With its rolling hills, undisturbed land, grazing cattle, and old men in overalls, Flinn Springs seems worlds away from downtown San Diego. Yet it’s only 20 miles to the east. Tumbleweeds lie in stacks by the roadside, dusted with orange dirt. Until the Cedar Fire in October 2003, bald eagles nested atop what are known locally as the Sleeping Madonna Mountains, the two mountains closest to Olde Highway 80, the thoroughfare along which the community of Flinn Springs lies. Airstream trailers mix with RVs in mobile home parks; older houses sit on the hillside next to more contemporary homes, some with modest horse corrals and chicken coops. Mary Etta’s Cafe, whose menu has not changed since the ’60s, is a true roadside diner with its counter seating, vinyl booths, humorous collection of signs — “We reserve the right to serve refuse to anyone” — and farmer’s hours of operation, 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. There is Flinn Springs Feed and Supply, where the owners raise chicks under a heat lamp by the counter and keep goats out back in a pen. The red barn at Summers Past, a picturesque herb-and-flower farm, sits under an unbroken blue sky, fields beyond it awash in a flurry of green that will soon be dotted with blossoms. The Flinn Springs Country Store, which was an antique shop for 37 years, remains on a patch of land a bit farther down the road.
As well preserved as the area is, recorded history of Flinn Springs is scarce, something six-year resident Barbara Auckland discovered when she moved into her current home two years ago. Shortly after settling in, Auckland's teenaged son noticed a six-foot cross sticking up out of the land adjacent to their house. The two of them went to investigate and discovered that the old Flinn Springs graveyard, where many of the original settlers were buried, was butted right up against their property. Curious, Auckland set out to learn more but came up empty.
"I started to try and do some research online," she says, sitting at her desk at Friends of Cats, where she is the shelter manager. "I was typing in 'Flinn Springs, Cemetery,' 'Flinn Family,' 'Flinn Family History,' 'Flinn Springs History.' I went through the El Cajon Historical Society, couldn't find anything, went through the Lakeside Historical Society, couldn't find anything."
Finally, one of the boardmembers at Friends of Cats learned of Auckland's quest for information and gave her a copy of This Was Yesterday, a softcover volume on Flinn Springs history, self-published in 1953. Written by Julia Flinn De Frate, who was born in 1876 and was one of what locals refer to as "the original Flinns," it is an account of how her grandparents settled the area and what the times were like, right down to what the family ate for dinner. She tells of William Flinn and his family's travel west from Texas in 1860, of fording rivers and fighting off illnesses and how they set up their home once they reached California. They settled first in Los Angeles County; then, in 1865, William and his son Jim came to San Diego, acquiring ranchland along Los Coches Creek, just east of the spread owned by Jim's soon-to-be father-in-law, Julian Ames. Formerly known as Montebann, "because the outline of the mountain above the valley resembled a sleeping woman," De Frate writes, the Flinns' new ranch had "a good spring." By 1920, the place was known as Flinn Springs.
Peppered with recipes, memories, and grandma's-knee stories, the book describes the Flinns and the Ameses as hardworking, well-meaning folks, a mix of Spanish and American, East Coast and West, and the Flinn Springs life as idyllic but simple. "I remember with the vividness that only our childhood memories seem to hold, a way of life that repeated the pattern set when this nation was young, the pattern of pioneers dependent upon the land and what their brains and hands could make it yield," De Frate writes in the foreword to her memoir. "I remember patient horses trudging in an unending circle, turning the stone mill wheels that ground our wheat. I remember Indian women heating water in great iron cauldrons for the daily laundry. I remember birth and death, when both were hard, without the anodyne of sedatives.... In my childhood, I knew the childhood of our land." The book goes on to describe, with great detail and in skilled if slightly disorganized prose, how houses were built, food was made, and children were raised: with love, honesty, freedom, and discipline.
Even though she lives next to the graveyard, Auckland's not worried... anymore. "I tried not to be freaked out about it," she says. To quiet her fears, she had a coworker, a woman she describes as being on a "higher level," come to check it out. "She walked around and she smiled and she said, 'Oh, this is great, they're really friendly, they're really settled,'" says Auckland, with a smile. The coworker also told Auckland that there is a cameo somewhere on her property that she is meant to find; so far, she hasn't found it. This is no matter; her journey through Flinn Springs' history has helped forge Auckland's ties to the community and made her feel more at home, something that's hard to do in such an insular place. Auckland, a native of England, loves it and its old-school feel. "Isn't it a trip? It's like Little House on the Prairie time!"
It is this fresh-faced, just-postcolonial feel that is Flinn Springs' biggest draw. While there is plenty of evidence of wear and tear--houses falling in on themselves, overgrown lawns, old and abandoned vehicles sinking into the earth--it just adds depth of character, mixing Once Upon a Time in the West rough-and-tumble with Laura Ingalls Wilder quaint-and-pretty. Summers Past Farms, the epitome of cute with its big red barn and meticulously tended flower gardens, has since its inception brought city folk to what is known locally as "the backcountry." "I think it's made Flinn Springs more well known," says Sheryl Lozier, who owns the farm with her husband Marshall. "People now may have heard about Flinn Springs more because people know about the farm."