Pepper Trees Offer More Than Shade

Article…   by Carroll Rice

Most of the oak trees that once graced the El Cajon Valley and gave the Native Americans shade, shelter, and food are gone; and gone are the streams that nourished them. As the Centuries progressed away from the 19th and into the 21st, the settlers and their descendants replaced the oaks with non-native species, primarily with varieties of eucalyptus and pepper trees.

The eucalyptus were imported from Australia in great numbers in the 1880s in the hopes that the twisty wood would prove ideal for durable railroad ties. However, the eucalyptus trees were best adapted for decorative accents, effective windbreaks and renewable sources of firewood.

The so-called ‘California’ pepper trees were introduced from Peru by Spanish missionaries, who substituted the dried and ground berries for scarce East Indian pepper. Believed to be California’s oldest pepper, its branches supported by crotches, one lone tree still casts its shade at the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, east of Oceanside.

There is no record as to when the first pepper trees arrived in the El Cajon Valley, but it was probably by accident as the seeds are often carried by birds. In any event, once they arrived, the young trees were ideally suited to the soil and climate and multiplied. Pepper trees are often criticized as ‘messy,’ with falling leaves, berries, flowers, and occasional biting insects; but they are drought-tolerant, hardy and fast-growing. The disadvantages were quickly dismissed by many settlers who planted them around their homes and welcomed their lacy shade.

To those of us who have grown familiar with pepper trees over the years, they are not only beautiful, they are reminders of times long past. Is there anyone who attended Cajon Valley Union Grammar School who doesn’t remember the lunch benches and tables built around a massive pepper tree?

Do you remember when there were pepper trees on both sides of Highway 80 from Mollison east to Second Street? I know I rejoiced as I walked toward home in their shade after school or after a sojourn to San Diego on the bus…city bus service stopped at Main and Magnolia or at Main and Mollison during my school years.

And what about Pepper Drive? Originally planted to provide shelter from the sun for wagon loads of crops being hauled to the packing houses and the railroad, the lacy-leafed trees added to the charm of homes, farms and ranches along the way. They still do. For nearly ten years, El Cajon had a ‘Pepper Tree Market’ tucked behind a rough-barked specimen on the north side of Main Street, opposite the Weinstock building. Named for the tree which had long served as a hitching post, the market under the ownership of Robert Fluornoy was a popular success from 1924 into the early 1930’s.

Fluornoy, who had lost the use of his legs in a dam construction accident, was not one to let adversity get him down. He, with his wife, Mary, and daughter, Elizabeth, had arrived in the Valley in 1917, bought property and tried his hand in several enterprises. After acquiring A chicken ranch, a five-acre citrus and avocado ranch, and a small outlying store, Mr. Fluornoy brought his marketing skills into the Valley’s business district. Stocking his shelves with vegetables and fruit from his own garden and orchard, and adding more by bartering and trading with other growers, his market enjoyed a marked success.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Pepper Tree Market for its time was a lunch counter, offering chili con carne, hamburgers, and beef stew, as well as coffee and desserts. Lucille Fluornoy Loveday, Robert’s second daughter, born in 1927, has vivid memories centered around a huge root beer barrel at the front of the store. As a little girl, she sat at the counter quaffing glass after glass of the rich-flavored old-fashioned soda, entranced by the activity in the store, the banter of businessmen dropping in for lunch, and the Indians tying their horses to the old pepper tree. What scenes to remember and cherish!

My own love affair with pepper trees began when the southern, eastern and northern boundaries of the Valley were marked by orange groves, and many 10-acre vineyards on the valley floor were bounded by olive trees .In those days, from the 1930’s through the 1940’s, houses were generally farther apart and many vacant areas were overgrown with ‘wild’ barley and oats, survivors of a time when the Valley was planted to grain. Agriculture was king, and dairies, produce farms, hog ranches, chicken ranches, and horse-raising properties could thrive without ‘city’ regulations…and the city of El Cajon’s eastern edge stopped at the grammar school, west of Mollison Avenue.

About three miles east of the city, near the corner of Third and Lexington Streets, at the center of a ten acre orange grove, two giant pepper trees shaded our house and back yard. Together, those trees – one male (yellow flowers), one female (bright red berries) – not only created an oasis during the hot days and slightly cooler evenings, but day or night, established the distinctive character of our home.

