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Civil War Over Cityhood: Some in La Mesa Springs Fought Incorporation

But on Feb. 7, 1912, a landslide vote favored new City of La Mesa; state made it official Feb. 16.

The San Diego Union headline of Dec. 2, 1911, said:

LA MESA RENT WITH STRIFE OVER QUESTION OF INCORPORATION
Decided Opposition Arises to Plans Which Heretofore Had Plain Sailing

This likely shocked La Mesa Springs’ incorporation supporters—but no more than they had been shocked the night before.

On Friday, Dec. 1, 1911, the La Mesa Improvement Club’s incorporation committee called a public meeting to explain the incorporation process and address questions. 

The meeting was held at the La Mesa Opera House on the northeast corner of Palm and Lookout (today’s La Mesa Boulevard). 

Previously, all reports on the incorporation efforts in The San Diego Union and other local press indicated near unanimous support for the young town’s municipal dreams. 

Three weeks earlier, incorporation supporters led by the La Mesa Improvement Club’s incorporation committee of banker Harry Park, engineer Dan Bissell and attorney Lester Welch gathered far more than the required 50 signatures, published their intentions in the Nov. 25, 1911, San Diego Union and planned to present their petition to the county Board of Supervisors on Dec. 6, 1911.

The community had recently observed Chula Vista OK’ing incorporation on Oct. 17, 1911. Riding the wave of California’s Progressive movement, La Mesa area residents saw their goals for self-determined governance as the obvious next step to the future success of their “modern” community.

The Dec. 2, 1911, Union described La Mesa Springs’ general understanding of the incorporation question coming into the public meeting: “For a time, it seemed as though the project of those who contemplated elevating the little community to municipal dignity would meet little or no opposition.”

What the incorporation proponents and the local press had either underestimated—or not yet recognized—was a quickly organized and vigilant opposition.

Just a week earlier—on Nov. 24, 1911—this opposition had put together its own petition listing 66 names. 

The Rev. Hugh Marshall—a 68-year-old Scottish immigrant whose 11-acre ranch sat west of town along the Chollas Road (today’s University Avenue west of downtown)—led the opposition.

Most of those signing the opposition petition were landholders of larger “rural” properties outside the growing suburban tracts in the La Mesa Springs town.

Some of the most well-respected La Mesa residents had signed the opposition petition, including the Rev. Henry Porter, owner of the old Roach property and his longtime La Mesa resident neighbor Col. James Randlett (the Porter and Randlett ranches covering today’s Memorial Park and Porter Hill areas). 

Others of note were Dr. Charles Samson and David M. Jones (both future mayors).

The text of the opposition petition reflected their immediate concern with the rapid progress of the incorporation process:

We the undersigned protestants against the incorporation of La Mesa respectfully petition your Honorable Body to hold a certain petition under advisement in order that said protestants may be able to present you with facts maps & etc. in regard to reasonable lines.  Should petitioners insist on said incorporation, we the protestants sincerely hope you may grant our reasonable request.

Such was the context as this group of well-respected citizens met with incorporation supporters that Friday evening at the Opera House. 

The Union reported that the planned question for the Dec. 1, 1911, meeting was supposed to be “Shall we incorporate or shall we not?” 

However, when advocates attempted to bring the question to discussion, “so strong an opposition manifested its presence that the meeting ended in disorder without the question having been brought to a vote.”

A Procedural Bump in the Incorporation Road

Just five days later, the two sides presented their cases to the county Board of Supervisors. 

The Union reported that many La Mesa residents on both sides appeared before the board but that the incorporation petitioners held a large advantage, claiming at least 150 supporters to the opponents’ 60. 

The proponents’ petition submitted for the Dec. 6, 1911, supervisors meeting found in the county records now showed 96 names. 

Sherman Grable, president of the Park-Grable development company, was still the first name on the petition, followed by a list of noted pioneers and civic leaders including his partner Charles C. Park (also owner of the Lumber Company and Bank of La Mesa president), Drs. Joseph Parks and Charles Birney, and numerous businessmen, developers, contractors—along with many esteemed ladies including the wives of Eli Reynolds, justice of the peace Fred Bloom, Dr. Birney and the La Mesa ladies suffragette leader Mrs. Helen Stoddard.

Attorney and petition signer Lester Welch represented the proponents’ case to the board that fateful Wednesday afternoon. 

The opponents, however, also brought counsel. 

San Diego attorneys J.D. Malcom and A.H. Sweet represented the dissenters and the aforementioned petition of 66 names requesting delay and reconsideration of the incorporation boundaries. They asked the board to release the larger, rural landholders from the new city—and the inevitable city taxes they felt would be to their detriment. 

Malcom and Sweet also testified that the proponents had not followed the appropriate procedures for publishing notice of the incorporation application. In addition, a second petition against the incorporation came from a group of La Mesa School District residents and landholders. 

