The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1994, Volume 40, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor


Our Hills and Valleys: A History of the Helix-Spring Valley Region.

By Thomas Joseph Adema. San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, 1993. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 184 pages. $14.95. Softcover.Reviewed by Susan M. Hector, Archaeologist, San Diego County Parks and Recreation Department. Author of numerous research papers on the historical archaeology of the western U.S., and member of the City of San Diego Historical Site Board.

Our Hills and Valleys: A History of the Helix-Spring Valley Region is a thorough, scholarly, and fascinating study of the changing role of a rural community. In addition, the book is illustrated with well-selected photographs of people and places. Both the general reader and the scholar may sit down to begin reading the book and not stop until the last page. By placing the history of this area into the larger context of the development of San Diego and southern California, Mr. Adema has provided the reader with not only a detailed history of a particular farm and ranch community, but an example of the rises and declines of the region as a whole during its period of intense settlement in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Mr. Adema begins with a brief overview of the prehistory of the region. He describes the village of Meti, generally known to local archaeologists as Neti, which is located near Bancroft Ranch House and was occupied by Native Americans at the time of contact with historic peoples. A two sentence summary of the chronology of human culture over the past several thousand years is provided. Of necessity, his overview of the development of Native American culture in this region is simplified; this reminded the reviewer of the dire need for a general, popularly written prehistory for San Diego. Mr. Adema expands on early historic contacts with local Native Americans beginning in 1542 and extending sporadically through the mid-1700s, when the founding of the Mission brought more frequent contact between the Europeans and native peoples. This early history, although not specifically for the Helix-Spring Valley area, provides continuity to the tale, and sets the theme for resource exploitation and settlement of ever more remote and marginal areas over the course of the next couple of hundred years.

The study moves on to Mexican land grants and the ensuing squabbles and controversies. The subsequent role of the Porter family in the settlement of the Helix-Spring Valley region is a fascinating chronicle of willpower, ability, and desire. Of particular interest is the discussion of Porter’s Mexican enterprise; the relationship between San Diego and Baja California illustrates how the economies of the two have always been closely tied and interdependent.

It is not possible to discuss this part of San Diego County without mentioning the prominent western historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, after whom the Bancroft Ranch House and County park have been named. Mr. Adema points out that Mr. Bancroft did not spend that much time at the ranch, being occupied with his successful business elsewhere. Yet, despite his limited physical presence and actual contribution to the region, everyone knows about the ranch house and park because of his fame.

Another interesting thread taken up and followed by Mr. Adema involves the saga of Alfred Isham and the waters of Sweetwater Springs. As our own local example of the patent medicine craze of the late 19th-early 20th century period, Mr. Isham and his backers, prominent San Diego businessmen, are an example of why the federal government stepped in to control this industry.

Of particular interest, given the recent controversy about separation of church and state, is Mr. Adema’s detailed account of the history of Mt. Helix Nature Theater, now a County park. The early and continuing popularity of this historic site is amply demonstrated. Both its architectural and landscape design are significant; little has changed at this site over the years, and it retains much of its original grace and character.

Bringing the reader up through the war years of the 1940s, the author shows how this area has kept its rural charm and sense of community while fully participating in the events of the world at large.