Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862, and at least one San Diego County community is playing up the local impact of that action. The Act allowed for any adult who filed a $10 fee to get 160 acres of public land (as long as they promised to live on it), and it lured some of the earliest white settlers to Valley Center, about nine miles northeast of Escondido. Last week I had an opportunity to visit the Valley Center History
Museum, which is celebrating the sesquicentennial through May. I came away smitten.
For anyone who likes grizzly bears, this is the premiere destination in the county. An 8-foot-tall stuffed one rears up in the center of the room, surrounded by displays that recount how the largest grizzly bear in history – a 12-foot-tall, 2200-pound monster that had killed scores of cattle and at least 22 men – met its end near Old Castle Road, after menacing a young local settler and her three small children. (She blasted it with a musket, and a local Indian and two white men helped to finish it off.)
Folks started calling the settlement Bear Valley, until someone figured out that a town in Northern California had already grabbed that sexy moniker. It’s probably just as well that the town changed its name. Although California once was home to an estimated 10,000 grizzles, by 1924 humans had annihilated every last one of them. Still, to me Valley Center has the opposite drawback, making the place sound more boring than it has been — at least according to what’s on display in the museum. Some of the highlights:
— Celebrity residents that have included John Wayne, Wyatt Earp, Gary Cooper, Paul Newman, Mae West, Fred Astaire, Randolph Scott, June Allyson, Dick Powell, and Jenny Wimmer. The latter was the housekeeper for the guy who fished the first gold nugget out of the American River in 1848. Although she polished it up for him and declared it to be the real thing, thus kicking off the California Gold Rush, she and her husband left the area to homestead in Valley Center. Where they died in poverty.
— Amazing influence over American cookery. This came via the presence of Agnes White. She was the real woman behind the fictional Betty Crocker. Dreamt up in 1924 by the Gold Medal Flour company as a way of promoting its products, “Betty” (as portrayed by Agnes) hosted the nation’s first radio cooking show, “The Betty Crocker Cooking Show of the Air,” which debuted in 1924 and within a year was broadcast nationally on NBC radio. According to the museum display, Agnes installed indoor plumbing and a stainless steel demonstration kitchen in her home on Miller Road, where she created recipes and meal plans during the 40 years she lived there.
— Amazing ag history. This includes the 1888 harvest of the first commercial cotton crop planted in California, a 30-acre experiment that was so successful it led to California becoming a leading cotton-producing state. At another point, Valley Center boasted a rubber plantation. It also was the destination of “one of the grandest” cattle drives in US history, which took six months to bring some 2000 steer to Rancho Guejito from the Oklahoma territory.
— Possession of the smallest post office facility ever to operate in the United States. Local residents in 1955 got the Guinness Book of World Records to salute that 5- by 8-foot shed, which served about 50 homesteaders along Lilac Road from 1898 to 1912 with mail moved via stagecoach. Today it stands outside the museum entrance.
Staffed by volunteers, the museum is open from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. The phone number is 760/749-2993.