The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 2002, Volume 48, Number 3
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Reviews

The History of Valley Center, California: The Homestead Years 1860-1900. By Petei McHenry; forward by Raymond Brandes, Ph.D. Escondido, CA: GP Marketing, 1998. Maps, photographs, tables, graphs, index. ix + 170 pp. $14.95 Paper.

California’s El Camino Real and its Historic Bells. By Max Kurillo and Erline Tuttle. San Diego, CA: Sunbelt Publications, 2000. Appendices, photographs, maps, detail drawings, xii + 139 pp. $12.95 Paper.

Reviewed by A. Page Harrington, M.A. Cultural Resource Historian with architect Milford Wayne Donaldson, FAIA, Inc., and former Museum and Collection Manager, Coronado Historical Association and Museum of History and Art.

Local historians must often be creative about finding hard evidence to fit the numerous anecdotal “stories” that float about communities. Two recent works contribute to the grounding of storytelling in San Diego County albeit with varying success. In the first installment of a four volume series, the author of The History of Valley Center, California provides a detailed account of the emergence of a rural inland community originally known as Bear Valley. Located approximately 45 miles northeast of San Diego, this is one of the few areas in California not included within the boundaries of the Spanish land grants. The majority of early settlers migrated to the area in response to the Homestead Act of 1862. Offering a family up to 160 acres of land in return for their commitment to develop it, the Act brought an influx of people to the region and successfully established what we now know as Valley Center, California.

McHenry states that, “the historic period of Valley Center cannot be told without first discussing the prehistoric period (p. 8).” Accordingly, McHenry begins the study by carefully documenting the “pre-contact” period beginning with an examination of plant species, both native and introduced, as well as geological and environmental information on the region. Working from information at both the South Coastal Information Center (SCIC) and the San Diego Museum of Man, the author briefly discusses the culture of the indigenous Luiseño people and the direct impact the burgeoning community had on their culture. Throughout the book McHenry provides many photographs, maps and documents that supplement the overall narrative of the book, including excerpts reproduced in a table format from several early dictionaries of the Luiseño language. These tables include the names of the many plant and animal species located in the area at the time of the Luiseño through present day.

McHenry references census documentation, homestead claim information, and genealogical records on the original families, and comprehensively lists their birthplace, family history, and their occupation or trade. It is through this information that she weaves the history of the people into the story of the early community. In doing so, McHenry not only documents the relevant births, deaths and marriages of each family, (successfully tracking a family, often through numerous generations) but also discounts incorrect or unsubstantiated information. In explaining her task, McHenry writes “Although the members of these pioneering families did not make a large contribution to the history books of America, they made an impact on the history of Valley Center as well as southern California (p. 82).”

As is often the case with small, rural communities most early settlers served in a civic capacity as well as in their specific trade, or chosen profession. Many private homes served double duty as churches and schools until a permanent structure could be erected. For instance, McHenry finds that school had “reportedly been started in 1876…located on the west end of the Fleishman property (p. 97).” The author, who also writes about early mail service, the emergence of local industry, and the impact of regular irrigation system on the agricultural industry, documents many early multi-purpose structures and their history in early Valley Center.

The History of Valley Center references an impressive array of both primary and secondary sources, and in doing so provides an in depth and useful documentation of the local history of this enduring community. Due to the author’s meticulous documentation of the many depositories consulted, California history scholars and lay readers alike can turn to this collection for broad-themed information such as railroad expansion, water rights, and the colonization of California. Local historians and interested community members will find this book a valuable tool for their research on this region and its inhabitants, as it provides a comprehensive collection of facts designed to broaden our understanding of the evolution of this small community.

While McHenry details the northeastern portion of the County, Max Kurillo and Erline Tuttle focus on a major passageway to that area, El Camino Real. In the sixteenth century, Spain embarked on an extensive road-building program among the outlying colonies in an effort to concretely link all the provinces under Spanish rule. It is here that authors Kurillo and Tuttle begin their discussion on the intriguing history of El Camino Real, or “Royal Road” and the women’s clubs who helped preserve it, in their book California’s El Camino Real and its Historic Bells. As the authors explain, establishing El Camino Real was indeed “one tangible result of Spanish exploration and mission-building in Baja and Alta California” (p. 4).

As the usage of the road changed over the years due to increased population and traffic, upkeep on the roadway did not follow suit. By 1900, El Camino Real was little more than a poorly maintained foot trail winding through the deserts of California. In that same year, the newly formed California State Automobile Association began sponsoring “Road Building Days,” during which club members would volunteer their time to perform rudimentary maintenance on the declining road in order to promote unimpeded automobile traffic. At this same time, a parallel preservation effort had begun among members of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, most notably Miss Anna Pitcher and Mrs. A. S. C. Forbes.

The 1904 formation of the El Camino Real Association of California helped further the intentions of the women’s clubs to preserve the legacy of the road with a series of cast bells, as well as promoting basic features to ensure the safety of the steadily increasing number of automobile travelers. More than just a cursory nod of thanks is given to the women’s clubs who organized the successful maintenance and preservation of the historic road as the authors argue that if not for the early and continuous work of many women, the road would have simply disappeared.

Unfortunately, it is within their discussion of the identification and marking process of El Camino Real, with several generations of bells, that the narrative becomes disjointed. Increasingly difficult to follow, the story winds through a series of bell alterations and theories regarding the original foundry, which could not be substantiated through the authors’ research methods. While the history of El Camino Real and the tie to local women’s clubs is intriguing, the paucity of documented sources and the omission of a bibliography tends to undermine the overall credibility of the work and leaves the reader searching for answers regarding the historic bells of El Camino Real.

The many historic photographs and detailed drawings, however, were a welcomed addition as they do augment any understandings of bell size and style, and clearly identify the prominence of each marker and the impact on the early traveler. The lengthy appendices, which include a detailed description of each bell type and location, as well as a partial donor list, help to clear up some of the confusion over the original location of the bells.