Living in “the Box”
A Brief History and Overview of El Cajon, CA
By Kent Manthie
Living in El Cajon is very different from living in San Diego, that’s for sure. Anyone who’s familiar with the various parts of San Diego County knows that out here, in the east part of the county, down in the valley, so to speak, it is always about 10-20 degrees hotter than it is downtown San Diego and maybe hotter than by the beaches. That is mainly due to its being in a valley and not as close to the sea. When you get further inland, away from the coastline areas of San Diego and its twin bays, you get into what is basically a desert, overrun with development. This is living at the most mediocre level. In the vicinity of El Cajon there are other comparable towns, but the one that stands out a little higher is La Mesa, which originally was founded as a film colony/art colony; one that was going to rival the one in Hollywood – this was in the early part of the 20th century. But, the American Film Company – the company was originally founded in Chicago in 1910 but relocated to the sleepy town of La Mesa, in California. The first, unofficial name was “Flying ‘A’ Studios”, but was later changed to the American Film Company, retaining its “Flying ‘A’ Logo”. There were myriad films made here at American. Its raison d’etre was to be an alternative to the burgeoning film colony, then known as “Hollywoodland” (the ‘land’ was dropped after an up & coming starlet committed suicide by jumping off the iconic “HOLLYWOOD(LAND)” sign, after which, L.A. authorities decided to chop off the “LAND” part of the sign, considering it to be bad luck or something, maybe bad luck due to the irrational fear of the number 13 being some sort of portent of bad luck and/or misfortune-actually, the reason that 13 is considered to be bad luck and, more to the point, it’s really ‘Friday, the 13th’ that is considered to be an omen of bad luck and misfortune for some – that irrationality stems from the 14th century, when the band of mercenaries, known as the Knights Templar, who, in their beginning stages, were formed to protect pilgrims who traveled to the so-called “holy land” – Jerusalem, et al, in the middle east. But after a century or so, the “knights” got into an early form of intense banking and what hard-core papists would label “usury”, since they charged interest on the money they lent, thereby making profits on money-lending (oh my, what a terrible thing!). Anyway, I digress: Before settling in Santa Barbara, Flying “A” Studios were located in La Mesa, CA from August 12, 1911 through July 6, 1912, using film locations in La Mesa, other East County areas such as Lakeside, in addition to sites around San Diego.
Flying “A” Studios, under the leadership of Allan Dwan made over 150 films in San Diego County. The films were usually western adventures or comedies with an occasional local documentary. The Flying A westerns were popular with the public and kept Dwan and his crew extremely busy. The Dwan westerns gave the Flying A the ability to mount large advertising campaigns, create additional films, and become a player in the motion picture industry. While mostly filming in the backcountry near La Mesa, some sets were built behind the Flying A Studios. Dwan would occasionally film a cowboy chase scene and then build a plot around that chase. Dwan’s troupe of actors became very popular with the public.
In August, 1912, Flying “A” Studios established its western branch in Santa Barbara, California. Prior to this, three shooting companies were created. Two would work at the studio or surrounding locales of Chicago while it was the third unit that was sent out to concentrate on westerns. This western unit would move through the southwest with stops in New Mexico, Arizona and finally California.
The third unit would eventually settle in the town of La Mesa before moving Northwest to Santa Barbara. The reasons for the move to California had a lot to do with weather and even more to do with avoiding the constraints of the “Edison Trust” (i.e., The Motion Picture Patents Company or MPPC) operating in Chicago and New York. The main reason for choosing Santa Barbara before La Mesa was that the American Film Company wanted to have urban backdrops in some of its movies.
During its operation between 1912 and 1917, Flying “A” Studios was one of the largest motion picture studios in the United States. At the time, this made Santa Barbara a film making center rivaled only by Hollywood.
Notable Actors or Actresses
Mary Miles Minter c.1917
The American Film Company had many great movie stars during their years located in Santa Barbara. One of the greatest, if not the greatest was Mary Miles Minter. Minter, born Juliet Reilly, April 1, 1902 – August 4, 1984, was one of the most successful in her genre as a silent film actress. She did her first featured film in 1915, as Viola Drayton in the The Fairy and the Waif. She did her last role as an actress in 1923 in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. She left the movie industry at only age 22 after a scandal involving her and director William Desmond Taylor. Even though she wasn’t in the movie industry for more than eight years, she made more than 50 movies and her contributions to the motion picture industry gave her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1724 Vine Street.
The Conclusion of American Film Co.
