A look back at Lemon Grove, 49 years ago this week.
Grand Old Man: The grand old man of Lemon Grove, Tony Sonka, eldest son of Anton and Anna Sonka and heir to Sonka & Son General Merchandise, established in 1907 on the corner of Main and Pacific Streets (today, Grove Pastry Shop), was feted by the Lemon Grove Men's Club and some 250 admirers on July 18, 1963. Politicians, judges, titans of industry, and local people thronged into Michael's Restaurant and Pub, outstripping available seating. Disappointed fans were turned away but not before witnessing a drama—one of many that seemed to occur at Michael's on a regular basis.
Just as steaks were laid on the grill, the kitchen was engulfed in flames from a grease fire. Fire Chief Pappy Hensley, garbed in a tux and Florsheims, leaped onto the roof to aid firefighters while assistant chief Fred Dixon, also in mufti, hauled a hose from the alleyway into the kitchen.
An hour and $600 in damages later, the delayed motorcade pulled up bearing the man of the hour in a 1927 Studebaker touring car. To his surprise, Sonka was greeted not only by Miss Lemon Grove Darlene Henderson, party co-chairs Frank Gigliotti and Judge Luther Hussey, Supervisor David Bird and a Boy Scout troop, but by restaurant owner Henry Goldy, nursing a burned hand, and an impromptu "honor guard" of firefighters, sweating in the summer heat, water dripping off their boots, all cheering, "To-nee! To-nee!"
Sonka was hailed as "Lemon Grove's first citizen" and here's why:
He kick-started the town's post agricultural economy by turning Sonka Bros. General Store into an East County shopping magnet, the Walmart of its day. He served as postmaster from 1907 - 1940. He founded the Lemon Grove Chamber of Commerce in 1912. He ran a "bank" in Sonka Bros. Store until First National Bank opened in town in 1949. In hard times he charged one or two percent interest (and not much more in good times), and didn't demand payment from families impoverished by the Great Depression and the infamous Mattoon Act.
He donated funds to build the new grammar school in 1924, buy the first fire truck in 1926, build the Big Lemon in 1928, start the first Old Time Days in 1948, buy the first school bus in 1954, and buy the first school band uniforms in 1960. He donated the land for Green Spot Park (later, Firefighter’s Park; now the “Skate Spot”), and land for the Community Center on School Lane. He donated land for Boy Scout and Girl Scout camping. He donated space for the town's early libraries and supported every church in town.
He brought milch cows to town in World War I so that local kids could be nourished and gave food to needy families during the Depression. The town's lone doctor during the Depression, Dr. Ebon McGregor wrote to Sonka, "You keep them fed and I'll keep them alive."
He loved kids and gave them free penny candy when they visited the store and "looked the other way" when the butcher, Anton Brunner, gave them free frankfurters and pickles. Jack Durham, whose daughter and son-in-law, Lori and Bob Bailey, have run The Food Factory on Broadway for nearly 40 years, was the 15-year-old stock boy in the Sonka Store, pulling 25 cents an hour. Jack's warm reminiscence of Sonka as "a gentleman, a gentle soul, who upped my salary to 30 cents an hour when I said my high school expenses were pending," only echoes similar sentiments from other Lemon Grovians of the period.
Sonka built homes and planted trees all over town. His own home, a Craftsman-style bungalow, still stands on Buena Vista Avenue. He died in 1974, but the memories linger on, together with the tangible evidence of his accomplished life. In the Sonka Archive of the Lemon Grove Historical Society are most of the artifacts from that 1963 dinner down to the invitation, the menu and bronze plaques.
Why did the Sonkas come to America? In large part because young men like the family patriarch, Anton Sonka, were prey to conscription by the warring duchies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were kidnapped, literally, right off the street to fight in petty wars nobody understood and, ultimately, nobody won. Anton literally walked across Europe, got on a boat for England, then for Ireland, then for America. His older brother, Joseph, had already fled for the same reason. They were reunited in Seguin, Texas. Then they moved to San Francisco, where they survived the 1906 earthquake. Then they moved to San Diego, heard there might be a mercantile opportunity in a place called "Lemon Grove," and landed here in 1907.
Philanthropy like Tony Sonka's comes along every now and then. We can't, at this distance, put a price tag on what this child of a Bohemian immigrant family donated and/or paid for in our town. Nothing in Lemon Grove is named for him, nor did he request or imply that he expected public recognition. We are reminded of Ralph Nader's immortal phrase, "citizens' work," which echoed Citizen Tom Paine's phrase in "Common Sense" at the onset of the American Revolution, "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will...shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
Perhaps, one day, the service of Tony Sonka and his family will gain public recognition in Lemon Grove because they did not shrink from service of the town that welcomed them in their hour of need.
Footnote: Henry Goldy started Michael's Restaurant & Pub in the early 1950s. In the 1960s he joined with his chef Jack Cruse and La Mesa restaurateur Joe Edinger to expand the Bronze Room in La Mesa. Goldy brought in a giant snowmaking machine for his "Christmas in July" party at the newly incarnated Bronze Room & Caterers. Goldy always thought big. He had high hopes for Michael's, long the go-to, high class joint for politicos of all stripes, plus ordinary folk like thou and moi. Steaks were never so rare, conversation so peppy, nor martinis so dry since Michael's bit the dust.