It’s an odd feeling, driving along State Route 76, to come across this ghost settlement, a few miles west of the Pala Mission.
“Be careful of snakes,” my friend Kim shouts, “and people!”
I’ve persuaded him to stop near one of these abandoned houses so I can get a look-see.
Because it does feel a little eery. The silence, except for cars and trucks zipping past behind the trees, birds chirruping when things go quiet, a mysterious shuffle in the grasses — a snake? — a distant dog bark, and houses with brambles gradually wrapping themselves around them like giant Venus Flytraps. But this front building is surrounded by sycamore trees. “Pete Verboom No. 1,” says the sign above where the front doors have been ripped out. I venture inside. Gouged plaster walls, concrete floors, broken glass, and bare dirty white walls, with graffiti.
“STILL DEAD?” says one.
“In memory of my brother Richard Ainsworth. I love you!” says another.
The owner, I discover, was Pete Verboom himself. Turns out this was one of his two dairy farms, 100 acres big. Verboom built the dairies and 14 buildings on the property, starting in 1966. He was a mover and shaker in the milk-making world, a president of the San Diego County Milk Producers’ Council.
So, what happened to his empire here? Why the desolation?
Development, of course, just like what happened to Mission Valley, and east Chula Vista, which used to be dotted with dairy farms. Then, environmental consciousness brought more pressures: the farms’ wastewater runoff started attracting attention; farmyard-loving cowbirds moved in and began replacing threatened least Bell’s vireos’ eggs with their own. Meanwhile, the nearby Pala casino opened for business, and brought extra traffic. To combat that, Caltrans took over land, including this part of the farm, to widen and straighten the 76. And a gift to developers: after years of controversy, the infamous Gregory Canyon landfill didn’t happen. No threat of smelly living! It was the answer to developers’ dreams.
But Pete always had the feeling that San Diego County had turned against dairy farmers anyway. He bought a farm in the “more friendly” Sacramento area. Since 1966, over 100 other dairy farmers have also voted with their feet.
So why are these 100 acres and their houses still rotting slowly into the fertile ground, neither farm nor housing developments? Why, at least, no straightened Highway 76? For starters, this is part of a 100-year flood plain. Then there’s the locals. They have fought to stop their bucolic settlement around the Pala Mission from becoming urbanized. So, this valley stays in a state of suspended animation, in some ways less developed than when Pete Verboom lived here.
Pete died February 25. Obituaries showed how this survivor of the Nazi occupation of Holland had become a beloved citizen in the Pala community.
Later, I see that back in 2000, the Reader’s Ernie Grimm interviewed Verboom for a piece about how unwelcoming San Diego was to dairy farmers. I look around. You’d think Verboom, this apparently jovial bear of a man, would merit a better memorial than such a shambles, these ruins of what he took a lifetime to create.