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Early Rotarians Hear from Ramona Pioneers

It was 1938 and the fledgling Rotary Club welcomed the town’s early settlers to tell their stories of life in Ramona. The local newspaper covered the meeting.

Back in 1938, the was barely one year old but it already was making news. The manger of the Bank of America, W.E. O’Brien, was the club’s program chairman. A lengthy article in the local newspaper on Sept. 22, 1938, called that week’s meeting, “One of the most interesting meetings in the history of the organization.”

Keeping in mind the club’s history didn’t go back very far at that time, it was still quite a complement for Mr. O’Brien. He had invited several of the town’s pioneers to come and speak to the Rotarians about their history in Ramona.

John Bargar led the discussion, joined by Charles Littlepage, Percy Fisher, Bruce Dye, Jeff Swycaffer, George Sawday and Cleason Ambler, among others. The article in The Sentinel also made references to earlier pioneers: Verlaque, Muzzey, Atkinson, Etcheverry, Telford, Stokes, Jerman, Collier, Stockton, Donahae, Haworth, Roques, Fletcher and Ortega.

As seemed to be the custom at that time, newspapers did not always include first names of the people in their stories. Often, a man’s surname would only be preceded by his initials, as was the case with W.E. O’Brien. Other references didn’t go that far, only calling the person Mr. So-and-So.

Women, on the other hand, didn’t necessarily rate any name, only referred to as Mr. So-and-So’s wife. There was one exception in the news article about the Rotary Club’s meeting. A woman was mentioned as “Grandma Stockton.” For further clarification, it was added, “mother of the Stockton brothers.” Grandma, it seems, was a “staunch supporter of the plan to assure Ramona a water supply.”

Getting back to the Rotary Club meeting, Bargar talked about his early days in Ramona. Initially, he came here for two weeks and ended up staying for the rest of his life.

Bargar, an astute businessman whose name pops up in many historical writings about Ramona, revealed to the Rotarians that his “interest was stirred in Ramona by a circular put out by the Santa Maria Land & Water Company, the town’s first real estate and subdividing agency.”

Bargar went on to state, “From that circular, I came to believe that the Santa Maria Valley was the place pretty nearly perfect.”

He then expressed some disappointment, after having arrived in Ramona from “the green fields of Missouri,” to only “see mountains or rocks and sun-dried brush.” He went on to state, “It seemed that maybe those real estate men, like those we have today, had slightly exaggerated.” 

Charles Littlepage talked about the Henry Atkinson toll road that was in the same location but prior to being called Mussey Grade Road. Back then, it was known as Muzzey Grade, named after “a picturesque pioneer” who evidently did not care for newcomers. He was quoted as saying, when asked for his advice, “I can’t tell you anything. I only been here about 50 years. Ask that feller over there. He just got in a few years ago.”

Cleason Ambler, from Mesa Grande, also talked about Muzzey Grade, mentioning a horse corral, called the Muzzey Corral, at the end of the long road. George Sawday shared about his early days in Ramona and Witch Creek

Percy Fisher told of first visiting Ramona when he worked for the telephone company. He paid tribute to Bargar as, “a hard man to follow in his time.” Fisher also praised “the mother of George Roques, the first keeper of Kenilworth Inn.” Here, again, women were not referred to by their name.

Jeff Swycaffer, who was 77 at the time the article was written, was the son of the first white couple to be married in San Diego County. The ceremony took place in what is now Old Town State Park where the city of San Diego had its humble beginnings.

Bruce Dye recalled coming into town from Ballena when he was a youngster of 9, riding in a wagon with his father. He asked his father about a pile of moist soil in the middle of the road and was told, “That, my son, is dirt from a well which a fellow named Verlaque is digging. If he gets water, he is going to establish a store.”

Amos Verlaque not only established his store, he, and the others mentioned in the article, were key players in establishing the town of Ramona.

Information for this article was researched at Ramona Community Library, with special thanks to librarian Ellie Slade.

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