A look back at Lemon Grove, 64 years ago when a free press came to town.
In the Beginning: In 1928 the Lemon Grove Empire flourished, apparently, for one issue. There is a lone copy in the archives of San Diego State University; none at the Lemon Grove Historical Society.
Birth of the Lemon Grove Review: On Sept. 2, 1948, the Lemon Grove Review opened its doors at 7812 Broadway (today, Van’s Nails) to become our local newspaper for the rest of the 20th century. The editor of Volume One, Number One was Brent Payne, a Bostonian with 25 years of newspaper experience "in the back shop as well as the front office—and that's why we're personally equipped to conduct a local newspaper, from editing and printing the paper to running a commercial printing business."
With his banner appropriately illustrated with an orchard backed by Mt. Miguel, Payne pioneered our hometown weekly newspaper with this ringing statement:
"The paper will be independent and politically tied to no person or party. The first duty will be toward our community, for it has been our experience that citizens do not look to their local newspaper for advice or suggestions on political matters. But on local and county matters we'll be ready to speak out. First of all, we'll provide Lemon Grove with its first home-owned, home-printed newspaper, one that concentrates on local news, introduces your neighbors, welcomes your tips on local items, and boosts support for local businesses."
Suiting action to the words, Payne devoted the first edition to almost everyone in town. On the front page he introduced every single teacher, staff member and school board member in the Lemon Grove School District as they prepared for the Sept. 13 school opening with superintendent Byron Netzley at the helm.
Also on the front page, Payne showcased "Friendship Hall," the new building planned by the First Congregational Church on Main Street. The hall was completed in 1949 and was demolished in 1995 (the time capsule and contents from the original cornerstone are stored in the Historical Society). The church was completed in 1913 and demolished in 1994 (two beautiful stained glass windows were preserved). Friendship Hall was designed by Lemon Grove architect Russell Ray and built by Lemon Grove contractor Chris Ferguson. Today, the entire site is Civic Center Park, the home of the Parsonage Museum and the H. Lee House. (Bravo, city hall, for reclaiming this original footprint of the town!)
Another front page story focused on the yearned-for Lemon Grove Fire District, with community leaders like Tony Sonka, Vroman Dorman, Frank Higgins and others hammering out the details with county supervisor Dave Bird. Sonka pointed out that current fire protection came from the U.S. Forestry Service—iffy at best—and that residents needed to keep up the pressure on county officials, and open their wallets, if they wanted their own fire protection.
The first issue was full of congratulatory ads from local businesses. "We're for you fellows," enthused Grove Pastry Shop. "At long last our very own," hailed G.W. Casteel, a pioneer realtor and map publisher. "May we prosper and grow with you," said Shepherd's Market. "Hurray," cheered Lemon Grove Lumber Company, the oldest lumber company in "Homeland Township." The plaudits went one, but we especially liked Lemon Grove Shopping Center's message: "Congratulations and best wishes—stop by for 9 cent pickles and 3 snowballs covered with marshmallow and cocoanut for 25 cents."
The Grove Theatre wrote, "We dedicate our fine program of pictures to the publishers and staff of the Review." Movies included "Tarzan and the Mermaids" with Johnny Weissmuller and Linda Christian (she wore the fish scales; he wore the loin cloth) and "All My Sons" with Burt Lancaster and Edward G. Robinson.
Apropos, the Review launched the first of hundreds of contests for children. A kid could win free movie tickets to "Summer Holiday" with Mickey Rooney by writing in 25 words or less "How My Summer Holiday Could Have Been Better." Deadline was noon on Sept. 8. First prize was 5 tickets, second prize was 4 tickets, third prize was 3 tickets, four runners-up each got 2 tickets.
The front page featured this ad: "There is only one Lemon Grove newspaper that is edited, printed and wholly owned by Lemon Grove residents. Visit our new modern plant at 7812 Broadway and see for yourself—visitors are welcome any time. Be a charter subscriber: one year $1.50."
By late 1948, Jean Payne had joined her husband on the masthead as owner-editor. In the late 1940s, the Review had more clip art, fewer photographs; letters signed "Indignant" or "T"; plenty of social notes about vacations (probably with the back door left unlocked) and who was visiting whom; and lots of local ads. The Paynes expanded to two issues per week after shrinking to a smaller, tabloid size. But after 26 years in the harness and the chronic challenge of building readership, the Paynes decided to retire.
Act Two: Euro-Canadian John Pletschet took over the paper on Feb. 24, 1949, after moving to town with his ailing wife, Margaret. Pletschet returned to the large, broadsheet format published weekly and vowed to press on into the 1950s. But his nemesis was a La Mesa publisher who allegedly raided the Review for news items and peddled his paper to local subscribers.
"These parasites are sucking the good lifeblood of Lemon Grove," fumed Pletschet. He expanded to Thursday and Saturday editions and pleaded with subscribers to "ignore that out-of-town rag." But it was no go. Just 17 weeks later, he sold the Review to R. Ray Graham.
Act Three: On the 44th edition of the Review, Graham, an experienced Iowa newsman, became the third publisher. Like Pletschet—and, for that matter, many pioneer families—he came to Lemon Grove for its "medicinal climate." His credo was less commerce than matters of the spirit—"The service we offer is the rent we pay for the space we occupy upon this earth," he wrote. This was a tad disingenuous coming from a journalist who boasted that he "scooped the world" by publishing the first photograph of President McKinley's assassin in a Buffalo, N.Y., paper in 1901.
Graham ended the twice-weekly editions and published a six-page weekly, carrying its first single-copy price of a nickel. He ran recipes, Hollywood gossip, short stories from a syndicate, local columns like Antwonet Treganza's "Walks and Talks with Mother Nature," and big stories on local events like the first "Pow Wow" in 1949, the forerunner to "Old Time Days" that drew 30,000 people.
Then Graham went to a four-page broadsheet. Then, abruptly, to an eight-page format mailed free to all Lemon Grove households for three months. How could he afford this? See above for that fire protection district touted by local leaders. A $35,000 bond issue was scheduled for the June 1949 election and unknown persons subsidized the mail-out, which touted the bond issue on the front page of every issue. The fire bond won big and from then on, politics began to dominate the paper into the 1950s.
The Korean War, the Cold War, and the state's new loyalty oath for public employees sent Graham and his wife, Mae, an editorial writer on the Review, to new heights of partisanship in favor of Richard Nixon and a nuclear strike against Russia.
But after Graham was hospitalized for a severe ear infection in his fourth year of work on the Review, on Mar. 20, 1952, he announced the sale of the paper to Max Goodwin, the former general manager of the San Diego Daily Transcript. In his farewell column, Graham wrote, "The new publisher believes in Lemon Grove."
In our next column, Act Four: The Max Goodwin Era.