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The Sun Shines Sooner… La Mesa’s surprising connection to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition

Posted: November 28th, 2014 | Columns, Featured, The Sun Shines Sooner… | No Comments

By Pam Crooks

My life lately seems to revolve around history. I’m writing this column in a suburb of London, England, where we’re staying with our son’s family for Thanksgiving. Near their house is a small, green park that in the 1600s was the site of a major battle between Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads and the proponents of Charles I, who tried unsuccessfully to retake the government. 

A few days ago we visited Temple Church in London, established by the Knights Templar during the Crusades in the 1100s, still offering regular services today. Apparently King John hid out there before the barons of England convinced him to sign the Magna Carta in the 1200s.

I work part-time for the Coronado Historical Association, helping promote events and programs about that historic community. And I volunteer in Balboa Park, which is poised to celebrate the Centennial of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.  That event gave rise to the beautiful Spanish Colonial buildings and gardens we know and love today, including the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, donated by Coronado’s John D. Spreckels and his brother Adolph.  (More about John Spreckels in a moment.)

A 1915 postcard from the collection of La Mesa resident David Marshall, author of “San Diego’s Balboa Park”

But what does all this have to do with La Mesa? La Mesa’s history is tied up with San Diego’s. After all, when La Mesa was incorporated in 1912, as the planning for the 1915 Exposition was in full swing, the region’s population was quite small.   So it’s not a big surprise that familiar names pop up when we look back at that era.

Take Collier Park in La Mesa for example, named for David “Charles” Collier, a risk-taking entrepreneur who spurred the development of La Mesa by owning property and establishing a business in 1907, bottling and selling the “healthful” spring water he discovered bubbling up there. The tiny community was known as “La Mesa Springs” in those days.

You may have heard something about the battle to save the “Spring House” in Collier Park. But did you know that D.C. Collier was the first “Director-General” of the 1915 Panama California Exposition in Balboa Park? He championed the cause, chose the Balboa Park site and architect Bertram Goodhue to design the buildings.  Collier even donated $500,000 of his own money to help fund the enterprise, nearly bankrupting him.

Next time you’re in Balboa Park, stand in the front of the Museum of Man (the building with the California Tower), turn toward the Cabrillo Bridge and look up at the enclosed pedestrian bridge leading from one side of the museum to the other.  There you will see a large plaque dedicated to D.C. Collier.

Another familiar La Mesa name, Col. Ed Fletcher (Fletcher Parkway, Fletcher Hills), was also very active during this time period. Just like Collier, Fletcher was an enterprising businessman who saw a great opportunity in La Mesa. In partnership with William Gross, he began the development of the Grossmont-Mt. Helix section in 1908.

A few years later, Fletcher would serve as a director for the 1915 Exposition, and he raised funds to save many of the Expo buildings from demolition after the fair closed.  He also owned the Cuyamaca Water Company and with James A. Murray built a dam creating Lake Murray. He would later do “battle” with John D. Spreckels over water rights (along with the city of San Diego) to the San Diego River.

In early November, I purchased tickets and went on the La Mesa Historical Society’s (LMHS) 2014 Historic Home Tour, viewing five homes in the original Grossmont Colony area, including one I especially wanted to see—the Fletcher/Pykles House built in 1961 for the Fletcher family. The site includes a large rock outcropping with steps leading to a small platform that Ed Fletcher himself had installed to take in the stunning 360-degree vista from the Grossmont summit—an area one early resident, noted author Carrie Jacobs Bond, called “God’s Garden.”

Our town’s unique history will again be celebrated on Sunday, Dec. 14, at the Historical Society’s annual Christmas Open House at the McKinney House Museum, decorated in early-1900s-era holiday style. Admission is free. Bring the whole family for a glimpse of life here a century ago, when people like Collier, Fletcher and Spreckels were shaping what our region would be like for generations to come.

While you’re there, why not join the society for a modest fee and support their efforts to preserve and share our town’s history? You’ll receive advance notice of their programs throughout the year. LMHS President Jim Newland is currently writing a book about the rich history of the Grossmont-Mt. Helix neighborhood. No doubt there will be special programs offered when his book is released in 2015.

Find more information on the Christmas Open House and other upcoming programs at LaMesaHistory.com.

Pam Crooks is the founding editor of La Mesa Courier and lives in Mt. Helix. You can reach her by email at SunShinesSooner@gmail.com.

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