By DOUG CURLEE | La Mesa Courier
El Cajon is not a city that offers a whole lot of tourist attractions.
Even people who live here admit that, to a degree.
There is one, though, that many people here are more than a little proud of — and they should be.
It’s all due to a man who adopted El Cajon as home in 1944.
Olaf Wieghorst is recognized as one of the great American artists to bring us the stories and people of the Old West in America, through his paintings, drawings and stories of cowboys, Native Americans, horses, buffalo and every other aspect of the times.
Born in 1899 in Viborg, Denmark, he worked as a cabin boy on a ship bound for America. He joined the U.S Army Cavalry. He had learned to ride, and to love, horses in Denmark, so it was a natural choice for him. He served along the international border during and after World War I, protecting against the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.
He worked as a cowboy in the West for a few years, storing up the mental images that would fuel his successful art career.
Wieghorst returned to New York City in 1922 and unable to shake his love of horses, served on the Mounted Patrol of the New York Police Department for 22 years.
By this time, Olaf’s artwork was beginning to draw serious attention — and serious money.
In 1944, the draw of the West caused Wieghorst to gather family and paintbrushes and move to El Cajon. Here, he began to seriously create what would become much-desired and sought-after works of art.
He opened a studio in downtown El Cajon — which has now turned into the Olaf Wieghorst Museum, which brings about the point of this story.
Five years after the museum opened on Rea Street in El Cajon, the property just adjacent became available. It is now one of the more beautiful, parklike areas you’ll find anywhere, and 20 years ago, his El Cajon house at Sunshine and Renette streets was taken apart — not torn down, but taken apart and moved alongside the museum.
The whole thing is now run by a foundation of volunteers devoted to his story and his work.
They used to have some paid staff, but times got a little tough, and they had to be let go.
The big fundraising party they had on Aug. 3 in celebration of the museum’s 20th anniversary will help keep the place running and looking great, as it has since the house was moved in.
There are plants decorating the area you don’t normally see in El Cajon — there are plants there you don’t normally see in America. That’s primarily because the president of the museum’s foundation board is a landscape architect named Mike Bostwick, who spent decades as the Curator of Plants at the San Diego Zoo.
“We’ve got plants here from all over the world,” Bostwick said. “If you know where to get them, and how to take care of them, they’ll do well here.”
The foundation has a whole lot of Wieghorst’s painting available for sale, and they do sell. Hollywood stars and political leaders have bought and displayed his art over the years — John Wayne was a friend and a fan (Wieghorst actually made appearances in two John Wayne movies), and Ronald Reagan had a Wieghorst on the wall behind his desk.
I met a guy named Dave Galvan at the fundraiser. He’s part Piute Indian (as were five of my cousins, but that’s another story). He told me he met Olaf through his grandfather, a Piute Indian who was a model for one of Wieghorst’s better known works, “Buffalo Watch” — a simple, but powerful painting of a horse and a brave, obviously both worn out, atop a hill, looking for buffalo.
“I never met Olaf, but I feel like I know him through the family connection. Grandpa said he was a great man,” Galvan said.
The museum and property are open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 131 Rea St., El Cajon.
That’s a short street just off Magnolia Avenue about half a block south of Main Street.
If you like art, and the Old West, it’s a place you need to see.
— Doug Curlee is a longtime San Diego reporter in both print and television. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.