The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1990, Volume 36, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Photographs from this article

In the year 1900, the quiet township of El Cajon, California typified an agrarian, middle class, politically conservative community, of northern European origins. It was as if a whole town from Nebraska or Illinois had moved to this agricultural suburb of San Diego. Valley merchants would create a commercial heritage and community identity that would culminate in the incorporation of El Cajon as a township by 1912. Using the year 1900 as a slice-of-time, the reader will visit this rural valley and a sample of its citizens as they encounter a national census, drought, legal battles over irrigation, a presidential election, commercial expansion, and a winning baseball team–all helping to give the town an identity as a rising agricultural community.

The world outside this valley faced the Boer War, resistance to the United States in Manila, union strikes in Chicago, a Paris Exhibition, the Boxer Rebellion in China, the crowning of Victor Emmanuel as the King of Italy, and Secretary of State Root threatening to invoke the Monroe Doctrine against Kaiser Wilhelm and Germany. To the citizens of El Cajon, California, these events of 1900 became intertwined in their daily lives because of America’s ever expanding role as an industrial and agribusiness center. The 563 people of El Cajon could help provide food to the world through San Diego’s harbor and railroad connections. 1

Seventeen miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and twenty miles north of the Mexican border on the southwestern corner of the United States, lies the valley of El Cajon, California. This agricultural valley, six miles long by four miles wide, contains over 7,500 acres of prime farmland at an average elevation of 480 feet above sea level. Surrounded by rugged 800 to 1700 foot granite hills, the valley’s slopes drain to the northwest and the San Diego River.2

From its early Spanish beginnings, El Cajon, which in Spanish means large box, found use as pasturage for cattle and cultivation of grapes and barley by the padres of the Mission San Diego de Alcala. After the Mexican Government secularized the land, governor Pio Pico granted the El Cajon Rancho to Donna María Estudillo Pedrorena to repay a $500 debt to her husband. By 1868, Issac Lankershim, a San Francisco businessman, purchased most of the valley for $1.00 per acre, and opened it for settlement the next year. 3

Lankershim hired Amaziah L. Knox, eastern entrepreneur and former deputy sheriff, to manage his rancho. He also granted Knox ten acres of land on the north and ten acres on the south side of the main street. 4 Seeing the land boom and the Julian gold rush as opportunities, Knox built the Knox Hotel in 1876. At that time the valley’s population consisted of twenty-five families with a total of ninety people.5 Thus began commercial growth in the valley and the formation of a rural, agrarian community as can be seen by the 1900 census of the United States.

Between June 15 and June 27, 1900, Austin C. Loveland served as the enumerator of enumeration district number 183 in supervision district number six, and completed the United States twelfth decennial census for the El Cajon township. Loveland counted 251 dwellings, 113 families, and 563 people. His records sur­vived as census manuscripts on twelve pages numbered 301A through 306B. During his count he averaged thirty residences and sixty people per day and left a readable rough draft document for the valley’s future. What kind of people did Loveland encounter in his enumeration?

El Cajon boasted a population of 563 people that equaled less than 2 percent of San Diego County’s total population of 35,090. Males comprised 59 percent of El Cajon’s total population, or 334 men, beating the national level of 51 percent males, California’s 55 percent, and San Diego County’s 52 percent. This reflects the presence of a male labor force common in an agricultural community. El Cajon’s 229 fe­males totaled only 41 percent of the total population, compared to the national average of 49 percent.

A youthful community met the hardships of establishing a new town, as seen with an average male age of twenty-eight years and female age of twenty-seven years. Seventy-two percent of the men and 69 percent of the women comprised the township’s work force. Samuel and Flora Neeley’s family match this population profile. Married for six years, the Neeleys had two sons, Ray eight, Harold ten months, and a two year old daughter, Irene. Twenty-eight year old husband Samuel and twenty-nine year old wife Flora epitomized El Cajon as a young, 98 percent white, agricultural community.

