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Our Unlikely First Mayor: Charles Samson Was a Cityhood Dissenter

The Board of Trustees in 1912 began passing ordinances, including a ban on “gipsies and peddlers.”

It was like Grover Norquist calling for higher taxes. When Dr. Charles Samson was chosen over Solomon Canon 3-2 as president of the City of La Mesa’s Board of Trustees in 1912, it was a shock—especially to Samson.

Just over three months earlier, Samson had been one of 66 locals who had signed a petition—against incorporating. Now he was essentially the first mayor.

Samson, a 38-year-old physician at the time of his election, had come to La Mesa Springs in 1909 along with his wife, Ida, and young son Vernon. 

The Wyoming native had purchased a 10-acre parcel along the Cajon Road outside of the La Mesa Springs town site. 

He along with most of the larger landholders had initially opposed the idea of “city taxes” for his ranch property.  (Samson also bought a lot on Date Avenue. Here he built a “town” house for his family in 1911—now a city historical landmark).

It appears that Samson, a well-respected member of the community, had been a compromise and perhaps conciliatory trustee candidate.  Thus his election was a bit ironic, although he would prove a worthy civic leader.

Meeting in the “directors” room of the Bank of La Mesa, Samson called the initial business meeting of the City of La Mesa’s Board of Trustees to order.

Samson and trustee colleagues Canon, John A. MacRae, Dr. Joseph A. Parks and E.A.D. “Eli” Reynolds— along with the newly elected City Clerk Edward C. Upp, Treasurer Kellogg B. Finley and Marshal Frank M. Oliver—came together for the first official business meeting that Thursday evening, Feb. 29, 1912.

Taking a cue from the quadrennial extra day, the Trustees looked to “leap” forward in formally establishing the new city’s civic institutions.

Noted San Diego architect Irving Gill had designed the stylish bank building at the northeast corner of Lookout (La Mesa Boulevard) and Spring Street in 1909.

Along with housing the Bank of La Mesa, it also was home to the Park-Grable Real Estate Co.—the main promoters of La Mesa Springs and its suburban growth.

The Bank of La Mesa was the same site the trustees had met for the first, unofficial, time two weeks earlier. 

Unfortunately, in their haste to get together after the successful incorporation election of Feb. 7, 1912, the initial meeting of the trustees on Feb. 14 was technically an unofficial congress as it related to any formal business. 

It would not be until two days later—Feb. 16—that California Secretary of State Frank C. Jordan would recognize the city’s incorporation.

Thus the only action that presented a significant result from the Valentine’s Day meeting was the selection of Samson as president of the Board. 

Samson’s selection was likely a surprise to the large coalition of pro-incorporation residents. 

Getting Down to Business

But Samson and his board had no problem getting down to creating the city’s business that first meeting. 

Their first action was to create the initial city ordnances.  Ordinance #1 set the official time and place of the board meetings as the second and fourth Fridays at 7:30 p.m. at the bank’s “Director’s Room.”  

As noted in San Diego Union’s coverage of the meeting, the choice of the bank as a temporary “city hall” was extremely convenient for City Clerk Upp—since Upp also was  the assistant cashier for the Bank of La Mesa. 

An Illinois native, Upp had moved with his young family, including his building contractor brother Horace Upp and his family, from Iowa in early 1911. 

His efficient management work at the Bank of La Mesa quickly earned him the respect of the rapidly growing suburban town.

With the protocol of meetings taken care of, the board moved to legitimize their official actions.  Therefore Ordinance #2 allowed for the publication and enforcement of city ordinances. 

The trustees then turned to the fiscal issues of operating a municipality. Ordinance #3 fixed the amount of bonds and compensation for city officers, and Ordinance #4 prescribed the tax rate and process for levying such taxes for the initial 1912-1913 fiscal year.

The board set the bonding and compensation for the new city officers through Ordinance #3 as follows: 

  • City Clerk Edward C. Upp: $1,000 bond and salary of $25 a month.
  • City Treasurer Kellogg B. Finley: a $5,000 bond and compensation of 1 percent of city collections.
  • City Marshal and ex-officio tax collector Frank M. Oliver: a bond of $5,000 and the state prescribed salary for a justice of the peace.

Considering that a decent workingman’s wage in 1912 was about $15 a week, or less than $1,000 a year, these rates for the part-time civil service positions were not extravagant.

The board then fixed the tax rate at $1 per $100 of property valuation.  This set the foundation for the city’s initial budget.  City revenue was to be split at 17½ cents for salaries, 42½ cents for the streets fund and 40 cents for the general fund.

