The Old Country Store
By Anthony F. Sonka
We came to Lemon Grove from Texas in 1907, and my father owned the general store there from October 1907 until the time of his death in 1909. In 1908 1 was appointed postmaster, and was regularly reappointed until I resigned in 1940. We boys took over the store in 1909 and operated it as Sonka Bros. General Merchandise until 1945.
In the early days, lemons were the chief industry, and hundreds of carloads were shipped from the local packing house, which was operated by the California Citrus Union; later the Lemon Grove Citrus Association was organized. Most of the ranchers did their own work. They all had horses and mules, and almost every family had a cow, and chickens, and a garden. Our lighting was by kerosene lamps, and cooking was by kerosene, wood and coal. It was that way until 1910, when the San Diego Gas & Electric Company ran power lines out; two years later gas was supplied.
When my father bought the old store, it was a regular "general mercantile" business. We carried groceries, hardware, implements, feed, fuel, dry-goods, shoes, and anything else that a customer was likely to want. If we didn't have something in stock, we would order it for the customer and get it out from San Diego. Lemon Grove was a community of five and ten acre lemon and orange ranches, chiefly owned by semi-retired people.
The railroad at that time was the San Diego & Southeastern originally the San Diego, Cuyamaca & Eastern. It ran on through Lemon Grove to Foster Station at the foot of the Mussey Grade, and was our source of transportation. There were five passenger trains daily between Foster and San Diego. The depot was at Thirteenth and L Streets, down by the waterfront.
The only other way to get to San Diego was by Lemon Grove Boulevard, which is now Highway 94, (Broadway), or Imperial Avenue. People travelled by horse and buggy and it took an hour, or perhaps an hour and a half. Many a time we would go to town and not meet a soul going either way. Coming home, if we were late, we just put the reins over the dash-board and gave the horse a little lick with the whip. The horse knew the way home, and when we arrived the sudden stop of the buggy would awaken us.
The railroad was built in 1888 and the first postmaster, Sherman R. Allen, was appointed in 1893; the trains always carried the mail. Sometimes deliveries would be late, and we had to run to the station to get the mail onto the train. I remember that in all those years we never missed getting the mail on board, because there was a $5 fine if you missed the train.
Our first constable was J. H. Barry, who lived near Sweetwater Dam. Any trouble that arose would require a call to him, and he would come over and try to straighten it out; if anyone had to go to court, he went to San Diego. Later there was a justice in a local court for a short time, a man named Dodson. For lack of having enough to do, he left before long.
Baseball was the chief amusement in Lemon Grove in the early days. We had a lot of lemon-pickers around, and were always able to get up a good team; the games were played on Sunday afternoons. In 1915 Lemon Grove won what they called at that time the Valley Championship. Among the teams were North Park, Lakeside, El Cajon and Chula Vista. We had a diamond which the players had built themselves, and which they kept up. We really had fun, and if we couldn't win games with good play our fans would make a racket with tin cans and utensils t~ rattle the other side, so we generally won anyway.
When we first came to Lemon Grove, ours was the only business in the area. Our customers came from all parts of Lemon Grove, Spring Valley, La Mesa, and even as far away as Campo. Cattlemen came down and bought their provisions, generally a six months' supply. It was another six months before they paid their bills, but they were good people, and most of them paid up. It was pleasant to talk to them. They were all interesting, and they had time on their hands; they all enjoyed coming down and talking over the news.
Out on the back porch was a barrel which contained black molasses. People brought in their jugs to be filled from the spigot. One day I had just got in a barrel of molasses and had put in the spigot, when Ed Fletcher's father drove up. While he was inside the horse got curious about the spigot and pulled it out. When I came out there he was, standing there and licking up the molasses as it flowed. Mr. Fletcher wanted to pay the damages, but I wouldn't let him. I thought it was amusing to have that horse figure out for himself how to get the molasses.
At that time the clerks made up the orders; it wasn't cash and carry as it is now. We hitched up the horse in the morning and called on all ranches, brought in the orders, and delivered them in the afternoon.
In 1916, the year of the "Hatfield Flood," we were pretty well isolated. Almost all of the roads and bridges were washed out, and so was the railroad. By that time, the man who delivered our groceries had a Model T Ford, and this was the only transportation to the outside. The Sweetwater Bridge, crossing the river, was washed out, isolating the residents of Jamul and vicinity, so we supplied the people by a cableway, suspended across the river. There was a big box in which we loaded the supplies; it hung from a pulley and could be hauled back and forth along the cable. During the flood I went in to San Diego by way of Old Town. The Old Town bridge was washed out, and Mission Valley looked as though it was part of the ocean. The Santa Fe tracks were badly washed, and for more than thirty days there were no trains operating to San Diego from Los Angeles.