Like comparable towns in America’s agricultural mid-west, the township of El Cajon was predominately white. Although traditionally undercounted in census figures, minorities enumerated included ten Indians, two Chinese, and one Japanese. Of the ten Indians counted, four were from the family of Jabusco and Mercedes Rodriquez with their two sons Lucian, age two, and four month old Ronald. Jabusco, a Mexican citizen and common labor­er, could not read or write English. His identification as an Indian may have been a misunderstanding; the special census form for Indians does not appear and the name seems to be of Mexican ancestry. Jol Quin, a thirty-four year old Chinese cook for hotel-keeper John D. Rush, and Chinese cook Son Fung reflect the roles of the few non-whites in this small community.

Women in El Cajon maintained traditional positions as keeper of the home and mother. Forty percent of the 229 females were of school age or below, and 8 percent consisted of invalids, elderly, family members, boarders, or visitors. Of the town’s remaining women, 79 percent (93) remained at home caring for husbands and children in the rural lifestyle. Lilie Walker stayed at home and cared for her farmer husband Louis, son Harold, and daughter Alice. Five widows in the community served as female heads of household, leaving twenty-two women in the community with outside jobs. Twenty “old-maids,” with an aver­age age of thirty-four years, served the community. Sisters Isabelle (thirty-three) and Emily (thirty-one) Liscar taught school, while Mary Shepard (forty-five) and Martha Briggs (fifty-two) maintained incomes through cooking and dressmaking. Other women worked as fruit packers, artists, poultry keepers, and housekeepers.

Nativity records for El Cajon show native American births at 79 percent compared to San Diego’s 81 percent, California’s 75 percent, and the United States at 86 percent. Four hundred and forty-seven native-born Americans transplanted themselves from the Midwest and New England to El Cajon. Twenty-eight percent (123) hailed from Midwest states such as Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan, giving the valley residents like Harvey Smith, a twenty-four year old Nebraska blacksmith and Dr. J. Hennessey and his wife Ella from Indiana. Slightly fewer, 23 percent (102) of citizens came from New England states like Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, bringing newcomers like farmer Edward Judson and his children Ethel, Marjorie, and Alexander, and Dr. Eugene Mattewson from Rhode Island. Thus 51 percent of the population came from white middle class eastern backgrounds; this becomes somewhat confusing when the fact appears that 37 percent (164) were born in California. Did this dilute the Midwestern influence on the population? Upon closer scrutiny, the California native-born fit directly into the pattern of mid-west heritage. The average age of residents born in California was eleven years, with the greatest majority being children of eastern parents. Mary Davidson, born of Kentucky parents, typifies the 6 percent (25) of the valley’s native-born citizens not of Midwest or New England stock.

How much influence did foreign-born citizens have on the social structure of El Cajon? Because of the proximity of El Cajon to Mexico and its Spanish and Mexican background, one would expect a heavy influence from these cultures. Surprisingly, only 22 percent or twenty-six of the 117 foreign-born citizens were Mexicans and overshadowed by the 64 percent (seventy-five) of citizens from northern European countries. Midwestern value systems, originally transported from England and Germany, match El Cajon’s 25 percent influx from the British Isles and 19 per­ cent from Germany. Four immigrants came from Asia and eight from Canada. Nativity records of native-born and foreign-born support the premise of a transplanted Midwestern town, with 44 percent having a strong common cultural base.

Germans in the valley included watchmaker Charles Rodig and horticulturist Charles Mills. Englishmen and common laborers John Willis and his brother Joseph and family represented the influx of immigrants from many European countries. Other Europeans included English electrician R. J. Vilven, Portuguese laborer Manuel Pralo, Norwegian farmer Ole Haflo, and Scottish farmer Arthur Ballantyne. Mexican families in the community consisted of immigrant parents, with most or all their children born in the United States. Examples of these include Esquiel Coata, Gregorio Gonzalez, Manuel Magna, and Jesus Rodriquez, all part of the agricultural work force.

