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Helen Ofield, president
Lemon Grove Historical Society

1952 – Oh Little Town of Lemon Grove

by Helen Ofield

A Tree Grows in Lemon Grove: The Lemon Grove Business Women’s League was on the march. It was Christmas 1952 and once again the town was all in for the yuletide. The League bought a tall Aspen Fir tree and planted it near the corner of Main and Broadway. The women thought big: Their plan was to grow the tree until it reached full height, possibly 80 feet, over 150 years.

Keep in mind that in 1952 there was only a single train track through town, no trolleys, no depot, no freeway and ramps, few sidewalks or traffic lights (stop signs, yes) and no plans to move the nearby Big Lemon. But 66 years later, in 2018, all of this infrastructure exists, with more planned as Lemon Grove struggles with the single biggest challenge to any community before or since, the omniscient automobile.

Cars need virtually limitless space. They need limitless rules. They need, but don’t always get, careful drivers. They are the quintessence of human yearning. They have become more important than God. Even so, the reviews have been mixed.

In his 1910 masterpiece “Howard’s End,” E. M. Forster wrote, “The motor pulled up like a beast of prey.”

In his 1918 masterpiece “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Booth Tarkington wrote, “I don’t know whether it is a good thing or a bad thing, but the automobile is here to stay.”

In his 1965 earth-shaker “Unsafe at Any Speed,” Ralph Nader wrote that cars actually were unsafe at any speed and in 2006 that General Motors kept fuel efficiency in the dark ages.

Still, cars continue their upward trajectory to world dominance despite efforts to install mass transit lines everywhere, including in small cities like Lemon Grove. Result: traffic tie-ups on Broadway that reduce motorists to screaming rage and were unforeseen in 1952 in a town barely emerged from its agricultural origins.

Women Ruled: In the photograph above, Dr. Amorita Treganza, the pioneering children’s eye doctor with offices in Lemon Grove and San Diego, led the charge, not only to beautify the town, but reinforce its cultural beliefs. The European, Mexican and Japanese immigrants who had built the town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries believed in God, Christmas, the Ten Commandments, civic duty, patriotism and families.

Each of the women in the photograph had children. Each either ran or participated in running a local business. With World War II ended just seven years earlier, the winning war effort and the crucial work of Rosie the Riveter still informed the local psyche. America had won. The Western World was saved. God was something to celebrate 365 days of the year and especially at Christmas time.

Politically Correct—Not: Lemon Grove was engulfed in Christmas celebrations on both public and private land. The newly-formed Lemon Grove Kiwanis Club mounted a live nativity scene in the “park area at midtown” in the vicinity of the League’s tree, the area occupied today by The Big Lemon. The nativity scene included live lambs and goats, a manger, corral and backdrop painted by local merchants, local residents garbed as Mary, Joseph, shepherds and Wise Men, and a choir from the local Congregational, Baptist, Presbyterian and Catholic churches. Radios in shops and restaurants played Christmas carols from morning to midnight.

Code-Free Christmas: In those pre-1977 incorporation days when new civic codes were enacted, businesses on Broadway displayed merchandise, Christmas trees and creches right on the sidewalk. They strung lights on their facades and out into adjacent trees. Parties abounded in stores and restaurants, and strolling groups of carolers could be heard on the night air along Broadway. In the post war boom, shopkeepers offered unbelievable holiday deals, largely aimed at women (“Buy a Mixmaster and get two free pairs of stockings, nail polish of your choice and a teddy bear!”), as well as free candy canes, free lemon bar slices, free lemonade and free humbugs.

Dateline Bethlehem: All of this activity—tradition, beliefs, church functions, mercantile deals, school activities, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Women’s and Men’s Business League projects, anything Big Lemon—was lovingly reported in the Lemon Grove Review by its editor, the old pro Max Goodwin. Annually during his 37-year tenure the Christmas week edition featured a you-are-there recreation of events in Bethlehem as though covered by Reuters. Here’s an example:

BETHLEHEM, Dec. 25:—“…it appears that Joseph had failed to make any reservations for lodging. Reportedly, the 50-mile journey by donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was arduous for his wife, Mary, an expectant mother. The low temperature of the night forced the couple into the only vacancy, a stable, where they made themselves as comfortable as possible on the straw…”

BETHLEHEM, Dec. 25:—Beginning The Year of Our Lord 1. Shopkeeper Shows Doubts About Jesus. “All the excitement has made more business for my shop, but…I really believe this is just something arranged for more entertainment during taxpayer week…That light was just a falling meteor, you know how a story can grow…I have a spare room had I known in time this many people would show up…”

Letters to Santa: Goodwin lost no time upping readership by running children’s letters to Santa in every December edition. Here are some examples from 1952:

A desperate Angela, 8, wrote, “I need a wash me change me spank me dolly more than anything in the world. You can tell our house because it has lights on the roof.”

Future traffic copy Davy, 9, directed, “Dad says you can park the sleigh on our roof or in our driveway. Please do one or the other when you drop off the pumper fire engine ladder truck I am asking you for.”

Joey, 7, pleaded for “a car that runs all by itself but don’t tell my parents. Also I don’t want any more hair cuts for the rest of my life. Please help me Santa.”

The Bishop kids, Judi, Patti, Heidi, Buster, Becci and Scooter, told all, ending with a chill blast of reality: “Judi and Patti promise to do better at paying attention. Heidi promises to stop drinking the bottle. Buster will stay out of the cupboards. The babies will stop spitting up. We know you bring toys to all the boys and girls in the world, so you can’t carry lots for us because there are so many of us and now there is a war.” (Korea)

Before political correctness, with its attendant casual immorality and corrosive cynicism, filled Western culture with uncertainty and shame, there were little kids like these, local newspapers like the Lemon Grove Review, business men and women who viewed business as more than a cash register, parents who were grownups, and communities that tried hard to pull together.

True, those were not “good old days.” They were just days and they were different from what we have now. People tried to keep magic alive at Christmas time even as their lives became increasingly controlled by cars and commuting and speed and distance and advertising. Little kids loved magic—as they do now if given a chance. In letter after letter to Santa in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, they revealed utter belief in his existence and his dictum that good behavior would be rewarded.

And so it went as 1953 dawned on our favorite town. Though we weren’t there to help ring in the New Year, we continue to thank the old Lemon Grove Review for capturing the heartbeat of the town with so much verve and commitment, and its people for their guileless belief that all God’s children have wings.

Helen Ofield
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Helen Ofield

Helen M. Ofield is the president of the Lemon Grove Historical Society. She spearheaded the saving of Lemon Grove's first church (built 1897) and its adaptive reuse as the Parsonage Museum of Lemon Grove, and the saving of the H. Lee House (built 1928) and its adaptive reuse as the city's cultural center. Her civic history, Images of America: Lemon Grove (Arcadia 2010) includes photographic content advised by Pete Smith. She is an award-winning writer-producer for national and local film and television, as well as for print and online news media, a member of the San Diego County Historic Site Board and the Society of Professional Journalists, and a long-time historic preservationist.
Helen Ofield
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