A Great Place to Stop, Settle, and Hide Out

With its rolling hills, undisturbed land, grazing cattle, and old men in overalls, Flinn Springs seems worlds away from downtown San Diego. Yet it’s only 20 miles to the east. Tumbleweeds lie in stacks by the roadside, dusted with orange dirt. Until the Cedar Fire in October 2003, bald eagles nested atop what are known locally as the Sleeping Madonna Mountains, the two mountains closest to Olde Highway 80, the thoroughfare along which the community of Flinn Springs lies. Airstream trailers mix with RVs in mobile home parks; older houses sit on the hillside next to more contemporary homes, some with modest horse corrals and chicken coops. Mary Etta’s Cafe, whose menu has not changed since the ’60s, is a true roadside diner with its counter seating, vinyl booths, humorous collection of signs — “We reserve the right to serve refuse to anyone” — and farmer’s hours of operation, 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. There is Flinn Springs Feed and Supply, where the owners raise chicks under a heat lamp by the counter and keep goats out back in a pen. The red barn at Summers Past, a picturesque herb-and-flower farm, sits under an unbroken blue sky, fields beyond it awash in a flurry of green that will soon be dotted with blossoms. The Flinn Springs Country Store, which was an antique shop for 37 years, remains on a patch of land a bit farther down the road.

As well preserved as the area is, recorded history of Flinn Springs is scarce, something six-year resident Barbara Auckland discovered when she moved into her current home two years ago. Shortly after settling in, Auckland's teenaged son noticed a six-foot cross sticking up out of the land adjacent to their house. The two of them went to investigate and discovered that the old Flinn Springs graveyard, where many of the original settlers were buried, was butted right up against their property. Curious, Auckland set out to learn more but came up empty.

Southern view from Pine Blossom Road

Southern view from Pine Blossom Road

"I started to try and do some research online," she says, sitting at her desk at Friends of Cats, where she is the shelter manager. "I was typing in 'Flinn Springs, Cemetery,' 'Flinn Family,' 'Flinn Family History,' 'Flinn Springs History.' I went through the El Cajon Historical Society, couldn't find anything, went through the Lakeside Historical Society, couldn't find anything."

Finally, one of the boardmembers at Friends of Cats learned of Auckland's quest for information and gave her a copy of This Was Yesterday, a softcover volume on Flinn Springs history, self-published in 1953. Written by Julia Flinn De Frate, who was born in 1876 and was one of what locals refer to as "the original Flinns," it is an account of how her grandparents settled the area and what the times were like, right down to what the family ate for dinner. She tells of William Flinn and his family's travel west from Texas in 1860, of fording rivers and fighting off illnesses and how they set up their home once they reached California. They settled first in Los Angeles County; then, in 1865, William and his son Jim came to San Diego, acquiring ranchland along Los Coches Creek, just east of the spread owned by Jim's soon-to-be father-in-law, Julian Ames. Formerly known as Montebann, "because the outline of the mountain above the valley resembled a sleeping woman," De Frate writes, the Flinns' new ranch had "a good spring." By 1920, the place was known as Flinn Springs.

Flinn Springs Road

Flinn Springs Road

Peppered with recipes, memories, and grandma's-knee stories, the book describes the Flinns and the Ameses as hardworking, well-meaning folks, a mix of Spanish and American, East Coast and West, and the Flinn Springs life as idyllic but simple. "I remember with the vividness that only our childhood memories seem to hold, a way of life that repeated the pattern set when this nation was young, the pattern of pioneers dependent upon the land and what their brains and hands could make it yield," De Frate writes in the foreword to her memoir. "I remember patient horses trudging in an unending circle, turning the stone mill wheels that ground our wheat. I remember Indian women heating water in great iron cauldrons for the daily laundry. I remember birth and death, when both were hard, without the anodyne of sedatives.... In my childhood, I knew the childhood of our land." The book goes on to describe, with great detail and in skilled if slightly disorganized prose, how houses were built, food was made, and children were raised: with love, honesty, freedom, and discipline.

Even though she lives next to the graveyard, Auckland's not worried... anymore. "I tried not to be freaked out about it," she says. To quiet her fears, she had a coworker, a woman she describes as being on a "higher level," come to check it out. "She walked around and she smiled and she said, 'Oh, this is great, they're really friendly, they're really settled,'" says Auckland, with a smile. The coworker also told Auckland that there is a cameo somewhere on her property that she is meant to find; so far, she hasn't found it. This is no matter; her journey through Flinn Springs' history has helped forge Auckland's ties to the community and made her feel more at home, something that's hard to do in such an insular place. Auckland, a native of England, loves it and its old-school feel. "Isn't it a trip? It's like Little House on the Prairie time!"

