Oak Grove Is No Ghost Town but It Comes Very Close

Despite its condition, there is an air of dignity about the Oak Grove stage station.

Its roof is sagging, and many of its wooden window frames lean to one side. It has been years since they held glass.

The station's thick adobe-brick walls are likewise chipped and rounded with age, and weeds are growing tall around them.

This was once a lively place where travelers from across the United States found meals and homey lodging. They stabled their horses in the barn across the road, and, in later years, gassed up their cars at a red pump just outside the station's front door.

Those days are gone now, but the Oak Grove stage station still stands. A survivor from the days of the pioneers, it symbolizes how little life has changed in Oak Grove--one of San Diego County's oldest, most remote and most obscure communities.

If you call information and ask for a phone number in Oak Grove, chances are the operator will try to convince you that the place doesn't exist. Don't bother looking for Oak Grove on Rand McNally's new map of northern San Diego County, either--it simply doesn't appear.

But drive north on California 79 about 15 miles past Warner Springs and you can't miss it. Oak Grove is aptly named. It sits in a broad, quiet valley filled with oaks, about three miles from the county's northern boundary.

Along with two nearby communities that you've likewise probably never heard of--Sunshine Summit and Chihuahua Valley--Oak Grove forms a kind of back-country town. About 500 people live in the three communities; they share a volunteer fire department and send their children to schools in Warner Springs and Julian.

Sunshine Summit, with a grocery store, a brand-new hardware store and a cafe that advertises "real buffalo burgers," is the commercial center. Chihuahua Valley--a boulder-strewn valley given over to small ranches--is strictly a residential area.

Oak Grove has a community hall, a U.S. Forest Service station and campground, and a few scattered ranches. It also has the most history in the area--and the most oaks. They line the highway through Oak Grove like sentinels; some stand nearly 100 feet high.

"They're coast live oaks, and they need a lot of water, but the water table here is up high enough to support them," said John Wentworth. "Some of the biggest ones are more than 200 years old, at least."

Something about Oak Grove has caused people like Wentworth, 51, to remain in the area all their lives. He is a fourth-generation resident, and like a number of the others is descended from one of the handful of families that homesteaded the area more than a century ago.

The presence of so many people with long historical and emotional ties to the area has helped make Oak Grove one of the few places in San Diego County that has escaped being inundated by development: People hold on to their land. But it can also make it hard on newcomers.

"I'm just starting to be accepted," said Rob Walker, owner of the Sunshine Summit grocery store. Though Walker and his wife moved to the area 12 years ago, it has been only recently that "the established families have finally started inviting us to their parties," Walker said. "To some, I'm still the new guy."

Wentworth, a soft-spoken man with a graying mustache, acknowledges that "it's a pretty close community. Everybody knows everybody."

Asked how many people live in Oak Grove, he estimated about 50 (although the town's sign says 100). Then, he closed his eyes and began to count them mentally, one by one.

Oak Grove became a brief footnote to the nation's history in the 19th Century. In 1858, Oak Grove became a stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail stage coach route, which ran 2,800 miles from Tipton, Mo., to San Francisco.

The Oak Grove stage station was finished in September of that year.

The adobe-brick walls about three feet thick ensured that the building stayed cool through the summer. Heavy wooden beams that supported the roof were hand cut by Indian laborers.

Warren Hall, a stage driver and the line's regional manager, moved in right away. And it was well he did. The first stagecoach arrived Oct. 6, after spending nearly two weeks crossing the Western deserts.

"Our road lay through some delightful oak groves--a most decided improvement on the desert," wrote Waterman Lily Ormsby, a New York Herald correspondent who was a passenger on that first stage. "The stations (of) Hall's Oak Grove, Aguanga, Laguna and Temecula are all at convenient distances, and the accommodations excellent, and the road is lined with prosperous ranches."

Politicians and businessmen expected the Butterfield Overland Mail route to spur development of the West. But the line was discontinued in 1861 when the Civil War broke out.

During the war years, a Union garrison known as Camp Wright (named for Brig. Gen. George Wright, the commander of all Union forces in California) was built at Oak Grove. Situated strategically between Southern California and Yuma, the camp was created to prevent Confederate sympathizers in California from making their way to Arizona and on to the South.

But after Camp Wright was abandoned in 1866, life in the Oak Grove area settled into a quiet routine that has essentially continued unbroken to this day.

In the 1880s, Wentworth's great grandparents homesteaded 800 acres in Oak Grove Valley, including the former stage station. For 50 years, the Wentworth family used the building as a ranch house.

But 1936 proved to be a fateful year for the Wentworths. John Wentworth was born that year, and his father died soon after. The family sold most of its land and leased the stage station as a store and lodge called The Tavern.

Then, as now, the area was sparsely populated and offered little in the way of night life. Wentworth remembers that as a teen-ager he sometimes had to drive 20 miles to pick up a girl for a date, then drive 30 miles more to Escondido to see a movie.

"We didn't go on dates too often," he said with a smile.

