Secrets of the Centennial: How Suffrage Put Progressive Town on Cityhood Path

California's men in 1911 gave women the right to vote—and with it a big boost to La Mesa goal.

On Oct. 19, 1911, some 40 members of the La Mesa Women’s Club headed for downtown San Diego. But unlike most of the club’s excursions, this was not for social reasons. No beach picnic, theater show or lecture was on the schedule.

The ladies of La Mesa had a more determined purpose—they were headed to the County Clerk’s Office to become registered voters.

California Suffrage: The Fight for the Franchise “Right”

Just nine days earlier—on Oct. 10, 1911—the men of California had voted to pass Amendment Four to the California Constitution.  The amendment provided the state’s women the right to vote.

The passage made California only the sixth state in the union to enfranchise its female residents—a battle that suffragists, such as the famed Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had been fighting nationally for over half a century.
The victory in California was part of an intense and organized nine-month statewide campaign. 

Guided by national suffrage organizations, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and other women’s clubs and organizations, the campaign was triggered in January 1911 when the new “Progressive” state Legislature placed the amendment on the October general election ballot.

In 1896, California suffragists had seen their only other attempt for state suffrage fall to defeat.  As such, they were motivated to obtain passage of Amendment Four in 1911.

One reason for hope was the Progressive arm of the Republican Party’s political takeover of the California Legislature during the 1910 elections.

The Progressives had won support with their populist-inspired campaign against the large, powerful and perceived corrupt, corporate interests believed to be controlling California.

California Progressives, led by new Gov. Hiram Johnson, looked to bring government back to—and to be more responsive toward—the people. 

Unlike their anti-establishment, rural vs. urban Populist predecessors, the Progressives looked to election reforms and government oversight to control and regulate.

One of the political reform items that they championed—along with the Initiative and Referendum, recall, prcess, regulation of public utilities (including railroads, water and telephone companies) and local “home rule”—was women’s suffrage.

California Progressives recognized that women would be key political allies in addressing their political goals for local control. Even more important, they would support key social reform issues of the day such as control of liquor, child labor and public health concerns associated with pure-food laws and vice.

In San Diego County, the local suffrage campaign was organized through the leadership of Dr. Charlotte Baker, the first female physician in the county and a well-respected civic and social leader.

As documented in Kathyrn Roben’s 1992 SDSU master’s thesis, Dr. Baker and her suffrage associates traveled the county in the summer and fall of 1911 promoting the passage of the amendment.

Notable in this historic campaign was a legendary September 1911 automobile tour of the county.  Baker, her daughter Eleanor, and campaign associate Miss Ella Allen traveled in a decorated touring car christened in The San Diego Union as “the suffragist special.” 

Their “barnstorming efforts” would lead to victories in almost all the rural precincts of the county.

La Mesa and Environs Reflect Their Progressive Natures

In La Mesa and the surrounding areas, the suffragists and Progressives found a supportive community.

La Mesa’s civic leadership considered itself part of the new political wave.  The La Mesa Improvement Club, including key real estate and town developers such as the Park-Grable Co would regularly refer to, and promote, La Mesa Springs as a “progressive community.”

The area’s political support for suffrage was also evident.  Editorials in the El Cajon Valley News and La Mesa Scout illustrate the area’s Progressive agenda.

The Oct. 7 Valley News endorsed the “Reform and Progressive” platform and included testimonials from George Sears of El Cajon and H.D. Williamson of Santee.  Both men had experienced suffrage when they lived in Colorado—that state gave women the vote in 1893.

Sears and Williamson both recommended that all the men in the El Cajon Valley vote for Amendment Four.  Their statements outlined the moral, social and political advantages of granting the vote to the fairer sex. 

Sears was quoted on the general belief that “women’s suffrage is in the line of progressive politics and will benefit society.”

Although only a few issues of the La Mesa Scout remain from this period, the Sept. 29, 1911, edition features a position of similar support for the Progressive platform on its editorial page.

Guest author Edward Tory wrote on the need to support the Progressive platform on the Oct. 10 ballot.

In an editorial titled “Direct Legislation and Suffrage,” Tory reaffirmed the Progressive belief that “all power of government originates from the people” and that the ballot measures would reinstall a system in California to ensure the doctrine “government must develop from the people themselves.”

Tory added: “Direct legislation will be a check upon dishonesty, fraud and trickery in the Legislature… and having this power, the people will give … and become more familiar with the affairs of their government.”

And with such powerful civic privilege as affirmed in the democratic society's vote that “by the ballot the right of self-government is exercised.”

Therefore, “the right of women to vote is as absolute as that of a man.”

Such editorials in the Scout surely found support from the membership of the oldest civic organization in La Mesa—the La Mesa Women’s Club (formed in 1902 and still the oldest active service organization in La Mesa).

