Eleanor Roosevelt. Betty Crocker. Wyatt Earp. Those are some of the famous names associated with my neighborhood. And then there are the celebrities: Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, June Allyson, Dick Powell, and John Wayne come to mind.
My neighborhood also can boast that it is home to the last remaining Mexican land grant rancho in California and the smallest post office in the United States, and that the town cemetery has the remains of the woman who triggered the most significant event in California history.
I live in one of San Diego’s oldest and most historic neighborhoods. It will come as a surprise to many to learn that the rural community of Valley Center, tucked away in the northeast section of the county, has attracted so many celebrated persons and can make claim to so much of what has happened in the American West. And it’s all in my back yard.
Settled in 1845, Valley Center is home today to the last remaining Mexican land grant rancho. Once there were 800 such ranchos, but only the 22,000-acre Rancho Guejito still exists, exactly as it was 162 years ago when my neighborhood was part of Mexico.
What was it about my neighborhood that attracted so many celebrated people?
Eleanor Roosevelt was a frequent visitor to the Valley Center ranch house of United Nations Ambassador Irving Salomon for 12 years until Roosevelt’s death. The two had met in New York where both served on the U.S. delegation. It was here that she wrote her weekly nationally syndicated newspaper column. Her personal guest cottage remains untouched.
Betty Crocker, whose real name was Agnes White, lived and cooked in Valley Center for nearly 40 years. A home economist, she was the original Betty Crocker and hosted the nation’s first radio cooking show. Her Victorian home remains a showplace.
The legendary Wyatt Earp was a frequent house guest of his niece, Peggy McNally, who was said to be as feisty as her famous uncle.
A street near my home bears the name McNally, and John Wayne—whose own sprawling house was just up the road—once said his favorite riding trail was along McNally Road.
As for the other movie stars who once called this neighborhood their own, there is little clue as to what might have attracted them to what still is a sparsely populated community that lies miles from the nearest interstate. We know only that Fred Astaire frequently visited and hunted with a family friend whose adobe spread he later purchased.
The hacienda designed by noted architect Clifford May for June Allyson and Dick Powell in 1945 remains a splendid spread in my neighborhood. Its current owner is Glen Bell, best known as founder of Taco Bell.
And then there is Elizabeth Jane Wimmer whose 15 minutes of fame came and went with the California Gold Rush. She was at Sutter’s Creek when John Marshall was handed what appeared to be a gold nugget. Mrs. Wimmer knew how to test the metal, and later declared it to be gold. That comment set off the most important event in California history, but Jenny (as she was called) left town without a penny. She later died in Valley Center and is buried in Valley Center Cemetery with the most impressive burial marker in my neighborhood graveyard. She is now recognized as the “co-discoverer” of California gold.
And, finally, there is the smallest post office in the United States, as noted in the Guinness Book of World Records. At 40 square feet, the structure was in service from 1898 until 1912. The building somehow remained untouched and unmolested at its original location until it was moved in 2004 to the Valley Center History Museum at 29200 Cole Grade Road, which maintains evidence of my neighborhood’s colorful past.