Kickoff of 75th Anniversary Party : La Mesa Brings Back High-Topped Shoes

Times Staff Writer

La Mesa officials kicked off the city's yearlong diamond jubilee this week by donning vintage 1912 clothes and conducting a "town hall" meeting.

The costumes, concocted by La Mesa designer Margaret Schwab, included an early-day aviator's outfit complete with helmet, goggles and cape, which was modeled by Councilman Ernie Ewin.

Tuesday's meeting, attended by City Council members and city staffers, drew about 75 residents and celebrants who remained for a 75th birthday party, complete with birthday cake and a serenade of 1912 ballads by organist Evelyn Esta Brooke and singer Bill Martin.

Mayor Fred Nagel suffered through the meeting in vintage three-piece suit, gold watch and chain, stiff high shirt collar--and high-topped, high-heeled buckled shoes "which were the most uncomfortable things I've ever had on."

La Mesa became a city on Feb. 16, 1912, but townsfolk jumped the gun on the celebration because Feb. 16 is a holiday--Presidents' Day--and City Hall will be closed.

Yet to come in the Diamond Jubilee Year is a formal dinner-dance Feb. 20, where participants will dress in black and white to match the La Mesa Historical Society photographs that will decorate the Community Center hall. The event will start with a no-host "jubilation hour," followed by a filet mignon and scampi dinner and dancing until midnight.

A community picnic will be held May 30, although details are not yet complete, and a dramatic tableau, including old-time melodramas, will be presented next fall.

The City Council approved $50,000 in seed money for the yearlong celebration, Nagel said. Some of the funds will be recouped from the sale of commemorative belt buckles, historical posters and other memorabilia.

La Mesa had its zanier moments in the early days before its incorporation in 1912. Then known as La Mesa Springs (named because of a natural spring that bubbled at a sheepherders' station in what is now the heart of the city), the community was "discovered" by movie director Allan Dwan in 1910 and used as the setting for about 100 films (almost all Westerns) before Dwan ran out of inspiration and moved to an ostrich farm in Santa Barbara.

Although historians draw no conclusions from Dwan's exit and the city's birth, about nine months after the famous director left town, La Mesa was incorporated. The male voters of the hamlet went to the polls Feb. 7, 1912, and incorporation papers were filed with the state on Feb. 16. La Mesa, population 700, had a bank, mercantile store, lumber company, newspaper, library, railroad station (with daily train service), several churches, an opera house and dozens of orchards. It did not have electricity, natural gas or paved streets, but soon acquired all three.

The first City Council, then called a board of trustees, met in the boardroom of the Bank of La Mesa. They appointed Dr. Charles Samson as chairman (mayor) and approved an annual budget of $2,360.

Ed Fletcher, a land developer, bought a 240-acre spread in La Mesa in 1902 and figured in the city's early history with what residents thought was a harebrained idea: developing exclusive estate subdivisions on the barren rock-covered hills that ringed the community.

Fletcher was greeted by a La Mesa Scout headline: "Freaky Fletcher's Fancy Flight!" when word of his development, Grossmont Hill, was announced. Fletcher was right, his critics wrong. He made a fortune.

Fletcher later bankrolled Lake Murray Dam and established Easter services atop Mt. Helix, which, with its cross, is still the city's most recognized landmark (even though it's just outside the city limits). He also bailed out local residents who had invested in 1922 in a second influx of movie magnates. Fletcher bought out the insolvent film makers, paying back local investors, and converted the studios into a roller-skating rink, beer hall and nightclub.

Today, La Mesa boasts a population of 51,785, taxable sales of $547 million and city revenue of $16.8 million.

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