The World War, the great influenza epidemic of 1918-19 and the depression of 1921 all played a part in bringing an end to the American Film Company and its Santa Barbara studio. Yet other film companies survived, primarily because they had chosen to invest in theaters, providing a built in consumer for their product. American lost its primary distributor when Mutual folded in 1918 and although the company’s product continued to be well regarded, the Flying A found itself on the outside looking in with no direct link to the public.
The American Film Manufacturing Company, also known as Flying “A” Studios, was founded in Chicago in fall 1910. In 1915, the formal name was changed to the American Film Company. The enterprise was originally financed by Samuel Hutchinson, John Freuler, Charles Hite and Harry Aitken, four mid-western businessmen who joined forces and capital to create the American Film Manufacturing company.
That was the basic history of the beginning of La Mesa. I figured it’d be worth mentioning because of the “star”-affiliation it had. El Cajon, on the other hand was a little different. Thanks, very much for the credit due to the smart guy(s) or gal(s) who typed in the history of the American Film Co and put it on Wikipedia.
Here, below, I found a little something that could explain the history well, especially since I’m a relative newcomer. I must here give credit to the El Cajon Historical Society, the late Mrs. Hazel Sperry who is the former secretary and curator of the ECHS, for much or the source material which I have gratefully borrowed from.
Now, regarding the major historical facts of El Cajon – so named because it’s kind of like living in “a box” (El Cajon is Spanish for The Box) – a box that’s in a valley, hence the higher heat and more humidity than down by the beaches in San Diego.
In the early part of the nineteenth century the explorations of the mission padres for pasture land led them to El Cajon Valley. The surrounding foothills were a barrier to straying cattle as well as a watershed to gather the sparse rainfall for verdant grasslands along the valley floor. For years the pasture lands supported the cattle herds of the mission and its native Indian converts.
With independence from Spain, the Spanish Dons began to cast envious eyes on the vast holdings of the Roman Catholic Missions. With secularization, California Governor Pio Pico in 1845 confiscated the lands of Mission San Diego de Alcala and granted the eleven square leagues of El Cajon
Valley to Dona Maria Antonio Estudillo, wife of Don Miguel de Pedrorena, to repay a $500 government obligation. The grant included generally the present communities of Lakeside, Santee, Bostonia, Glenview, Johnstown, El Cajon, and part of Grossmont.
Recorded history affords scant evidence to establish a beginning date for either a permanent Spanish or American community in the valley. The Pedrorenas continued their residence in San Diego and their absentee proprietorship did not foster any economic development. Scattered homes of adobe construction were erected in the area during the mid-19th century, but the permanency of their occupancy is open to question. The establishment of a school for six children in 1870 in a homestead at Park and Magnolia offered conclusive proof that a permanent American settlement had been established.
What were the key factors which shaped El Cajon’s destiny? First, there was a transfer of title from the permanent holdings of the mission to the changing hands of the Pedrorenas and their successors. This permitted the so-called highest and best use of the land in commercial terms. Then there were the natural corridors which made Main and Magnolia the crossroads from San Diego to points east and to the gold mining operations in Julian to the north. Third, there were the real estate developments following the Civil War, initiated by a San Francisco entrepreneur named Isaac Lankershim. The native instincts of a New England emigrant, Amaziah Lord Knox, for the economic value of the corner lot resulted in the erection of El Cajon’s first commercial building at Magnolia and Main in 1876. Finally, the phenomenon called direction of growth laid a path of post World War ll’s exploding urbanization along Mission Valley, through La Mesa and El Cajon.
Following the American Civil War, migrations of settlers sought homesteads on the public lands of the West. However, the poorly defined boundaries and legal confusion of Pio Pico’s Rancho Cajon land grant to the Pedrorenas were to be a source of considerable dispute. As a consequence, historical accounts frequently refer to these pioneering homesteaders by the less noble term of “squatters.”
Lankershim bought the bulk of the Pedrorena’s Rancho Cajon holdings in 1868, employing Major Levi Chase as his attorney. Seven years of litigation ensued before title was cleared and settlements negotiated with the squatters. Lankershim subdivided his land, selling large tracts for wheat ranching. However, it was soon discovered that the soil and climate would support almost any crop. Within a few years the Big Box Valley was a flourishing produce center for citrus, avocados, grapes, and raisins. In fact, the suitability of the clear sunny climate for drying raisins was a major real estate sales “pitch.”
The gold mining operations in Julian brought a steady trek of freight traffic hauling equipment and supplies and ore between San Diego and Julian. The natural line of drift led the teamsters down the old Mussey grade (now covered by San Vicente Reservoir), south to the present site of Magnolia and Main, then west through the Grossmont Pass into San Diego., Knox had moved into the Valley in 1869 to build Lankershim’s house and manage his wheat ranch. Noting the teamsters’ habit of camping overnight at the present site of Main and Magnolia, he erected a seven room building as a combination residence and hotel on its southwest corner in 1876. Small additions were followed by a large two story annex In 1882.