It is this fresh-faced, just-postcolonial feel that is Flinn Springs' biggest draw. While there is plenty of evidence of wear and tear--houses falling in on themselves, overgrown lawns, old and abandoned vehicles sinking into the earth--it just adds depth of character, mixing Once Upon a Time in the West rough-and-tumble with Laura Ingalls Wilder quaint-and-pretty. Summers Past Farms, the epitome of cute with its big red barn and meticulously tended flower gardens, has since its inception brought city folk to what is known locally as "the backcountry." "I think it's made Flinn Springs more well known," says Sheryl Lozier, who owns the farm with her husband Marshall. "People now may have heard about Flinn Springs more because people know about the farm."

The farm came about somewhat by accident; the Loziers moved onto the property as newlyweds in the mid-'80s to be closer to Marshall's parents and had originally intended to purchase a house of their own. As they settled into their cottage--where, incidentally, they still live to this day--Sheryl began to garden. With Marshall's background both in the restaurant business and custom-home construction, the progression to culinary herb farming and landscaping was an almost natural one. He built the Rockwellian red barn and the farm's centerpiece, a roofed patio that now boasts a full coffee bar. With the basics in place, the farm opened its gates in 1992.

Dixie Sampier, a watercolor painter, found the farm ten years ago in a brochure put out by the San Diego Watercolor Society and has since become the "artist-in-residence," though she lives offsite in Santee. Her husband, Jack Sampier, is a pastor in Hillcrest, and on occasion she has taken children--mostly girls--from his parish to Summers Past so they can get away from the city for a while. "I just distract them from whatever's going on in their lives," she says. "There are dysfunctions in their family, you know, irregularities in their life. The farm is just a nice place to spend time." For Sheryl, the recent historical recognition of Olde Highway 80 is welcome. "My husband was born and raised here," she says, "and when he was a child, this was the highway right here. The one up above [Interstate 8] wasn't there; it was just a hillside. And so for it to be historic, it just lets San Diego hold on to its history and lets people remember that this is the way it was."

Little League field, Flinn Springs Road

Little League field, Flinn Springs Road

Patricia Husson, who grew up in and around Flinn Springs and has waitressed at Mary Etta's Cafe for the past 13 years, remembers when Flinn Springs "really used to be the middle of nowhere." Husson, who was a toddler in the 1950s, describes a childhood and adolescence full of freedom, much as Julia Flinn De Frate does in This Was Yesterday, though they grew up 80 years apart. "When I was a kid, we used to shoot guns all over, right here, just anywhere, shoot guns, and there was nobody around, nobody to even tell you not to do it," Husson says, laughing as she sits in the sun on a bench outside Mary Etta's. What is perhaps most poignant in her memories is the vastness of land, the accessibility and, above all else, the emptiness.

Slowly but surely, however, times have changed for Flinn Springs, in ways both big and small. There is the pending sale of the country store, which closed on April 1. Set back from the road by a stretch of driveway, the two-story yellow building is attached to five single-story shops whose facades are painted to look like an old western town--and with the mountains across the highway, the scene is entirely believable. A derailed caboose and an old-fashioned schoolhouse (originally William Flinn's repair garage, built in 1923) sit adjacent, an old water tower inscribed with "Flinn Springs, Since 1873" rising above. Owned by Paul and Reta Kress, who are both in their 80s, the country store is a picture-postcard kind of place with its "Cold Sarsaparilly" sign still on the wall beside the door and long wooden porch with tall, skinny cacti beside it.

In addition to owning the country store, the Kresses have been instrumental in keeping Flinn Springs' history alive. Shortly after they moved into the area, as Paul Kress tells the story, a neighbor, knowing he was interested in history, approached him with the three pamphlets that made up Julia Flinn De Frate's memoir. "She said, 'If you will do something about getting these three little volumes made into one, I'll give you the book,'" he remembers. "So I did." Since then, the Kresses have printed up three substantial batches, complete with black-and-white photographs. There is even a listing on Amazon, though no copies are currently in stock. At the moment, Summers Past Farms and the Lakeside Historical Society are the only places it is available.

For 15-year resident Carmella George, the loss of the country store is significant. "This here is a dying breed," she says, standing on the store's wooden porch. A former employee at the country store, George has remained close with the Kresses, addressing Paul affectionately as "Pops." She strolls down the elongated porch, remembering. "Somebody really needs to get the historical society to come out here and make this a landmark so it can preserve the history of these buildings and what the Flinn family and the Kress family have given to Flinn Springs," she says vehemently, "and keep the spirit and the feeling of the backcountry alive. We moved out here to get away from the city, and here the city is, knocking on our door."

George is right; Flinn Springs may not escape urban sprawl. Those who have sought a refuge from city life have found their answer in the simplicity and beauty of the area; newer, posher homes have appeared atop the hills along Highway 80, some tucked back into the mountainside. Along with the new population has come an increase in businesses. Just past the Lake Jennings exit off Interstate 8, which is the western entrance to Flinn Springs, is a strip mall with a 7-Eleven, a liquor store, and a Burger King, startling in contrast to the greenery and open spaces of the rest of the community. Reta Kress predicts more of the same. "I see a change coming, because now they have designated historical Highway 80," she says. "The growth is going to come out here, because it's like Route 66. I think it will be nice little businesses and probably a lot of fast foods."

