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1961: Up in Smoke

News from the Jan. 26, 1961 edition of the Lemon Grove Review when history burned to the ground on one coast as history smoked on the other.

Lemon Grove's original fruit packing shed burns down.
Lemon Grove's original fruit packing shed burns down.

Towering Inferno:  On Jan. 20, 1961 a roaring blaze, visible 15 miles away, consumed the town's last lemon packing shed, dating from 1891.  This remnant of our agrarian history was known in 1961 as Kobusch Van & Storage Company, 3615 Costa Bella Street (site of modern Mossy Honda).  

As flames shot 100 feet skyward, three warehouses, two offices and seven trucks (1961 value $270,000) were incinerated in a fire that started at 7:30 p.m. as Lemon Grovians were glued to their black-and-white TV sets watching a replay of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy and his New Frontier.

Flames quickly spread to the adjacent Larry Folda Building Materials warehouses (loss $95,000) and to John Contos Insulation.  Contos lost everything including the seven trucks and an underground gasoline storage tank that blew up.  William Kobusch lost the building and years of records, though loyal employees managed to save some moving equipment.  While Folda and Contos were insured, Kobusch said he hadn't looked at his policy "in years."

The warehouses contained drums of paints and solvents that exploded with "bomb-like blasts."  The nearby Costa Bella Trailer Park was scorched by heat and lost several trees.  At its high point at 8 p.m., the fire reportedly was bright enough to read a newspaper two blocks away.  Ralph Heim said the fire was so hot that onlookers leaning against the front window of his Spinn Cafe (across the street) burned their arms. 

McMahon's Furniture lost brand new inventory stored in one of the warehouses.  Two widows, Oleen Overmon and Abbie Brennan, were evacuated clutching jewelry and family photos.  Other neighbors and business owners stood on roofs with garden hoses to fend of sparks.  

Big Lemon Defended:  Half a dozen citizens with buckets of water stood beside The Big Lemon in case sparks should land on the town's beloved mascot.  Who were these adorables?  Call home if you know, 619-460-4353.

Fire units from Lemon Grove, Spring Valley, La Mesa, San Diego, Lincoln Acres, Bonita, the State Division of Forestry and the Navy's Chollas Radio Station fought the conflagration for nearly three hours.  Lemon Grove Fire Chief Pappy Hensley said the fire was ignited by a short circuit in an old car stored in the Kobusch warehouse ("a fire trap").  Despite ample water and firefighter units, "nothing could have saved that old, dry building," he said.

But it was the general public that made firefighting tough.  Highway 94 was jammed with cars slowing to view the inferno as police used loud speakers to beg drivers to keep moving.  Some 10,000 spectators crowded the site and were held back by sheriff's deputies and CHP, who threatened them with arrest if they didn't disperse, as sparks showered overhead.  Streams of water doused heedless crowds as firemen turned adjacent streets into miniature rivers.

Courage Under Fire:  Stoney Stonecifer, a driver for Folda's firm, first spotted the fire while eating dinner at the Spinn Cafe.  He called Joanne Laliotis, Folda's daughter, who rushed to the scene.  Together they removed company records and Stonecifer miraculously removed four trucks, a lifting truck and a passenger car.

Folda was on a fishing trip near Yuma and didn't learn of the disaster until 8:30 p.m. when a sheriff's deputy in Winterhaven called him.

Aftermath:  Fire crews patrolled the burned area long after the flames were extinguished.  Restauranteurs Sam Pernicano, Ted Fetters and Heim supplied food and coffee to the firefighters all night and the next day until there was no food left.  

All of the firefighters suffered minor burns, cuts and bruises, but only one, Lemon Grove engineer Noah Chubb, sustained a major injury--a sprained back.

Kobusch replaced the packing shed with a galvanized steel and timber building later rented to Habitat for Humanity, then to Dave's Feed Stop of vermin fame, then demolished after he sold the property to DCH Honda.

Headline News:  In a 14-inch wide by three-inch tall headline, the front page of the Jan. 21 edition of the San Diego Union declared "Lemon Grove Fire Razes 3 Buildings" (see photo).  Our fire vied for attention with Jacqueline Kennedy's wardrobe ("antelope-colored cloth coat, long kid gloves and high fashion pillbox hat"), outgoing President Eisenhower's farewell luncheon attended by hundreds, Fide Castro's end of an "invasion alert" for a peace bid, and the young president's called for a "grand and global alliance against tyranny, poverty. disease and war."

Just like now.

History, Smoked:  As the San Diego Union noted, "The Eisenhower era ended and the New Frontier began with snow, confusion, good humor" and acrid smoke.  An electric motor beneath the inaugural platform short circuited during Cardinal Cushing's invocation and Marian Anderson's National Anthem, but died when firemen pulled a plug in time for JFK to remove his coat in the frigid cold, place his hand on the family Bible and swear to be the best president ever.

JFK, as everyone knows, was just 1,000 days from being felled by Lee Harvey Oswald's (or somebody's) bullet.

Our Fruit Packing Shed:  It served the Lemon Grove Fruit Growers Association until 1936 when the last carloads of citrus were shipped from the Lemon Grove Depot and the town's agricultural heyday wound down.  Between 1891 and 1936, some 250 to 350 carloads of fruit were shipped annually.  By the 1930s the Fruit Growers Association had sold out to Sunkist.

The days of 20 and 30-acre citrus ranches gradually gave way to five and 10-acre spreads run by retirees and a few family descendants.  The latter sold out to housing developers as World War II workers and military flooded into the county and the prosperous 1950s drove the expansion of neighborhoods and schools, and the town's  march toward cityhood in 1977.

Wisdom of the Ages:  This edition of the Review contained a sole filler that was nothing if not ironic:

     Fire is dangerous for almost everything except cooking and heating in controlled circumstances.

And so it went 53 years ago in The Big Lemon when riveted residents saw part of their history vanish forever as hometown heroes fought to save it.

About this column:  Compiled by Helen Ofield, president of the Lemon Grove Historical Society, from newspapers archived at the H. Lee House Cultural Center.  Each week, we take a peek at the past with some news and advertising highlights from a randomly chosen edition of the Lemon Grove Review.  In 2012 and 2013 Ofield was awarded first, second and third place awards in non-daily, online column writing from the Society of Professional Journalists and the San Diego Press Club.

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