Wentworth's family leased the Oak Grove station to a succession of people throughout his childhood but always kept ownership. There were even plans to leave it to Wentworth and his sister. But Wentworth's mother wearied of trying to maintain the former stage station and finally sold it in 1955.

"I wasn't for selling it at all," Wentworth recalled. "We talked about it a lot, and eventually she convinced me it was the best thing to do.

"But I still wish we hadn't sold it. It meant a lot to me."

Wentworth attended Mount San Antonio College near Pomona, and subsequently worked for a utility company in Chino before returning to Oak Grove in 1964. "I didn't like the smog and traffic congestion" of Chino, he said. "And I guess I missed what I was raised with.

"I just like the country. It's a slower life. We don't have any congestion out here, but we don't have any amenities, either, so it takes a certain type of person to live here."

According to Wentworth, most area residents are ranchers or retirees. "Luckily, there aren't any subdivisions up here. There's not much property up for sale," he said, explaining that most of the land surrounding Oak Grove, Sunshine Summit and the Chihuahua Valley is owned by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. Much of the rest belongs to people whose families have lived in the area for generations and have no desire to sell.

Wentworth, a recreation and fire-prevention officer for the Palomar district of the Cleveland National Forest, lives on a 20-acre ranch where he grows grain and raises cattle--much as his parents, grandparents and great grandparents did. And to hear him tell it, he has more than enough to do.

"There's always something to do to your fences or your buildings," he said. "But at least when you raise your own beef, you know what you're getting. I don't use antibiotics, and I feed 'em only natural feed.

"Besides, it's nice to look out your window at a couple head of beef once in a while."

Afton Britt still remembers what she and her husband Cecil paid for the Oak Grove stage station when they bought it from John Wentworth's mother in 1955--$15,000.

"It was a very, very drafty building," said Britt, now in her 90s. "There was no damper in the fireplace, and cold air would swoop down into the house through the chimney. That fireplace didn't do much to keep us warm at all."

Britt and her husband moved to Oak Grove from Redondo Beach, and Britt concedes that at first she didn't adjust well to life in the country.

"All my friends were down at the beach, and you just don't make friends out here" like you do in the city, she said.

The Britts ran the former stage station as a store, restaurant and gas station. People from Hollywood sometimes drove to the area and stopped for food and supplies. One star, Hopalong Cassidy, introduced himself as "Hoppy," Britt recalled.

But in 1975, Britt's husband suffered a heart attack. The couple ceased operating their businesses and simply lived in the old building with their daughter Ladona and her husband, Darold Cypret.

In 1985, after Cecil Britt had died and Afton Britt had suffered a stroke, the family decided to sell the former stage station.

"We didn't have the money to restore it," said Ladona Cypret. "It was dusty and falling apart. There were lots of mice. But it was the (deteriorating) roof that was really the downfall of it."

After selling the old building to Miles Shook for about $200,000, owner of a recreational-vehicle park in Palm Springs, the Cyprets and Britt moved to a small ranch in nearby Chihuahua Valley. Like most residents of the area, they rarely visit San Diego. "Oh, sometimes we go to rose shows in San Diego, but that's about it," Ladona Cypret said. "Escondido is our main shopping center--that and Hemet."

"People out here don't really feel as if they're a part of San Diego," agreed Rob Walker, a bearded man who, at 40, still has a youthful look about him. "And I don't think San Diegans feel we're a part of them. They don't know we're out here and don't care.

"It's not always easy to live this far out in the country. The closest major store is a 70-mile drive, round trip. And there's not much night life. At 8 p.m. you could lay on the highway without fear--I mean, it's dead.

"But the people are friendlier (than they are in the city). It's laid-back."

Miles Shook said he plans to restore the Oak Grove stage station, turn it into a museum filled with Western paraphernalia, and build a 100-space RV-horse park on the nearby site of former Camp Wright. "That's where you bring in your horse with your (camping) rig and have stables and riding and the whole thing," Shook explained.

"I'm going to try to have the stage station in decent shape by the end of the year," he added, estimating that he expects to spend at least $1.5 million on the project before it is done.

Many local residents hope Shook is able to restore the former stage station--the building is said to be the only one of 139 original Butterfield stations still standing--but they remain skeptical that he will accomplish what he claims he will. "It's been two years since we sold it, and he hasn't done anything with it," Afton Britt complained. "It looks worse every time we pass by it."

If the project were to founder, it would not be the first one in the area to do so, Walker said. "People come out here with these dreams, and start a dress shop, or a restaurant, or an antique shop."

Then, he said, they slowly realize how little local business there is, and how far away the area is from Southern California's major population centers, and go out of business.

But Shook insists that the RV-horse park would attract horse fans to ride in nearby Cleveland National Forest, and he plans to begin reconstructing the stage station's roof with timber and Spanish tile within the next three months. "I can always give (the building) to the state," he said with a laugh. "But, really, it's a plaything for me, and I want to do it right."

If Shook succeeds, history and commerce might once again flower in this remote corner of the county. But for the time being, the Oak Grove stage station endures silently on its own, an enormous, unique artifact harboring secrets from another era within its adobe walls.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°