Although only a few of these citizens had their land within the proposed incorporation boundaries, the school district residents were fearful of what would happen if some of their district lands were incorporated into the new city and excluded from the district’s tax base.

Residents of the original La Mesa Townsite (generally becoming known as La Mesa Heights) and north into Maryland Heights and west into today’s College Area had recently completed a new schoolhouse (designed by noted San Diego architect Irving Gill) in 1911. 

They presented their own petition featuring concern for the loss of these property holders in the repayment of the bonded indebtedness for their new, modern school.

Signers of the La Mesa district petition included long-standing community leaders such as Lincoln Mansur, W.L. Keeney, Oliver Burgess and John Pearson. These “original” La Mesans claimed that removal of the proposed lots from the district “would be a great injustice to the residents and property owners remaining in said school district.”

In addition, these residents of the original La Mesa Townsite put into writing their first official complaint over the intent of La Mesa Springs residents to formally usurp the name “La Mesa” for the new city.

Armed with the petitions and testimony, the Board of Supervisors referred the petition for incorporation to District Attorney H.C. Utley for review. 

Utley responded that he would make give an opinion on the petition at 2 p.m. the following day—Thursday Dec. 7.

Utley rendered his opinion on time: The petition was legitimate and had the requisite number of registered voters, but incorporation supporters had failed to meet the requirement to have the “Notice of Application” published three consecutive times within a two-week period.

So the original petition would need to be refiled with the appropriate public notification completed prior to resubmittal. 

In other words, they had to step back and start over.

If at First You Don’t Succeed …

Disappointed but not defeated, Park, Bissell and Welch quickly moved to correct their error.  

They turned to their fellow petition signer, Wiley Magruder, the 21-year-old editor of the La Mesa Scout.  Magruder obtained the formal public notice and published it in the Dec. 15, 22 and 29 editions of the Scout.

Thus the La Mesa incorporation petition was now technically available to be presented to county supervisors.  The incorporation committee wasted no time and filed the petition at the Jan. 2, 1912, board meeting.

Armed with an “Affidavit of Publication,” Lester Welch submitted an updated petition for incorporation to the supervisors.

Opposition attorney A.H. Sweet also reappeared.  Without the ability to plead procedural error, Sweet turned his focus on the La Mesa Heights residents’ complaint over the use of the name “La Mesa” for the new city. 

Advocates Attorney Welch responded that there were no grounds for the name protest.  He noted that the La Mesa post office, located for more than 20 years at the San Diego Cuyamaca and Eastern railroad station at La Mesa Springs, signified the long-recognized moniker for the town. 

Welch also submitted maps and documents of the La Mesa post office’s name and location at the Springs.

Supervisors heard these arguments and decided to 1) pass the petition onto H.A. Utley for legal review again, 2) postpone the discussion of the name debate until their Jan. 15, 1912, meeting and 3) visit La Mesa that coming Saturday to review the proposed boundaries and nature of the territory.

The supervisors reportedly made their visit to La Mesa that Saturday. 

In the meantime, cityhood backers met with some of the “opposing” property owners on the outskirts of the proposed incorporation area to discuss adjustments.  County incorporation records indicate that San Diego real estate broker A.B. Curtis, who also had property in La Mesa, helped work with the various property owners.

Thus at the Jan. 15, 1912, supervisors’ meeting Lester Welch presented an incorporation map with adjusted boundaries on the west and northwest end of the proposed area. 

These adjustments apparently appeased most of the concerns of La Mesa School District bondholders.

The Union reported on the outcome of the Jan. 15, 1912, meeting that: “Strong opposition to the plan for incorporation was shown by a few citizens, but the majority of these were pacified by eliminating their property from the limits of the proposed town.”

Considering the efforts to appease some of those concerned, the Board of Supervisors approved the petition and called for a special election to answer the question of La Mesa incorporation.

The board set the date for Feb. 7, 1912. The location was the “Boy Scout Rooms” in the Lyons Building on Lookout Avenue.

Although the path to incorporation was set, the opposition was still active.
Files from the Jan. 15 supervisors meeting include additional letters from property owners who had not been appeased.

Ranch owner DeWitt Williams, who owned the 10-acre Bonita Ranch north of the Cajon Road and east of the original La Mesa Townsite (see today’s Williams Street), wrote a letter requesting relief from inclusion. 

Isabella Campbell, his neighbor to the south of Cajon Road, also wrote an impassioned letter: “I do bitterly oppose having my ranch of 10 acres … included in the proposed incorporation of La Mesa Springs and pray you will have mercy and not inflict this upon us but leave it outside the incorporation.”

With such testimony, the Jan. 16, 1912, Union added that “a few opposed to incorporation could not be satisfied as their property is near the center of the proposed incorporated territory.  Among these is H.A. Marshall.”

The Rev. Marshall’s property was well within the boundaries of the proposed city.  But his property could not be cut out like of those on the periphery.
Marshall’s main concerns were of being improperly taxed. 

He feared that “city tax rates” would be imposed on his own 11-acre citrus ranch—a rural property in his assessment. 