The change appears to be not far in the future. Where there once were homes, there are now small business parks and industrial buildings. The look of the area is shifting. Dixie Sampier remembers a sweet scene she witnessed one morning ten years ago. "I photographed a little cottage home up there on the hill on that corner," she says, smiling, "and there came the old man out getting the newspaper, and, lo and behold, there came the kitty cat out from nowhere, there comes the rooster, and they kissed each other." Eventually, Sampier made a painting, but when she returned to the site, she found it in ruins. "Whoever lived there sold it to a developer," she says, "and I was never able to come and say, 'Hey, here's a painting of your home. I'm sorry it took me ten years to get around to it.'"

Demographics provided by SANDAG

Demographics provided by SANDAG

This kind of change is occurring as San Diego's population increases. The County is trying to accommodate the newcomers with what is called General Plan 2020, an outline of what growth and development in the unincorporated areas of the county will look like by the year 2020, complete with plans for each community. Still in the discussion phase, the state-mandated plan projects increased density in the backcountry even while it proposes zoning changes to discourage people from moving there. "People used to buy property, and if they had 60 acres, their long-term plan was eventually to leave it to their children," says Marshall Lozier of Summers Past. "They would divide it in half or three pieces or four pieces, and they'd leave it to their kids." In some places, General Plan 2020 will designate only one house per 4 or 8 or 20 acres, depending on the land's slope and other factors. Groundwater availability for wells and the soil's "perk rate," an important factor for septic tanks, are also limiting factors to density.

The biggest threat to Flinn Springs residents to date comes from contractors and trucking companies, which have popped up along Olde Highway 80. "There are a lot of contractors who were chased out of or sort of pushed out of developing areas in El Cajon and Lakeside," Marshall Lozier says. "All of a sudden, they're redeveloping those areas, and contractors are trying to find a place where they can park their trucks." Flinn Springs is a perfect target; some of the land is zoned for this usage, and other times the business moves in anyway. Zoning enforcement in the county is on a complaint-only basis. The Lakeside Design Review Board, which includes Flinn Springs in its jurisdiction, advises the County on building aesthetics--signage, driveways, and landscaping for new businesses going in. But although industrial users are required to screen their yards, some of the businesses along Olde Highway 80 seem to be ignoring the rule.

Even some retail businesses are not well tolerated in Flinn Springs. By gathering signatures on petitions and appearing before the Lakeside Community Planning Group, dedicated and passionate residents a few years ago successfully battled a Ralphs supermarket that was slated for construction across from the 7-Eleven at the Lake Jennings exit.

But as more and more businesses move into the area, and as the General Plan 2020 discussions go on, business owners are running for positions on the planning group and the design review board. "We worked so hard trying to have environmentally friendly candidates elected to our planning group and design review board," says Betty McMillen, one of the founders of Preserve Lakeside Area Neighborhoods (PLAN). The group was no match for those with more money. "There are people who live out here, they're horse people, they are people who own five acres, ten acres, and they want their life to be simple and quiet," says Marshall Lozier, explaining how many residents feel. McMillen remains optimistic. "We can rally again to help protect the community," she says, "but we really need a leader."

In more recent years, another problem has popped up in Flinn Springs: drug use. With a wide selection of RV parks with relatively cheap parking fees and numerous creature comforts at hand, Flinn Springs is a great place to stop and settle --and hide out. Barbara Auckland points to a convenience store adjacent to one of these RV parks that has been nicknamed "Tweaker Mart" for the drug users who frequent it. Not long after she moved onto her property, Auckland discovered a syringe and a bag of pills left on the grounds of the old graveyard and says she has found people sleeping in the bushes in the morning. One afternoon, she discovered a homeless man taking a bath in her laundry room. "I was very abrasive--survival instinct kicked in--and I was screaming at him to get out of my residence, and he went running off with his backpack," she says. "There are a lot of vagrants around. It's everywhere out here, lot of homeless. You see the regular drug users up and down this Olde Highway 80."

It's hard to imagine that the beauty of Flinn Springs can--or will--alter completely. The hangers-on, those who have beaten back the onslaught of development, and the stubborn families with roots in the community will keep fighting the good fight, refusing to sell their property or sacrifice their view of the mountain ranges that serve as their back yard. The farms will, hopefully, remain farms; the remote dirt roads, hopefully, will remain dirt. There will, though, most likely be a sizable amount of change, something Paul Kress doesn't doubt. "This area's growing in such a way that 15 years from today, if I ever come back out here, I probably wouldn't even know it," he says, pausing. "Of course, I'd be about 110."

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