"Barrett Junction, Home of the Famous Fish Fry" is what the sign says. But if you blink while driving on the stretch of California 94 not far from the Tecate border crossing, you'll miss it.
The entire "downtown" is a lone gas station and a Quonset hut cafe. Like a place out of a John Steinbeck novel, the setting is quaint but desolate.
Located 34 miles by road southwest of San Diego, Barrett Junction, population 100, is surrounded by high chaparral and consists mainly of small family ranches, a thoroughbred racehorse ranch, an 80-acre pig farm, a feed store and a trailer park.
Gene Chism opened Barrett Feed in 1977. His wife, Jean, bought the land it sits on in 1966. The little store sells hay and grain for livestock. However, Chism said, most of his customers are from neighboring communities. The elderly man is about the only person in the junction who actually commutes there, making a 44-mile round-trip six days a week to run his business.
"Our house is in El Cajon," he said. "My wife works in town as a part-time hairdresser, so one of us would have to make the drive. Besides, I needed something to do in my old age."
At one time, Barrett Lake, a 30-billion-gallon reservoir, was open to the public. People from all over the county would come to boat and fish and buy food at the concession stands owned by folks in Barrett. But the San Diego County reserve was closed in 1968 because of poor road conditions, said dam keeper Jim Harer. He said the lake will be reopened next year for fishing, after the road is fixed and a new pipeline installed. Harer and his family live by the lake year round.
On weekdays the junction is quiet, and except for an occasional Border Patrol car in the cafe parking lot, the place is often empty. However, on the weekends, cars with license plates from all over fill the area as their drivers arrive in search of all-you-can-eat fried fish, hush puppies, wheat pilaf and refried beans.
In the morning of any given day, denizens sip their coffee on old swivel stools at the counter. The waitress, who lives at Waddell's Barrett Lake Trailer Park on Barrett Lake Road about a mile and a half from the restaurant, knows all the regular customers by first name.
But one recent day a traveler came in and asked if she could get some gas. "The trucks haven't come yet," the waitress responded. The stranger looked perplexed. The waitress said, "There isn't gas for 18 miles east and 14 miles west."
The stranger, now worried, asked, "When is the truck coming?"
"They said sometime today," the waitress answered nonchalantly.
In this small rural community, a combination of the Old West and Mexico, folks take life easy.
"I enjoy living here very much," said Vi Avril, 75, owner of the cafe. "The climate's real nice, the people are real nice, and I'm just a country girl."
Vi and Bill Avril bought the cafe in 1946. They had intended to rent out cabins and run the gas station. However, the restaurant became a more profitable business for them.
"After we took a trip back to Missouri, after World War II, my husband said he wanted a place along the highway, a place where he could be his own boss," Vi said. "Well, when we found this place, we fell in love with it. Times were rough in the beginning, and Bill had to work in town while I ran the restaurant."
Bill died in 1984, and since then Cathy and Steve Stephens, the Avrils' daughter and son-in-law, have taken over most of the business. Cathy, 40, lived in Barrett most of her life and attended the one-room schoolhouse on Barrett School Road. When she was 5, she said, there used to be a rowdy rodeo in an arena behind the cafe every weekend.
"They used to get all riled up from riding bucking broncos and steers," she said. "By the time they came into the cafe to eat, they were real fired up. They'd have a couple of drinks, and the fists would fly."
It was the rodeo that gave the Avrils the idea of holding weekend dances. Bill Avril had a concrete foundation poured, hired some local bands, and folks from throughout the county came to do-si-do their partners. Eventually, he bought a Quonset hut from a war-surplus store to enclose the dance floor. Now that room is the formal dining area of the cafe and has a bar.
Every Friday night in those early days, the couple would serve a free all-you-can-eat fish dinner.
"We used to like to fish in Ensenada," Vi said. "We caught more fish than we could use, so we cooked it up and served it at the cafe so folks would buy drinks. Well, the neighbors really liked the fish but were embarrassed to come every Friday because it was free. So we started to charge 50 cents."
The same meal costs $6.95 today.
"It's amazing, but people from all over the world have heard about us," Cathy Stephens said. "We've had people from Japan and Pakistan eat in here. My aunt was in Alaska a while ago and someone told her if she ever got out San Diego way, to eat at the Barrett Cafe."
The town was named after the Barrett family, beekeepers who settled in the country in the 1870s, according to Lou Stein's "San Diego County Place-Names." The city of San Diego honored the family in 1919 by changing the town's former name of Eisenach to Barrett.
Don Magoffin remembers eating at the cafe with his family when he was a boy.
"We all played football in high school when we were kids," he said. "Every Friday after school, Mom would pick us up and we'd stop off at the cafe on our way home to fill up on fish."
In 1953, Magoffin's parents bought a 200-acre ranch on Barrett Smith Road. When Magoffin's father died, the brothers sold three 40-acre parcels to help their mother financially. Now the three brothers and their wives and children live on the remaining land and run the largest pig farm in San Diego County.
The stocky 49-year-old farmer said he and his brothers had trouble getting a loan for their operation.
"After all, who would come to Barrett to buy a hog?" Magoffin said. "Just like who would come to Barrett for a fish fry?"
In a good year, they sell 3,000 head of hogs, Magoffin said.
"We used to take our pigs to slaughterhouses outside of San Diego," Magoffin said, "but with our Asian population rising, we don't need to do that anymore. A couple of Philippine or Vietnamese families will go in together and buy a whole hog. They use a lot of pork in their food. We will slaughter it right here on the premises, and they can take it home. There's no waste that way--they can take the blood and the intestines."
The Magoffins started their swine business in the early '70s and were told that Southern California was not a good place to raise hogs.
"Of course,it makes more sense to raise pigs in the Midwest, the Grain Belt," Magoffin said. "But those people are freezing. The weather here is beautiful. It's been hard, but we've enjoyed it. When you're raised out here (Barrett), it becomes part of you."
Walking through the barns where hundreds of sows nurse their sucklings, Magoffin reached into a pen and grabbed a tiny piglet.
"People constantly ask us how can we stand the smell," he said. "I tell them that's the smell of money." Pointing at the squirming pink animal, he said, "These are just dollar bills to us."
But money has never been plentiful for these farmers, who have had several bad years.
"Luckily, we didn't ever put our land against our loan," Magoffin said, "because if we had, we would have been out on the streets in 1980.
"Farmers are the most stupid people in the world. If this was any other business, we would have shut down by now. But we were determined to put pigs in San Diego County. We've succeeded; it hasn't been easy, but we've raised 18 grandchildren on this ranch."
In 1978, Magoffin's 9-year-old son died in a tractor accident on the ranch.
"His blood is in the soil there," he said, pointing to an old wooden structure.
"I'd like to die in this place, and I probably will."