In addition to having a cadre of progressive-minded husbands, fathers and brothers, the La Mesa club’s membership had been treated to the leadership of a noted temperance advocate and suffragette, Mrs. Helen Stoddard.  The widowed former Texan had moved to La Mesa with her son Richard in 1910.

Shortly after, the club bestowed the honored position of club president on Mrs. Stoddard—in many ways the highest civic position for La Mesa women of the day.

Stoddard quickly became a valued community asset for both the women and men of the town—an icon of the moral, upstanding and Progressive town.  (It was a role she would take even further when she made nationally significant history in 1912.)

Glorious Victory

With the local political scene subscribed to the Progressive movement and suffrage cause, it was not a surprise that the county's Mission Township—which included La Mesa, Lemon Grove and Spring Valley, as well as the neighboring Cajon Township,—would support all of the October 1911 ballot measures.

On Oct. 11,  the headline in the San Diego Sun read “Progressive Measures Win Glorious Victory,” but it also reported: “Suffrage Is In Doubt.”

Although the other Progressive ballot measures had passed handily, the men of California were nearly divided on the suffrage issue. The count was too close to call on Election Night. The initial results noted a very slight lead of roughly 1,000 votes from the nearly quarter-million cast statewide.

It would take two more days before Secretary of State Frank Jordan would certify the victory of Amendment Four—by just over 3,500 votes statewide (125,037 to 121,450).

On Oct. 14, The San Diego Union reported that Jordan rendered his decision that the women of California could now register with their respective county clerks.

In San Diego County, Dr. Baker and her suffragette supporters quickly offered their services to assist County Clerk John T. Butler. Baker and three of her associates were “deputized” as registers and started “signing up the ladies" on Oct. 16.

For leaders in San Diego, the haste in registering the women of that city rested with a scheduled vote on harbor improvement bonds scheduled for Nov. 14, 1911. County ordinances required that all voters be registered at least 25 days prior to an election.

As such, Butler deputized 12 additional ladies and opened an additional registration “office” at the San Diego YWCA to assist in the rush of applicants.
On Oct. 26, The San Diego Union reported that 2,528 women had registered countywide, bringing the county’s registered voters total to 14,185.

The Los Angeles Times reported on San Diego’s rush to register its recently enfranchised ladies.

And it documented the registration efforts of the La Mesa Women’s Club.  On Oct. 19, more than three dozen members traveled to San Diego and “signed up.”

The Times article noted that although the La Mesa ladies would not be voting on the city’s harbor bond issue, they “were going to register now for fear of something which might turn up to prevent them later on.”

In reality, the ladies of La Mesa already had a local need to become registered voters.

La Mesa’s Ladies Register for Own Civic Issues

For La Mesa’s civic leaders and promoters of 1911, dreams for the Progressive town’s continued success were facing some potential threats.

On the one hand, the town was fulfilling its suburban plan. La Mesa Springs alone had reported the construction of 60 new houses by early October. The estimated population of the town and surrounding area swelled to near 950 from the estimated 700 of just a year earlier.

SDG&E had brought the town electric power in September 1910 and plans were under way for gas service as well as expanded telephone service.

The growing youth population had already required three straight years of additions to the local Allison School House.

As the 1911-12 school year started, they rented the second floor of E.A.D. Reynold’s new business building at the corner of Date and Lookout (La Mesa Boulevard) to meet the demand for the bulging grammar school.

And with the growing population, La Mesa Springs’ leaders approached the county supervisors in early 1911 with the hopes of a getting a town constable to help address public safety concerns—especially with the new state highway cutting through downtown.

At the time, the Mission Township had but one justice of the peace—La Mesa's Fred Bloom.  The supervisors, however, reportedly rebuffed the request.
But the most significant concern facing the developers of La Mesa Springs was that of a consistent water source.

As suburban developers, or agriculturalists, in arid Southern California knew, water was the key to success.  Without water, the land had little development value.

The San Diego Flume Co. had been the first to try to remedy this for “the Mesa.”

Although they had successfully brought water from the Cuyamaca Mountains in 1889, the company struggled to adequately supply its contracted customers in the El Cajon Valley, La Mesa, Lemon Grove and Spring Valley.

In 1899, the company was placed in receivership to its English bondholders.  The effects of an extended drought from 1897 to 1904 and the costs of maintaining the system of nearly 36 miles of wooden flume and tunnels made the company costly to operate and maintain—and therefore was an inconsistent supplier and bane to its customers.

In 1910, La Mesans and the rest of the Flume Company’s customers saw a glimmer of hope. Grossmont developer Ed Fletcher and his new investment partner James Murray bought the destitute company.

Fletcher and Murray renamed the operation the Cuyamaca Water Co.  Their original goal was to ensure water supply for their own properties (today's Grossmont and the future Fletcher Hills area) but soon worked to make improvements to fulfill the Flume Company’s obligations to its contracted customers.