El Cajon’s agricultural economy included thousands of acres planted in oranges, lemons, and grapes for raisins. The valley shipped their products all over the United States. Valley farmers P. King, A.L. Knox, J.H. Bus, and George Hawley, along with apiarist M.M. Joy and horticulturists Charles Miller and George Swan represent a cross section of the valley’s 55 percent (121) of all working men in agriculture. Eighteen percent of the male work force serviced the farm community’s consumer needs. These included carpenters Wilson Hall and Henry Kemp, plumber Eugene Kessler, harness maker E. Wright, tinsmith Martin Walsh, blacksmith Joseph Fischer, machinist Charles Kessler, and saloon keeper Harry Hubbell. One percent (seven) were government workers and included a part-time post­ master, and five teachers. Unemployment did not seem a problem though five people in the community registered some months of missed work.

As with most middle class agricultural communities, the family was the center of all endeavors. The valley’s 113 families reflected stability in their traditional makeup. Ninety-five percent (107) had a father in the home and 83 percent (ninety-four) had a mother in the home, leaving 15 percent (seventeen) as single parent homes. Matthew and Louise Puhab and their three sons Rudolph, Johnny, and Henry are typical of the 76 percent of families with the average size of five members. Divorce was not to be found in the records where the average length of time married was fifteen years. The honor for most years married belonged to Ole and Bertha Haflo, who celebrated their fifty-fourth wedding anniversary and could be admired by newlyweds J.W. and Mary Cater. The role of “extended” family appears in figures showing 29 percent (thirty-three) of the families having other family members living at home. Many families, 22 percent, (twenty-five), also included boarders from the community. The secure family became the center of the culture, with the home as the outward symbol of the family’s success in the community.

America in 1900 boasted 35 percent of all families living on farms with 43 percent owning them outright. Rural El Cajon found 72 percent (eighty-one) of 113 families living on farms owned free by 46 percent (thirty-seven) of the families. Richer than their national counterparts, only 23 percent of valley farmers worked mortgaged farms compared with 35 percent nationally. Valley farmers with as few as ten acres of land could net one thousand dollars per year; large ranches, such as the El Cajon Vineyard Company, or the Boston Ranch, earned $50,000 or more annually from the production of raisins and citrus crops. Many valley farmers used agriculture as supplemental income. The J. P. R. Hall and Phil Kessler families ran the Hall & Kessler lumberyard; the Algier and Asher families also worked as mechanics.

In the America of 1900, forty-five percent of city dwellers lived in homes in which 52 percent rented their living space. Locally, 32 percent of El Cajonians lived in homes. Of those living in homes 36 percent owned and 58 percent rented their residence. As an agricultural community El Cajon Valley residents strove for the American dream of ownership of one’s farm and home. With home ownership also came a concern for education of the children.

In 1900, El Cajon residents could boast of 99 percent literacy for reading and writing coupled with 100 percent English speaking fluency. Eight illiterate people included Mexican laborers like Josie Garcia and Manuel Feliz, and Mexican housewife Juanita Miguel. All 113 children over eight years old enrolled in school in 1900. Of those enrolled 51 percent (fifty-eight) were male and 49 percent (fifty-five) were female. Community pride for the new El Cajon Valley Union High School flourished with the appointment of Robert C. Root as principal and Estelle J. Barden as assistant.6 Board president George M. Hawley ran the school on a budget of $15.00 to $20.00.7 Advanced age did not stop five young adults over the age of nineteen from attending school.

Census figures were not the only figures gathered that year. As modern farm techniques developed, serious commercial farmers of the valley kept weather records to help improve their farming methods in this arid environment. In 1899 the Federal government established the first official weather station for the valley at the residence of H.H. Kessler, two miles east of the post office at an elevation of 482 feet.8 The first year’s complete figures spelled problems for the farmers. Average day and night temperatures for the year were 62.5 degrees Fahrenheit. This warm trend, coupled with only 8.13 inches of rain, fell far short of the now established average of fourteen inches per year.9 Over the last ten years the number of farmers irrigating had doubled and the number of acres irrigated had increased by 81 percent in San Diego county.10 More than ever, valley farmers depended on irrigation water from the San Diego Flume Company’s water system.