This opposition was similar to that of the local ranchers’ ongoing fights with the Cuyamaca Water Co.  Fletcher and his managers had been attempting—and would continue for some time—to charge higher per-unit “town rates” to such agricultural property owners as Marshall and his neighbors.

Although many of his initial anti-incorporation colleagues would be appeased and drop their opposition, Marshall would continue the fight.

Selecting Leaders and Preparing for the Polls

With Election Day set for Feb. 7, 1912, Incorporation Committee leaders called a public “caucus” meeting at the Opera House for Feb. 1.  

The headline in the Feb. 2 Union indicated that the tide had turned back toward the city builders.

ENTIRE HARMONY PREVAILS
Expect No Opposition to Incorporation at Polls Wednesday

“The meeting was one of the most enthusiastic and well-attended public gatherings ever held in La Mesa,” The report documented. “The little theater was crowded to capacity, there being present between 250 and 300 persons, a large number of them being women.”

The Union estimated that nearly 75 percent of the town’s registered voters were present. 

Their main task was to choose a slate of candidates for the municipal offices that would be created if incorporation passed.

Improvement Club President Jasper N. Howard, proprietor of the La Mesa Mill & Construction Co., temporarily chaired the meeting until the crowd elected Walter Moore caucus chairman and E. C. Upp as caucus secretary.

The Improvement Club’s incorporation committee then presented its recommended slate of E.A.D. Reynolds, Dr. Joseph A. Parks, John A. MacRae, Solomon R. Canon and Dr. Charles Samson for the city’s Board of Trustees.  Nominations of Edward C. Upp for city clerk, Kellogg B. Finley for city treasurer and Frank M. Oliver for city marshal followed.  The committee had selected these candidates at a committee meeting the day before.

The choice of Dr. Samson as a trustee indicated the efforts made to bring together the community’s leaders—Samson having been a signer of the original dissenting petition (Samson owned a house on Date Avenue but 10 acres outside of the town as well).

Additionally, the important role that the newly enfranchised ladies of La Mesa played in the political process was emphasized when Helen Stoddard and Isadore Barney, wife of Dr. Charles Barney, were nominated from the floor.

Interestingly both Stoddard and Barney declined to accept the offer to run (Stoddard had much bigger aspirations—but that’s a story for another time).

With the nominations closed, the caucus unanimously approved the slate for consideration along with the ultimate question at the Feb. 7 special election.

The Union reported no opposition in attendance at the Feb. 1 caucus.

The Rev. Marshall did make one last stealthy attempt at stemming the tide of incorporation on Tuesday evening Feb. 6—election eve.  

Handbills had been distributed throughout the town announcing that Judge S.D. O’Neal of San Diego would be speaking on the subject of incorporation that Tuesday evening at the La Mesa Opera House. 

O’Neal made his presentation to a large crowd—reportedly providing “many reasons for, and against, incorporation.”

Upon O’Neal completing his presentation, Hugh Marshall took over the stage in a supposedly preconceived plan to make his case for discrediting the incorporation and its supporters.

Marshall was reported to have “monopolized the stage and began flaying everybody and everything in connection with the movement.” 

Before he had finished talking, however, practically every one in the hall rose and walked out on him.

Election Day: Feb. 7, 1912

Marshall’s last-ditch efforts apparently had no effect.

The San Diego Union reported that “voting was lively at the polls in the morning with at least 180 votes being cast prior to noon and that “not a few women took interest in the election and did their share of the voting.”

The final result: 249 votes for incorporation and 60 against.

Voters also ratified the slate of candidates.

The ballots were then sent to the County Clerk’s Office for review.  From there the county sent the results to the state Secretary of State’s Office for certification of incorporation.

First Gathering of the City Trustees: Feb. 14, 1912

In the meantime, the newly elected Board of Trustees and officers met.  On Wednesday, Feb. 14, 1912, the trustees gathered together in a “spacious room in the rear of the La Mesa bank building.” 

R.K. Haines—incorporation petition signer and deputy county clerk—swore the trustees into office.  In the only actions they could take while awaiting the word on the state’s certification of the incorporation, the trustees elected their president and set their meeting dates for the second and fourth Fridays to be held at the Bank of La Mesa’s meeting room. 

In an action showing how the community had come together from the previously divisive months, the trustees elected from their ranks Dr. Charles Samson, the former incorporation opponent, as president (mayor) of the new City of La Mesa.  Samson was elected with 3 votes to Solomon Canon’s 2 votes.

La Mesa Birth Day: Feb. 16, 1912

Two days later, Secretary of State Jordan sent the following letter to San Diego County Clerk John T. Butler:

February 16, 1912

Dear Sir:

This will acknowledge receipt of a certified copy of minute order of the Board of Supervisors declaring result of the canvass and returns of the special election held at La Mesa February 7th, 1912.  The document was filed today in this office.

A city was born.

Next Time:  The new city gets to governing.

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