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Bonita Museum and Cultural Center

Visiting Paris, New York City, or San Francisco? I’m not AND I’m so over it.

Real travel is best when I transport myself into a different culture, not rush into a frenetic city that overstimulates on too many levels. That’s why lesser known cities and towns are the best locations to experience culture. It’s slow travel where I get to enjoy local history, small collectors’ museums and a culture very different from my own. And yet, I’m talking about the micro-cultures within which we all live. These micro-cultures may be only eight blocks long and to travel here means spending a little extra time noticing the nooks and crannies of what I would generally miss.

The Bonita Museum and Cultural Museum is the finest example of slow travel.

Run by the Bonita Historical Society, exhibits in the main hall often include photographers and local artists. Ask the docent to see the back room and you’ll discover collected gems, such as the Bay Cities newspaper and a dusty lantern.

The Bonita Museum was first established in 1987 and was housed in the shopping center on Bonita Road. However, a fired destroyed the museum in 1992. Volunteers saved the historical collection and created a “trunk museum” where residents carried photographs and memorabilia to local schools in the trunks of their cars. The museum then moved to the old firehouse until 2006 when the museum opened in a wonderful building next to the new Bonita-Sunnyside Library.

Today, kids are welcome to draw and play in the front room. Adults can then read the history of the South Bay, displayed on several large boards.

Kumeyaay Indians

Kumeyaay ArtifactsThe Kumeyaay were a hunter-gatherer culture and lived in this region for at least 3,000 years. Plant foods such as acorns, mesquite, seeds, agave, nuts, beans and fruit provided over 50% of their diet. Plants were also used for making medicines. Birds, wood rats, and rabbits made up a large portion of their game diet. Larger animals, such as deer, mountain sheep and antelope were also hunted.

The seacoast provided them with clams, abalone, scallops, starfish, octopus and grunion. Reed and wood boats were used for offshore fishing. Fishhooks were made of abalone shell with yucca fiber line, while nets were made of agave or yucca fiber.

Trading was an important way of life, with the salt from the San Diego Bay traded for obsidian, which they used for making knives, arrow points and scrapers. Their religious system, known as animism, infused the natural world with spirits.

By 1870 the first reservations were created mostly on undesirable land. The Kumeyaay at this point had to leave their South Bay communities, including the Chiap village, called La Punta by the Spanish, and located at the mouth of the Otay River.

Foreign Settlers

Land grants were given by the King of Spain to settlers from Mexico and Spain to develop the land and Christianize the local Indians. These land grants were managed by the Commandante of the Presidio. U.S. citizens also started to arrive from the east.

Private ownership of the Sweetwater Valley came about in 1845 when Mexican Governor Pio Pico turned over the land of the Rancho de la Nacion to Don Juan Forester, his son-in-law. One of the conditions was that Forester was to build a dwelling on the property. Forester built an adobe strcutre on what is now Rohr Park.

In 1868 the Kimball brothers bought this land for $30,000. The Kimballs originated the first subdivisions in the valley. They sold parcels to buyers from as far as Los Angeles and San Francisco. The land was selling for $200 an acre. Since the parcels in the valley were of a reasonable size, it created the ranches and “gentlemen farmers” of the day. The area that is now National City was cut into “city size” lots. In 1888 Chula Vista was founded and followed with slightly larger lots.

Sweetwater Dam

The Sweetwater Dam was the dream of Frank Kimball who saw a need for a source of water in this land of low annual rain. He identified the northwest corner his Rancho de la Nacion as the perfect site for a dam. Kimball deeded the land to The San Diego Land & Town Company.

Work on the dam began on November 17, 1886. The original plan was changed by James Dix Schuyler who took over the project. Schuyler decided the 50 foot dam would not hold sufficient water, so the dam was raised to 90 feet. Stone for the dam was quarried from a site just 800 yards away. Boulders weighing 6,000 pounds were mortared in place. Rock was hauled to the site by men and mules.