Water from a reservoir in the Cuyamaca mountains flowed into diversionary dams and into a six-foot wide by four-foot high redwood flume. At an original cost of well over $1,280,000, the flume entered the valley near Lakeside and followed the hillside contours at the 700 foot level to the south side of El Cajon. An eight by ten inch regulated line ran to each farm and provided the life-giving water for semi-arid agriculture. El Cajon resident Arthur Ballantyne went to work for the Flume Company in March of 1900, serving the farmers needs in this time of drought. This drought also brought a water shortage to the City of San Diego.11 In response, San Diego made a deal with the Flume Company, bringing water to its citizens and increasing the water rate for El Cajon farmers from $.0125 to $.10 per thousand gallons of water.12 This marked increase threatened to force valley farmers to curtail their water use to allow extra water to flow to San Diego. The farmers reacted angrily.

On Monday, April 3, the eighty-five farm owners of the valley came together in response to the problem. The El Cajon litigation committee, led by Mr. Liffering, J.M. Paul, and Dewitt B. Williams, represented forty-five citizens and 51 percent (forty-three) of the valley’s farms. This group raised $600 and hired San Diego lawyers Ernest Riall and C.H. Rippey on April 18. The two attorneys convinced Superior Court Judge E. S. Torrance to issue a restraining order against the Flume Company and order them to appear in court on 27 April 1900.13 Trying to avoid a court battle, the Flume Company offered to lower the new rate to $.075 per thousand gallons, which the farmers quickly rejected. The court found for the farmers and rates remained favorable.

Valley citizens would enter the arena of government and politics with the national election of 1900. Preparation for the election began in early September when San Diego County Clerk Will H. Holcomb gave notice to county residents to register to vote by 27 September 1900 and complete any change of address by 12 October.14 Seventy-four El Cajon male residents registered to vote for the November election.

The real excitement of the presidential election came when Democrat William Jennings Bryan arrived in San Diego with his gospel of righteousness, bimetal coinage, and income taxes. Interest from the east county of San Diego warranted an extra train from Lakeside through El Cajon so that the curious could listen to the preaching Democrat. Polls at the Meridian School opened on Tuesday, 6 November at 6:00 A.M. and closed at five P.M. El Cajon poll officers D.F. Bascom, J.A. McKinnon, J.G. Burgess, A.T. Hawley, F. Forney, E.M. Shelton, J.B. Rumsey, and P.G. Brouwer were there to greet and help the 89 percent (sixty-six) voter turnout, which was slightly higher than the county’s 85 percent voter turnout.15

Republican politics prevailed with 55 percent (thirty-six) voting for President McKinley and 33 percent (twenty-two) voting for Bryan.16 Four valley residents even voted for socialist Eugene V. Debs. These figures follow the City of San Diego, State of California, and national voting patterns. El Cajonians voted for Republican Congressman Needham with the same percentages and helped establish the Republican dominated fifty-seventh Congress. Similar voter responses occurred for judgeships, State assembly seats, and assembly amendments. El Cajon did break ranks with San Diego on the local issue of saloons. Valley farmers did not value public drinking the same as their city counterparts. El Cajon supported an Anti-Saloon Ordinance by 51 percent but met defeat by the sheer numbers of the 60 percent of city voters opposed to the anti-saloon legislation.

On 7 December 1900 the County Anti-Saloon League met and decided to petition the County Board of Supervisors, even though they had lost the election. The El Cajon delegation, under the leadership of L.S. Rosenberger, met with seventy-five county leaders at the San Diego Y.M.C.A. Upon being interviewed, Methodist minister W. B. Hinson warned drinkers that “we have simply had a slap on one cheek and like good believers in the bible we will turn to them the other cheek, and now look out.” 17

Middle America enjoys a good moral fight but never lets it get in the way of business and everyday life. On the northeast corner of Main and Magnolia the business hub of El Cajon thrived. Businesses included a two-horse covered wagon for delivery of groceries or supplies and the post office with John Burgess as postmaster. A hay barn and warehouse could be found on the southeast corner of Main and Magnolia.18 Valley butcher D.S. Bascom maintained his Bascom Meat Company by the Burgess warehouse. Bascom reported valley consumption of meat to be “seven beeves, seven sheep, three veal and two hogs per week.” 19 Druggist Albert Brouwer and barber J.J. Brenner became part of the new business community at the four corners that included hotels, barbers, blacksmiths, lumber, general merchandise, drugstore, livery, shoe shop, harness shop, butcher shop and saloons. The community also expanded to include a Presbyterian church, south of this area on Magnolia, and the Bostonia Episcopal Church.