Within a year of the purchase, however, both Fletcher and Murray publicly acknowledged that the costs for upkeep would not pay off without a large urban customer base. As such, their long-term goal was to rid themselves of the water company—possibly to sell it to the city of San Diego and its urban customer base.

This realization shook the businessmen, developers and residents of growing La Mesa Springs.  Although there were two small water companies at La Mesa Springs (La Mesa Mutual Water Co. and Lookout Park Water Co.), these owned only the pipes to distribute water in town. They had no supplier other than the Cuyamaca Water Co.

Therefore, if San Diego controlled La Mesa’s water supply, the community would be at the mercy of its large western neighbor—a city now topping 40,000 residents. Such a scenario assumed a path toward, at best, annexation.

The Path to Self-Determination

Fearful of losing control of their destiny and seeing little support from the county and their surrounding rural neighbors, the leaders of La Mesa Springs turned to the state’s Municipality Act.

That California act allowed communities of more than 600 residents to incorporate as a “city of the sixth class.”

Inspired by the political fervor of California’s Progressive ideals in local control and government close to, and for, the people, the La Mesa Improvement Club formed a committee to pursue incorporation as a city.

The nine-person Incorporation Committee had a strong leadership group consisted of three well-qualified professionals.

The first was Harry C. Park, secretary-treasurer of the Park-Grable Co. and son of company founder C.C. Park. 

Second was Daniel L. Bissell—a civil engineer charged with completing the survey and map of the proposed new city. 

Attorney Lester T. Welch served as the third and most valued member—being an expert in land-use law.

On Nov. 16, 1911, the committee held a meeting to complete the first task in the legal process of incorporation. That was to gather the signatures of at least 50 registered voters in the proposed incorporation area. 

On that day, the committee gathered a petition with 70 signatures—including 24 from La Mesa’s newly enfranchised ladies.

Four days later, the group certified the petition and had Bank of La Mesa cashier Lorenzo Sperbeck notarize the document.

They sent it to County Clerk John Butler for placement on the next meeting agenda of the Board of Supervisors, set for Dec. 6.

On Nov. 25, The San Diego Union published the following notice:


Citizens of La Mesa will apply, on December 6, for articles of incorporation for a city of the sixth class, to be named La Mesa, with a population of approximately 950 inhabitants.  The boundaries of the new city will include about three square miles of territory, two miles running east and west through the center of the town, 1½ miles north and south.

As soon as the petition has been received and the articles of incorporation granted, an election of officers will be held.

Four days later, La Mesa’s path to incorporation seemed to be on track.  The Nov. 29 Union featured an article with the headlines:

Majority of Citizens Favor Measure; Large Affirmative Vote Expected.

What the article did not report, however, was a meeting on Nov. 24 of another group of La Mesa Springs and La Mesa Heights residents.

This group—led by the Rev. Hugh Marshall, a local rancher—had compiled its own petition. These La Mesans had a very different perspective on the idea of incorporation.

On Dec. 1, 1911, the two groups would meet at the La Mesa Opera House in the first open “public meeting” on the subject. They met in order to answer the suddenly contentious question before all La Mesans of the day: “Shall we incorporate or shall we not?”

Next:  La Mesa’s “Bumpy” Road to Incorporation

Miriam Raftery January 31, 2012 at 05:59 PM
Thanks, Ken, for a fascinating story on a piece of La Mesa history I hadn't heard about before. Good for the kids to see this women's rights stuff didn't start with their parents generation--but rather our grandparents and great-grandparents! ;-)
Craig Maxwell January 31, 2012 at 10:51 PM
Very interesting, Thanks, Jim. Question: Do you know if Flying "A" Studio came to town because of (or, perhaps, contributed to) La Mesa's political character?
Mark Robak February 01, 2012 at 02:32 AM
So Jim, do you have a map that shows the initial city boundaries?...The boundaries of the new city will include about three square miles of territory, two miles running east and west through the center of the town, 1½ miles north and south.
Kathy February 01, 2012 at 02:50 AM
Great article! I've always been interested in women's suffrage history, and this La Mesa and California perspective is fascinating. Thanks!
James D. Newland February 01, 2012 at 05:28 AM
Craig, thanks. Honestly I don't think that Allan Dwan and the Flying A company's interest in La Mesa was significantly influenced by the "political character," per se. They seemed to be more practically attracted by the Wolf Building and the available vacant lot to build their outdoor sets. I suspect that "punching out" two one-reelers a week didn't give them too much time to get involved in political causes--or much else for that matter. At the same time I think the town's leaders/promoters considered having a cutting edge industry in town as a sign of their Progressive, modern community.
James D. Newland February 01, 2012 at 05:31 AM
Mark Haven't come across such a map so far, but we do have a legal description of the original proposed boundaries. Also, as you will read in the upcoming Part II, the original proposed City boundaries, will not end up being the original City boundaries...


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