Despite the delays and changes mid-construction, over six thousand people came on April 19, 1888 to celebrate its opening. At its completion it stood twenty feet higher than any other arch masonry dam in the U.S. Its dimension measured 90 feet high, 340 feet long and 12 feet thick at the top and 100 feet long and 46 feet thick at its base, with a capacity to hold 5,871,310,000 gallons of water.

The Rainmaker

In late 1915, San Diego was in the throes of a four-year drought. Water in the city’s four reservoirs was dangerously low when the city received a letter from Charles Hatfield offering his services. He claimed he could refill these reservoirs for the sum of $10,000. Hatfield sealed the agreement with a handshake, loaded his wagons and took off for the Morena Reservoir. He erected towers and used chemicals and other mysterious mechanisms to bring the rains.

It seemed Hatfield had succeeded when the Big Flood of 1916 arrived. Known as the “Hatfield Rains,” the downpour on January 30th brought 2.7 times the capacity of Sweetwater at the time. This 500-year flood caused the south dike and the north abutment to fail, devastating the valley and taking the lives of twenty people.

Enraged farmers combed the hills vowing to “lynch Hatfield if they caught him.” Hatfield left town quickly, yet he came back a week later to collect what he thought he was owed — $10,000. The city denied him, so he sued. The case lingered for more than 20 years before being dismissed. Hatfield died in 1958.

The Dairies

Lemon orchards were a big industry in Bonita as were dairies, with mostly Holstein and Jersey milk cows. They provided milk, but also fertilizer for the orchards. There were at least thirty separate dairies between the years 1916 and 1950. A majority of the dairies were small operations where 20 to 30 cows were milked.

A notoable exception was the Samuel Williams dairy in the eastern end of the valley where several hundred cows were milked on a ranch of approximately 3,000 acres in size. In addition to having ample land for pasture, the owner was able to grow his own feed, and for several years, beginning in 1917, approximately 500 acres were devoted to growing lima beans.

In 1945 the Williams Ranch was sold to Union Oil Company of California.

Two additional noteworthy dairies were those operated by William Dolan from 1910 to 1930 and the Levi Kincaid dairy 1912 to 1931 between the present sites of Sweetwater Manor and Bonita Woods subdivisions. Another large dairy operation was the Burris Ranch, which began operations in 1922 on two tracts totaling more than 500 acres. The Burris dairy discontinued operations in 1945. Other dairies were the Eaton dairy at the intersection of Bonita Road and Otay Lakes Road and the Roilin dairy at the east end of the valley. These are the only two that still survived into the 1970’s. Today, the lemon orchards and dairies are a memory of the past.

The Dairy Drive-In

Dairy Drive InIn 1947 a fresh idea in milk marketing opened. Partners Gordon Cromer and Garth Knapp inaugurated the first drive-thru dairy “filling station” at their place of business, the Cloyed’s Dairy Farm in Chula Vista. Inspired by the drive-in gas stations popping up all over the country, the venture made sense at the time. At its peak, the partners estimate as many as one thousand automobiles would drive in for the families’ dairy products. The convenience of shopping for a daily staple without getting out of your car, as well as the assurance of freshness, simply by the proximity of the very cows, made this a hit in the late 1940s.

Audi Elizabeth Lawson, Founder of the Bonita Museum

Finally, a biographical sketch of Lawson pays tribute to her donation of the Bonita Museum. Audi Lawson was born in Kentucky in 1920 and after a series of moves, attended The Bishop’s School in La Jolla as a boarding student. She received a B.A. from the University of Michigan in 1945 and then moved with her husband to Chula Vista in the 1950’s. In 2005, during the construction of the new building, the Lawson’s made the Bonita Museum & Cultural Center the beneficiary of their estate, which included the donation of Audi’s artwork.

To find out more historical tidbits about your neck of the woods, you’ll have to enjoy the museum yourself. I’ve left out historical descriptions of the old red barn, the Carnes hatchery and the first Bonita schools.

Check the website also for their events and so much more!

Recommended Reading:  Bonita by Steven Schoenherr, Mary E. Oswell, and the Bonita Museum and Cultural Center

Address: 4355 Bonita Road, Bonita, CA 91902


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