In 1894, citizens built the El Cajon Hall on Prescott and Main St. as a social hall. This New England salt box, two-story frame commercial building with wood trimmed, double-sashed, multipaned windows still stands today on its original site.20 The year 1900 saw the formation of the El Cajon Social Club for the “promotion of sociability and general good time.” President B.F. Jones, vice-president Mrs. W.E. Lewis, secretary A.L. Tibbetts, treasurer William Stell, and floor manager Roy Rumsey saw to it that all the valley’s important business leaders became involved in the club’s committees.21

It was also a year of everyday living. Mr. Garvin, the town painter, painted the Meaker house opposite the school.22 The Brouwer family ate their second Christmas dinner in their new home, and N. A. Peters of the Jamacha blacksmith shop lowered his prices to four horseshoes for one dollar. The Rumsey brothers offered Fedora hats for $1.00 to $2.50 each, Uri Hill offered a new line of boots and shoes, and kids could dream while passing by the Wright’s new line of Columbia and Hartford bicycles. Anyone who could get away from work probably made their way to watch El Cajon’s baseball team in the San Diego Commercial League. Pitcher Yates and second baseman Stutts were having a winning season.23

A year in the life of El Cajon, California compares to a year in any small, middle America farming community at the turn of the century. Here was a Protestant, family oriented community, struggling to become a commercial success and an asset to the nationalism sweeping America. They were ready to accept Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick, Great White Fleet, and the Progressive movement.



1. Unless otherwise specified, all population numbers, percents, numerical compilations, and specific citizen references are taken from the Twelfth Census of Population, 1900, California Volume 25, pages 301A through 306B, supervisorial district No. 6, enumeration district no. 183. National Archives microfilm reels 99-100.

2. Allen Perry Dillane, “A Historical Geography of the El Cajon Valley, San Diego County, California” (M.A. thesis, San Diego State University, 1964), 1.

3 Charles V. Birkett, “The Fiftieth Year,” San Diego History Center Quarterly 8 (October 1962): 46.

4. Ibid., 48.

5. San Diego Union, 16 January 1887.

6. Administrator and Board names taken from school stationary dated 28 March 1899. Special Collections box file, “Schools Before 1920,” El Cajon Historical Society, El Cajon, California.

7. Tax figures determined from two newspaper articles: “February Taxes Are Apportioned,” San Diego Union, 14 March 1900; and “Apportionment of March Tax Collections,” San Diego Union, 6 April 1900.

8. Dillane, “Historical Geography,” 122.

9 Ibid., Tables V – VI, 124-128.

10. William R. Merriam, Director., Twelfth Census of the United States: Agricultural Part II Crops and Irrigation (Washington: United States Census Office, 1902), 6:826.

11. San Diego Union, 5 March 1900.

12. Ibid., 3 April 1900.

13. Ibid., 14 April 1900.

14. Ibid., 8 September 1900.

15. Ibid., 6 November 1900.

16. All election results were computed from election data published in “The Vote of San Diego County,” San Diego Union, 7 November 1900.

17. San Diego Union, 7 December 1900.

18. Hazel Sperry, “The Corners: El Cajon’s First Shopping Center,” Mss., El Cajon Historical Society, El Cajon, California, 1.

19. Ibid., 5.

20. San Diego Association of Governments, Historic Preservation Inventory of El Cajon (San Diego: San Diego Association of Governments, 1985), 247-248.

21. El Cajon Valley News, 9 December 1899.

22. Examples of everyday life taken from the El Cajon Valley News, 12 December through 30 December 1899.

23. San Diego Union, 26 February 1900.

This article was winner of the Congress of History Award: Community History, San Diego History Center 1990 Institute of History.

VICTOR W. GERACI is an M.A. candidate in public history at San Diego State University, where he received his A.B. degree in history in 1970. He has taught for many years at Hill Creek School in Santee. In 1987 he was honored as Teacher of the Year in the Santee School District. Mr. Geraci is also a noted horticulturist and owner of Aridscape, a home nursery.