All told, the initial city budget would total $2,360—not much more than the cost to build a modest, modern house in 1912 La Mesa.

In wrapping up this first official business meeting, President Samson also appointed five standing committees:

  • Finance:  Canon, MacRae and Reynolds
  • Printing:  Parks, Reynolds, and MacRae
  • Budget and Expense:  Canon, Parks and Reynolds
  • Streets, Alleys and Walks: Reynolds, MacRae and Canon
  • Health:  Parks, MacRae and Reynolds

Little more was stated as to what the full roles of these committees were to entail. 

Thus ended the first official business meeting of the City of La Mesa. 

The next meeting, scheduled for March 8, would feature reports on the standing committees as well as consideration of adding a “city recorder” to the staff (a luxury they would resist).

The First Trustees and Officers

Although Dr. Samson may have been a surprise first mayor selection, the rest of those elected on the Board of Trustees, or as city officers, were not.  All had been fervent supporters of the incorporation.

But who were these pioneering civic leaders?

Treasurer Kellogg B. Finley was the longest-standing La Mesa Springs resident to be elected.  A New York native, he had come with his wife, Louise, to Allison Springs from the Dakota Territory in 1888. 

He bought some 24 acres in today’s downtown area where he developed one of the earliest citrus ranches.

Finley later sold much of his land to developer Sherman Grable for a house on Date Avenue, thus resulting in Grable and his partner C.C. Park naming a street for Finley in their initial development tracts.

Finley was 71 years old when he was elected the city’s first treasurer in 1912.

Iowa native Frank M. Oliver was another early resident.  Frank moved to La Mesa Springs in 1898 at the age of 39.  His experience as a teamster and farm foreman led to a reputation as a hard worker.  This resulted in his assignment as the initial contractor and caretaker for D.C. Collier’s springhouse and parkland at the old Allison Springs (one of the benefits of incorporation was Collier’s promise to deed the land to La Mesa for a park if the community incorporated).

Oliver had been working to develop the Springs property into a park when he bought block 7 of Park’s Addition along today’s 4th Street. 

In 1907 he built his own house there and started a nursery near the home (his house is now also a City Historical Landmark).

Oliver was 53 when he was elected city marshal—the precursor to today’s Police Department—although the marshal’s duties also included tax collecting and building inspection as well. 

Original trustee Solomon Canon was a 64-year-old millwright and former farmer who had arrived in La Mesa Springs from Washington-state with his wife, Alice, and son Byron in 1909. 

A New York native, Canon had moved to Wisconsin and started as a farmer prior to taking his family to Washington.  He was involved in local organizations such as the La Mesa Improvement Club and the local Masonic lodge.  He was 67 when he was elected to the Board of Trustees.

John A. MacRae was a 67-year-old Canadian native who moved to La Mesa Springs in 1909 along with his wife, Prudence, and daughter Gertrude. 

Gertrude served as a teacher at the Allison School while MacRae had a small citrus orchard to supplement his income.  The MacRaes lived in a house on Lookout Avenue (today’s La Mesa Boulevard).  John was also the first master of the La Mesa Masonic Lodge (established in 1910).

Dr. Joseph Parks was a well-known physician who had moved to La Mesa Springs in 1905 at the age of 32.  A specialist in lung disorders, he opened a tuberculosis sanitarium here on 30 acres of land that includes the Adult/Senior Center property of today. 

When La Mesa Springs continued to grow, Parks closed the sanitarium in 1909 and moved west of town along the Cajon Road (El Cajon Boulevard).  Parks Avenue is in the vicinity of his second home. 

Joseph Parks, a Tennessee native and widower when he arrived in La Mesa, became one of La Mesa’s civic leaders until his death in 1933.  A World War I veteran, Dr. Parks would be a founding member of La Mesa’s American Legion post.  

“Dr. Joe” and his second wife, Rose Miller Parks, whom he married in 1912, would be renowned for their civic service.  Rose Miller Parks was involved in social causes and served as city treasurer from 1934 until her death in 1952. 

E.A.D. “Eli” Reynolds, a New York native, arrived in La Mesa Springs in 1910 at the age of 53.  Reynolds and his wife, Carrie, and youngest daughter Olive moved here from Chicago. 

