyle. Vista, California: Hillside Press, 1983. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 407 pages.

Reviewed by Robert Carlton, a free-lance writer living in Vista.

Despite significant weaknesses, this large book contains a great deal of useful information for students of Southern California history. Essentially a “pioneer history,” it is valuable mainly for its raw information. It does, however, go beyond the pioneer history in several respects: its photographs are very good, its index covers proper names well, its scope is ambitious in taking the story up to the present, and the authors’ research in local newspapers is impressive. The book is given added validity through the authors’ personal experiences. Since their arrival in Vista in 1940, they have played important roles in several capacities, Harrison Doyle serving as mayor from 1966 to 1968 and both Doyles helping to start the Vista Ranchos Historical Society in 1947.

The organization of A History of Vista is somewhat unusual. It has three main sections, “History,” “Chronology, ” “Biography.” The first eight chapters of Part One constitute the historical narrative, giving way to eighty pages of separate articles on local organizations; most of these were written by members of the groups. The Chronology begins in 1821 with the birth in Tennessee of Cave Johnson Couts, and covers up to 1884 on the first page. By contrast, the last half of the section is devoted to the period 1960-1982. The last section also underscores this interest in the recent era. Many of the biographic entries were submitted by individuals at the authors’ request, and many were compiled by the Doyles from references in newspapers. These entries contain much valuable information but should have been more carefully edited.

The book outlines the economic development of the Vista area, which follows the pattern common to all of rural Southern California: first, strictly cattle and sheep ranching by Californios and early Anglo-Americans up to the drought and cattle-famine of 1862-64; second, slow and uncertain development of other types of agriculture until a spurt of economic activity and population growth accompanied the coming of the railroad (1887); and then slow but continuous growth up to the arrival of large-scale irrigation systems (1923), after which the possibilities for agriculture, light industry, and residential development have steadily multiplied.

The authors omit, however, any discussion of more general issues. There is little here about the development of Vista’s social character or about the attitudes of Vistans toward social or political issues of national scope. Still, the copious references to the names and activities of early settlers offer some raw material for a study of this question.

Not unexpectedly, the most disappointing aspect of the book is its pervasive boosterism and filiopietism. Very little that is negative creeps in, and the authors provide virtually no critical analysis, either of social and political developments or of individual actions. For instance, Cave Couts was indicted for at least seven murders as well as for other acts of violence. Each time, either the indictment was dismissed on a technicality or Couts was acquitted. Perhaps these decisions were just. Nevertheless, even allowing for the frontier character of the period, there is at least cause for skepticism. The authors, however, have nothing but praise for Couts, saying only that he “was a touch, uncompromising, brainy man who lived by the western code where right triumphs” (p. 19). It would be useful to know whether violent deaths were frequent in North County or whether other landowners had similar experiences; none of these questions, however, is raised. This uncritical attitude permeates the entire book and weakens it.

The other main faults of the book are technical and organizational. It has no table of contents, no tables or charts, and no bibliography. There are no footnotes; other attributions are incomplete, or carelessly done. The text is repetitive and sorely in need of grammatical and stylistic editing. Although its hardcover binding is sturdy, the offset reproduction leaves something to be desired, and the pagination is thrown off by last-minute additions.

The two early hand-drawn maps are interesting in themselves, but there are no maps to orient an outsider. The authors could have done other researchers a favor by exploiting their frequent references to the changed names of roads, streets, and localities, perhaps indexing them or incorporating them into a current map of the area. This would, for instance, make it easier to determine the location of families listed in early census manuscript schedules, since the name of the locality or street given by the census-taker has often changed in the decades since.

The thirty-two-page index covers the Chronology and Biography sections thoroughly but the History section only haphazardly. The authors state in their foreword that their interests center on community leaders; this focus is reflected in the index, which is valuable for its careful attention to names of people and organizations. On the other hand, the index is unsystematic and inadequate in its topical references. Even such obviously important topics as water and avocados are given only four page references each, none of which refers to the main discussion of the topics. The index, however, greatly increases the value of Part Two’s news summaries, especially for research on community leaders.

In sum, although seriously flawed, A History of Vista is a significant contribution to North County history, and its authors are to be congratulated on the results of their many years of painstaking labor.