Knox’s Corner was to be the nucleus of El Cajon’s business district for the next seventy years. By the turn of the century the two blocks of Main Street, astride Magnolia, boasted two hotels, a general store, meat market, post office, pharmacy, harness shop, blacksmith shop, and sundry smaller shops and offices.
At the general election on November 12, 1912, 123 of 158 electors voted to incorporate a 1 1/4 square mile area centering on the historic corners of Main and Magnolia. The board of five trustees met the following week to elect one of their number as president and appoint a city attorney. Regular meetings were scheduled for the first Wednesday of each month. However, special meetings to get the administration organized and functioning were not infrequent. Committees were appointed for Streets, Alleys, Water and Lights, Finance and Licenses, and Health, Morals, and Sanitation. In addition to the elected positions of Treasurer and Clerk, appointments were made for a Marshal and Tax Collector, Engineer, Recorder, Superintendent of Streets, two Deputy Marshals, and a Fire Chief. Ordinances and resolutions were passed to fix salaries or other compensation, provide for the grading and sprinkling of streets, contract for bridge construction and mapping the City, banning cattle and hogs from the central city, and outlawing horseracing down Main Street.
For the next thirty years El Cajon followed the pattern of orderly development typical of rural/ small town America. By 1940 the population had slightly more then doubled to a figure of 1471. In the five years following World War II, the winds of change became apparent. While land area increased slightly to 1.67 square miles, in-migration increased the population to 5,600. In 1949 the City Council began to study the feasibility of the council-manager form of government to meet the day to day administrative and long range planning requirements of a growing metropolitan area.
The office of City Manager was instituted in 1950 in time to meet the most explosive decade of growth in El Cajon’s history, or for that matter, the history of any comparable community in the nation. By 1960 the incorporated area was to increase five-fold to 9.8 square miles and population six-fold to 37,618.
However, this remarkable growth was not accomplished without its trauma. Fiscal resources for capital investments necessary to keep municipal services abreast of geometrically increasing demand were sorely strained. Substantial capital outlays were needed in virtually every department: Police, Fire, Sewage Treatment, Public Works, Parks and Recreation and General Government. In 1959 the Council and Manager commissioned a research study to assess the present and probable future structure of the City. Given the unforeseen developments in double digit inflation and federal revenue sharing of the 70’s, the projections of this study were to prove remarkably prophetic.
Integrating these research findings and projections into its master plans, during the next decade El Cajon moved ahead on a number of significant projects. Acquisition of additional fire fighting equipment resulted in much improved insurance ratings. A dozen key street improvement projects solved the traffic congestion problems which were beginning to surface throughout the incorporated area. A cross service agreement with the San Diego Metropolitan Sewer District and construction of a major outfall line eliminated the need to rely on septic tanks which were saturating the subsoil to the danger point. The timely purchase of property on Vernon Way in the early 50’s facilitated the economic construction of Public Works maintenance and storage facilities.
As the City nears the end of the twentieth century its growth is considerably more measured and orderly than that of the frantic fifties. Guided by a prudent and fiscally responsible civic leadership. It has weathered its rapid growth period with a balanced economy and a governmental structure which offers full municipal services. In 1976, during our nation’s bicentennial, a new civic center was opened to serve the citizens of El Cajon, lending added luster to the historic corners of Main and Magnolia. Our most recent additions to this area are the new Headquarters Fire Station and the Neighborhood Center on Lexington and Douglas Avenues, respectively. One might pause to speculate on the thoughts of a sturdy New England emigrant when, a century earlier, he erected El Cajon’s first commercial structure diagonally across the street.
So, that’s the basic history of “The Box” and what happened in its start-up and growth – I do know that before it was actually named “El Cajon”, which was incorporated in 1912, it, starting in 1905, was known as “Knox’s Corners”, after one of the “founding city fathers”, Amaziah Lord Knox.