Swings, one a tire-on-a-rope and the other a conventional board swing, were hung from the lower branches and a lawn swing was placed beside the trunk. On hot summer evenings we often moved outside and hoped for a cooling breeze. Neighbors and friends sometimes dropped by to enjoy a little time of gossip, conversation, political discussions and recollections. I, always the listener, frequently sat in a swing and absorbed every aspect of the yarning and casual remembrances…learning about the opinions, childhoods and youthful adventures of neighbors and friends. Over the years we built and rebuilt an outdoor fireplace of bricks, blocks or stones just beyond the tree’s lower leaves and branches – a place to cook hot dogs, marshmallows, and even heat water when we butchered the pigs and beeves.

The trees had been planted about 1916 by the man who built our house from timbers from the 1915 Pacific Exhibition.

Those trees had grown tall and wide by the time my grandparents bought the place in 1922 and when I was born in 1929, their branches had largely covered one half of the house and back yard.

The mild-weather whisper of breezes in their branches and the loud sighing and swishing when rain storms and Santa Ana winds blustered through their tops were the ‘background’ sounds that accompanied the first 23 years of my life.

[On windy days when I was a little tyke my mother would sing, “Button up your overcoat when the winds blow free…” while she bundled me up like an arctic explorer to go outside.]

From my earliest days, my mind coupled the back-drop of pepper trees with events in the yard such as the horseback delivery of the Tribune newspaper by Blake Barton, Felix or Jean Landis, the Indians coming to the door to sell baskets and plant stands, the old man who sharpened scissors and knives, and the pleas by ‘missionaries’ from various religious persuasions. Even now, I’ve never lost my wonder at our neighbor Earl Cunningham’s childhood ability to climb one tree and come down in the other; clambering through the entwined branches high above. (I, myself, was afraid to climb above the first crotch.)

I learned the alphabet and numbers (including how to print my name) scratching the characters on the ground with a stick under those trees. Later, in the clear space between them, I pulled toy cars and trucks along the roads of imaginary kingdoms,  played marbles, learned the rudiments of catching a ball from my father, hosted birthday parties, and after I was in college, directed play rehearsals. Like a one-ring circus, there was always something going on under that grand canopy including the antics of our dogs and cats, free-roaming ducks, geese, chickens, and human visitors (some on horseback).

Most recalled scenes are good for a smile, but some invoke frowns. For example, in the late 1930’s my mother was suffering through a difficult pregnancy and my cousin Jack Vanatta put a loudspeaker in the crotch of one of the trees so that she could have music as she rested outside. One of the girls my father hired to help her just loved that arrangement. She would happily rock herself back and forth in the lawn swing with the radio playing at full volume while my mother lay in the house calling for help…that girl didn’t last long.

I could go on and on, recalling Chuck Ahlee playing his mandolin for us on a warm evening, the artist Zahr Pritchard telling my sisters and me of his many adventures in India, Australia, Tahiti and Brazil, and so many more. A Sunday eve in summer would often find our friends the Ellis and Conaway families, sharing pot-luck picnics under the trees. What fun we had, and memorable games we played, and how many gallons of iced tea and homemade root beer we consumed!

All things considered, however, perhaps the most memorable event was the night of the corn party.

When I got out of the Air Force in 1953, I couldn’t find a worthwhile job, so my father suggested that I plant corn and sell corn and oranges beside the road, where our driveway joined Lexington Street. That worked for a while, but in the summer of 1954, after the nature of corn, it all began to ripen at once. It was corn party time!

I put up signs at the Globe Theater and the Little Theater at San Diego State where I had many friends, inviting one and all to a Saturday night corn harvest celebration. My father, God bless him, assumed the command of a large army-style kettle on the outdoor fireplace and began cooking corn. It was consumed with gusto by a crowd of at least 30 people. Not only was there hot, buttered corn; we gave all who wanted one a gunny sack and told them, “Go out in the cornfield and pick all you want.”

I would say that the party was a signal success. Many years have passed and I am still occasionally asked (as late as a historic house tour last year), “When will you have another corn party?”

The days of corn parties and the lives of the trees were numbered. In 1955, the home place was sold and the land was cleared. That little ten acre ranch, like so many groves, fields, and vineyards in El Cajon, is gone and the land parcels are defined by houses and streets. Yet, vast changes have not erased the memories and impressions of an earlier time. Years later and far from El Cajon, I once woke out of a deep sleep and troubled dreams with tears on my face.

“They’ve cut down the trees,” I said over and over again,

“They’ve cut down the pepper trees!”


Published  In the July 2014 Issue of HERITAGE  Volume 35, Issue 3