Helen Ofield, past president
Lemon Grove Historical Society

Home of the “World’s Biggest Lemon” Becomes a City

by Helen Ofield

The Big Lemon, 1970s
The Big Lemon, 1970s
July 1, 1977:  A City Is Born

Cityhood at Last:  Thousands cheered as Lemon Grove became California’s 414th city amid fireworks, cannon fire and rock concert revelry at Lemon Grove Junior High. The first mayor, James Dorman, vice mayor, Dr. Robert Burns, and three council members, Dell Lake, Jack Doherty and Dale Bailey were sworn in as U. S. Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin, State Senator James Mills and other notables applauded.

Wrote Lemon Grove Review editor Max Goodwin, “After four attempts… it was a perfect night for romance or giving birth to a city.”

Call the Cops:  The California Highway Patrols assigned the new city three patrol shifts and five officers in two one-man shifts (day) and one two-man shift (night) at an annual cost of $200,000 (85 percent for salaries, 38 percent for benefits). There were 750 CHP officers available for riot control should unrest break out in the cozy little town with the Big Lemon, or, as local wags later put it, “The only town in America with a giant fruit next to a mass transit line.”

Kindest Cut of All:  The County Board of Supervisors vowed to cut property taxes 44 percent in fiscal 1978, the biggest drop since 1938. This indirect largesse was needed, to wit:

Fido the Barbarian:  The new city now had to go it alone against the unruly canines in its midst. In the early summer of 1977, 5,496 county residents were bitten by dogs. “Buy a leash,” advised county Animal Control. This carefree counsel did not assuage the fears of the new city council for which lawsuits were suddenly no longer tabloid fare, but Main Street realities. Upshot: a scramble to allocate funds for the city’s own animal control contractor (a problem that lingers to this day).

It wasn’t easy.

Lemon Grove’s long march to cityhood began in the 1950s, a 20-year marathon comparable to giving birth to a camel—bumpy, awkward, full of grit and the rest of the herd spits on you.

The little, rural town with a distinguished agricultural heritage was seen as easy prey by the tigers at its gates, San Diego and La Mesa. In November, 1956 La Mesa councilman and former mayor Mike Nagel sang the siren song of annexation to the Lemon Grove Men’s Club in a bid to ace San Diego’s plea to the home of the Big Lemon to be absorbed into the county’s largest city.

Nagel said Lemon Grovians would be taxed $8.54 per capita by San Diego, but only $7.80 by La Mesa, and that Broadway would be improved at just $7 per capita under gas tax aid.

“There would be no loss of identity,” wooed Nagel. “Lemon Grove would remain as such, sharing in the election of councilmen and having a proportionate share in government.”

First responders? Nagel promised two squad cars and six patrolmen could “do the job” for both communities and the Lemon Grove Fire Department would be retained at a lower insurance cost of $13 to $15 per thousand in the business section (implying that residential areas should just get a bucket).

Schools? Lemon Grove’s elementary schools served a population of 22,000 meaning $164,000 would accrue at no tax increase to local residents, vowed Nagel.

“This is not annexation, but a co-partnership,” he warbled. “Lemon Grove has nothing to lose.”

But the town was made of sterner stuff and continued its fight for cityhood, winning the brass ring on the fourth turn of the wheel. A small town in a mass society must exert its identity with particular vigor. Spunk is a minimum requirement.

The Big Lemon, 1970s
The Big Lemon’s Birthday, 2008

Next time:  Driving the Snakes Out of Lemon Grove

Helen Ofield

Helen M. Ofield is the past 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) features photographic content by Pete Smith. She is an award-winning writer-producer for national and regional film and television, as well as for print and online news media, a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, former seven-year member of the San Diego County Historic Site Board, and a long-time historic preservationist.