Since then, El Cajon has been slowly developing. I’ve only been living around this area for the past 10 years and I actually moved to El Cajon in 2007. What I’ve found, living in this town, is that it certainly has lost any past glory that it may have once had. Nowadays it’s just another suburb of San Diego, not unlike Lemon Grove, La Mesa, Lakeside, etc. Unlike Los Angeles County, where there are dozens and dozens of little towns, one after the other that stretch out after you get out of Los Angeles, proper, they’re all considered “bedroom communities” – a sprawling suburban multitude of plots for people who work in the city of L.A. and drive into work each day – in fact, as the population has grown and industries have spiraled upwards, commuters have been moving further and further away from the city itself and out to what they consider “safer” suburbs, what is generally termed “white flight”, which has gone on for most of the 80s and 90s and has left a big hole in the city of angels, a vacuum that’s been filled by what bigots would call ghettos and such, even though the city is beautiful as ever and could attract a great amount of so-called yuppies – in fact, in certain parts of downtown LA, they’ve been rehabbing old buildings and have turned them into nice, expensive lofts – I guess it was something they saw that worked so well and was popular with the silicon valley richies in San Francisco; the SOMA (South Of Market) area, in the 90s was totally redone and turned into a completely new and gorgeous neighborhood – complete with the SFMOMA, a beautiful museum – the MOMA of the West Coast and generously endowed, in part, by a city fixture, Charles Schwab & his wife; so much so that they have a wing of the museum named after them.
Anyway, as far as the county south of LA and Orange County goes (San Diego), it is just not at all that, compared to Los Angeles. In fact, when I first moved to San Diego, the first impression I had was that of a “giant” small town. I know that sounds oxymoronic, but that is the vibe I picked up, especially after coming from the megalopolis of Los Angeles. Then, when I met someone and moved in with her in her place which happened to be in El Cajon, I soon became a little bit disheartened. Especially since San Diego County has the absolute WORST transit system I’ve ever encountered – at least the worst one in any major metropolis. The buses are few and far between and there is just not an easy way to get around to points of the city. But when I got to El Cajon, the transit system that is based there – it’s run by a different company than the public transit system that is in San Diego – the one in El Cajon is terrible! For one thing, on the weekdays all the buses – every single line – runs only once every half hour! And then on the weekends the buses only run ONCE AN HOUR! That sounds like the sort of service you might expect in some little two horse town in the middle of Montana or Wyoming. Basically, if you live here and have no car, life is miserable. For one thing, the nightlife here is nonexistent. If you like to see live music and go to the occasional concert at a mid-size club (maybe 1000 person capacity) you aren’t going to find one anywhere around this part of the county; in fact, you’ll have to come back to the city of San Diego – where there is a House of Blues, there is 4th & B, the Casbah and out by the beach, Canes. Here, there are a lot of bars and whatnot, but they’re all basically dives.
One interesting fact about today’s El Cajon, though, is that currently, EC boasts the highest concentration of Iraqi/Arabic Chaldean Christians in the country. That is why, when you go up and down Main Street you see, market after market of Middle Eastern-based stores that cater to the Arab community. There is even a cable station that has recently gotten off the ground and is connected to the web so that folks back in the old country can watch too and interact with their friends and relatives here in America.
The average “white guy” probably wouldn’t fit in well at a lot of these stores and/or even know or understand what it is they sell there, but one thing is for sure: there are some very delicious eats around here. The shawerma sandwich is a big hit – it’s kind of like an Arab burrito – there’s a bunch of cut-up grilled beef or steak and it’s mixed together with diced tomatoes, onions, lettuce and other little surprises, then it’s all wrapped up in a big piece of flatbread – sort of a thicker version of a tortilla. And, like everything else, it depends on who makes it and what establishment you buy it from, but get it at the right place and it is a mouth-watering sensation. Very filling too! A single shawerma sandwich is at least as filling as a carne asada burrito but with a thicker wrap and bigger pieces inside. Also good are the various styles of kebabs that are made at the various groceries, delis and restaurants all up and down Main St. and beyond. So, if you want to take your taste buds for a ride, come out here. But if you want to see an indie rock band playing live, I’d suggest staying within the city limits of San Diego!
There is not a whole lot going on after dark in El Cajon. I wouldn’t say it’s a “dangerous” place to be walking around in after dark, but it could be if you are the jumpy type who shows their fear too easily – thugs, like dogs, can sense fear; and the hookers come out of the woodwork when the sun sets as well. They can be down right annoying and aggressive. Other than that, just be aware of what’s going on around you if you are carless and be careful that you don’t look at some cholo the wrong way, if you dig.
I thought I’d include some photos too, of how the city looks today. Enjoy.
And come through sometime. You may drive in and out in a few minutes or you might like it enough to stick around for a little bit. –KM
*Special Thanks again to the El Cajon Historical Society for the use of their historical materials on the web and also a big thanks to the unsung hero-writers that give Wikipedia the ever-expanding wealth of information that exists on it for a wide variety of subjects. Many thanks to both of you. This article wouldn’t be as accurate and chock full of great nuggets without your precious contributions.