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When the Scent of Lemons Was In the Air

Longtime resident Sally Harris remembers the Grove.

You may have seen Sally Harris around town, with her shock of white hair and perpetual smile. Odds are good, because she has been hanging out in Lemon Grove since the late 1930s. I recently sat down with Harris and her two Maltipoos on the patio of her hillside home on the western edge of town to talk about “the ranch.”

The ranch was her grandparent’s five-acre chicken and produce farm, which is now the home of . But back when Harris was a little girl, there were no classrooms—or tract homes—to be found on that hill. What you did find at the top of San Miguel Avenue were chickens, fruits, vegetables, flowers, and, across the street, groves of lemon trees as far the eye could see. Harris said it was when “Lemon Grove was really Lemon Grove.”

Her grandparents, Alexander (“Sandy”) and Lydia Griffith, started the ranch in 1939. Harris told me she spent a lot of time there during World War II, when her mother had a “Rosie the Riveter” job at Ryan Aeronautical in San Diego. Harris remembers a magical place with chickens, beautiful produce, and the sweet scent of lemon blossoms always in the air.

“It was like being out in the country … and just seven miles from downtown,” she said.

People would stop by to buy eggs and freshly dispatched chickens. Harris said she never had to kill a bird, but did have the job of plucking the feathers. The chickens were then chilled, and some were delivered the next day to customers around the Grove from the backseat of her Grandma’s 1932 Buick.

Then there was all that chicken manure, which was used on the ranch to fertilize sweet corn, strawberries, boysenberries, tomatoes, and cut flowers. The produce was mostly sold to Safeway stores, where Harris’s father was the produce buyer—sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Apparently the fruits and vegetables were of such high quality that they usually ended up in the La Jolla store. Some things never change.

Harris said that, in those days, there were not many businesses in the Grove other than Sonka Brothers General Store and the post office. At age seven, one of her jobs was to make the hike down from San Miguel Avenue to the Sonka Store with a hand-written note. She would turn the paper over to the clerk, who would give her a packet of Beech Nut Scraps chewing tobacco to bring back to Grandpa. A big no-no in today’s regulated world.

In 1959, Harris bought her own home in Lemon Grove, and raised a family here. For the past 30 years she has worked in the local tourism industry. With no signs of slowing down, she regularly gives tours and takes groups to San Diego’s varied attractions. I asked if she had ever given a tour of Lemon Grove. Harris laughed and said, “No, I haven’t. I don’t know who would be interested.” After hearing her stories, I think she just might have an audience.

Helen Ofield May 23, 2012 at 04:06 PM
Great story, Corky.
Rebecca Palmer May 28, 2012 at 10:59 AM
I would absolutely love to get a tour of Lemon Grove by someone who was there! I read the book and have been so interested in the history ever since. My son and I have picked out the houses from the book that are on our street and think its just awesome to have that history as part of our drive out every morning.
Helen Ofield May 28, 2012 at 04:18 PM
Dear Rebecca, Congratulations on introducing your son to local history! You are doing a great job of helping him and other family members relate to the story of where you live. You can also attend the "History Alive" lectures in the H. Lee House, offered on the first Thursday of the month at 7 p.m., September - June. They are a great way to learn about local history from eye witnesses. Sally Harris will be on the series in September. The Lemon Grove Historical Society has just launched a signage project, starting with the H. Lee House and the Parsonage Museum (and The Big Lemon as soon as we can clear permissions) that will identify historic sites by name and date. We are inviting owners of such homes to participate. Once we have a group, we'll issue a map that will be provided free in the museum for anyone who would like to tool around neighborhoods and see where the treasures are. Our well-received home tours of the past also need to be revived. Do stop by the Parsonage any Saturday between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. for two floors of wonderful, you-are-there exhibits. Best, Helen
Ivy Westmoreland December 07, 2012 at 02:08 AM
Loved reading about Sally Harris growing up in Lemon Grove and her memories of the history in this area.

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