Typical of many of those who came to La Mesa, Reynolds had made money (in the paper making business) prior to his arrival.  Reynolds started the La Mesa Concrete Co. and went into the contracting business, helping to build curbs, sidewalks and houses.  He also built several commercial buildings on Lookout Avenue and was involved in local business interests and real estate speculation until his passing in the early 1930s. 

The First Municipal Election

During the next meeting, Dr. Samson and the new trustees realized the need to set the first municipal election and a plan for succession. 

At that March 8 board meeting, they set April 8 as the date for the first municipal election—and codified that an election would be held every two years thereafter.

The April 20, 1912, San Diego Union reported on the results of the “New La Mesa Board of Trustees.” 

Not surprisingly, the results were similar to that of February—but with a couple of youthful changes.

Samson, Canon, Parks and Reynolds were re-elected to the Board of Trustees.

However 27-year-old Harry C. Park, a key incorporation committee member and son of town leader C.C. Park, replaced John MacRae on the Board.

In addition, Edward Upp was re-elected as city clerk, but Wiley Magruder, the 21-year-old editor of the La Mesa Scout, supplanted Kellogg Finley as city treasurer. 

The trustees also established that the city marshal would no longer be an elected office, but an appointed position.

Trustees also recognized the need to avoid replacing the entire board each election.  As such, they drew lots to see who would serve the initial two four-year terms—Harry Park and Solomon Canon taking the longer terms while Samson, Parks and Reynolds would serve two-year initial terms. 

With succession determined, President Samson reworked the standing committees and set the new committee chairmanships:

  • E.A.D. Reynolds: Street, Alleys, Sidewalks and Parking Committee
  • Dr. J.A. Parks: Parks, Health, Morals and Sanitation Committee
  • Solomon Canon: Finance and License Committee
  • Harry C. Park:  Water, Fire and Lighting Committee

Even in 1912 parking was already an issue for consideration although horse-powered transportation was still in the majority.

A Keen Interest in Their Work and a Co-Operative Spirit

During the next few meetings, the efforts of La Mesa’s Board of Trustees continued to show what was reported in the April 26, 1912 Union as “a keen interest in their work.  Much time is being devoted to the drawing up of ordnances [as they were called], which are required in the operation of the new city.”

The board was reportedly “looking forward to considerable hard work during the next year drawing up and passing various ordnances, as the members are unanimous in their desire to make La Mesa the best city ... in the county."

One of those early ordinances aimed to eliminate “gipsies and peddlers” from La Mesa. 

This ordinance required a business license for rendering any service or product sold in the new city. 

The Union of May 3, 1912, reported that the ordinance was in response to a visit by “a party of gipsies” who “attempted to tell the fortunes of whoever they saw.”  This was followed a few days later by a troupe of “soap peddlers” who solicited business house to house.

Trustee Canon reportedly had confronted both parties personally and directed them to take their business elsewhere if they would not acquire the appropriate city licenses.

Such actions represented the “co-operative spirit” that this initial Board of Trustees felt as both representatives and protectors of the businesses and citizens of their town.

Imbued with the Progressive ideals of the time, the trustees—and those that had overwhelmingly voted to incorporate and take control over their own community’s destiny—had made the effort to re-unite with their incorporation opponents. 

They rallied around an optimistic vision of what their young city could and should be.  Those dreams were described in a statement from an unnamed trustee after the April 25, 1912, board meeting:

I want to say that we, as citizens of La Mesa, have before us a golden opportunity to make our city the gem of southern California. 

Now we can do it if every one does his part.  We have the natural advantages, such as location, mountain scenery and climate that are unsurpassed.  There is no place in the United States to compare with it.  Added to this we have the finest class of citizens here that this country can produce. 

Don’t you see then, how easy it will be for every true La Mesan to justly boast of La Mesa for what La Mesa is—the little gem?

Although these pioneering civic leaders were 13 years away from hearing Mary Garfield’s endearing ode to our little city that would become our motto, they somehow foresaw the “Jewel of the Hills” that still endures today—one hundred years later.

Learn More:  Author James Newland will make a presentation on the people and events that led to La Mesa’s incorporation in 1912.  The talk, “A City is Born: The Incorporation of La Mesa,” will be at the La Mesa Historical Society’s History Roundtable at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 17, at the Grossmont Healthcare Center Auditorium, 9001 Wakarusa St., La Mesa (next to Briercrest Park). 

The presentation is free of charge.

For more information, check the society’s website lamesahistory.com or call 619-466-0197.

Mark Robak March 15, 2012 at 04:52 AM
Great story Jim, it was like you were there describing what happened.

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