Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
The History of El Cajon: Valley of Opportunity
By Eldonna P. Lay. El Cajon: Eldonna P. Lay & Associates/Publisher, 1987. Bibliography. Illustrations. 157 Pages. $19.99. Reviewed by Karna M. Webster, M.A. in history and author of Chula Vista Heritage (1986).
The History of El Cajon: Valley of Opportunity was commissioned by the City of El Cajon as part of the 75th anniversary activities in that community. Eldonna Lay, who wrote and published this beautifully designed volume, is a former teacher and a member of the Executive Committee for the 75th Anniversary Celebration. The book contains many historic photographs gathered from several different sources.
In an introductory section, the author reveals that this history of El Cajon is a “blending of research and recall.” Although Lay apparently gathered much of her material from interviews with local citizens, from the files of the El Cajon Historical Society, from the writings of Hazel Sperry, and from various issues of El Cajon newspapers, she listed only one of these in the short bibliography.
This history is easy to read and contains anecdotes and stories about many individuals and families, as well as some local folklore, such as the tale of the duck that tried to teach baby chicks to swim in the Bostonia fountain. These anecdotes, stories, and other bits of information are strung together chronologically on a rather thin and sometimes not quite factual framework of local history.
The book begins with several interesting paragraphs about El Cajon geology and ends with a chapter about the 1980s. The last sentence in the final chapter quotes the Chamber of Commerce president: “Redevelopment will bring to citizens a downtown business district that is a pleasant place to browse and shop, as well as a hub for businesspeople and professionals.”
Unfortunately, the book contains numerous errors, some of them rather surprising. For example, in discussing the flume that carried water from the mountains to El Cajon, the author writes that “In 1886, Cuyamaca Dam was begun to store and divert water for the flume line and, in 1888, the Sweetwater Dam did the same.” The Sweetwater Dam in the southwestern part of Spring Valley was not part of the flume system; it stored water for an entirely separate system that carried water to Chula Vista and National City. Did the author really mean to write that dignitaries visiting the 1915-1916 Exposition in San Diego included “… the new President Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt” or was a comma left out between the words President and Theodore?
The author also missed an important part of the film-making history at Grossmont. She states that the S-L Film Company was just a scam, and that after the sudden departure of the S-L president, Ed Fletcher purchased the former studio building and converted it into a roller skating rink. Actually, S-L Studios was succeeded by Grossmont Studios, a company organized by disgruntled S-L stockholders, creditors and others who pooled their interests and incorporated as a new film company. A number of motion pictures were made at Grossmont Studios between 1925 and 1929, and Fletcher served on the board of directors. In 1930, after the company failed financially, Fletcher’s Grossmont Park Company regained the property through a clause in an earlier deed. The studio building did not become a roller rink until 1931. A bit of research by the author should have uncovered a book written in 1982 by University of San Diego graduate students, Can You Read My Lips? A Guide to the Silent Film Industry in San Diego 1898 -1930, or the many Grossmont Studio papers in the Ed Fletcher collection at the San Diego History Center Research Archives.
Despite the flaws mentioned above, El Cajon residents will enjoy this book. The pictures are wonderful, and the readers are likely to discover something about people they know. The book is fun to read, and it tells the story of life in El Cajon the way it was, or at least the way it is remembered today. Serious researchers will find much of value, but will be frustrated by the lack of an index and the necessity of double-checking much of what they find here.