By Donald H. Harrison
Reprinted with permission from San Diego Jewish World, a member of the San Diego Online News Network
June 8, 2019 (Lemon Grove) - If you travel to Hamburg or Frankfurt in Germany, you’ll find that in neither place is a “hamburger” or a “frankfurter” a staple of local diets. Wouldn’t you think that in Lemon Grove, one could get a glass of fresh-made lemonade? Lido’s, a popular family-owned restaurant serving Italian food for nearly a half century, indeed has lemonade on the menu. However, the waitress advises, it’s not fresh-squeezed; it’s from a dispenser.
Alas, things are not always what they seem. This is a town that right in the heart of its downtown boasts a 10 foot-by-6 foot lemon sculpture, recognized on the Roadside America website as the largest lemon in the world. However, the only fresh lemons you’ll find in the City of Lemon Grove are those that grow on a few trees recently planted for effect behind the lemon sculpture. The acres upon acres of lemon and orange groves of the past are no more; they gave way to housing developments and stores in this working class San Diego suburb on the San Diego Trolley’s Orange Line.
The town has all but lost its namesake fruit, and except for the big lemon sculpture, does little to promote itself as a lemon capital. There are no ‘lemon fairs’ for townspeople to compete in; no international competitions for the best lemon meringue pies, lemon cookies, or lemon tarts. There are no trade fairs demonstrating the lemon’s qualities as a furniture polish, and not even any exhibitions of defective automobiles.
Yet, the town does keep nostalgia alive. Its station house along the San Diego Trolley line is a copy of one that served the town a century earlier. Four murals adorn the wall of the Grove Pastry Shop, located where the city’s first business, Sonka Brothers General Merchandise, once stood.
Four of five idealized history murals by local artists Kathleen Strzelecki and Janne LaValle were completed prior to New Year’s Day 2010. The first shows a Kumeyaay family outside a thatched hut or ewaa. Children are playing, women are weaving, a man is readying a spear for fishing.
In the second mural, crew members of explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo ride horses through the land he named ‘San Miguel’ in 1542, but which subsequently became known as ‘San Diego.’ In the background is a scene that could not have occurred for another 267 years—a Franciscan padre teaching a group of Kumeyaay Indians gathered around a tree. It was not until 1769 that Spaniards led by Father Junipero Serra began to colonize this area.
The third mural depicts San Diego County during its Mexican period. There is a procession of two brides on horseback—accompanied by musicians.
The fourth mural focuses on the early history of Lemon Grove, which was first settled in 1869 by sheep rancher Robert Allison. The mural shows the Lemon Grove Store operated by the Sonka Brothers, as well as a church, the school where a teacher leads children in a recess game, and the train station. The fifth mural, when completed, is supposed to show modern Lemon Grove.
In a 1958 edition of the Journal of San Diego History, Anthony F. Sonka, a second generation owner of Sonka Brothers, recalled that “in the early days, lemons were the chief industry, and hundreds of carloads were shipped from the local packing house, which was operated by the California Citrus Union; later the Lemon Grove Association was organized. … Lemon Grove was a community of five and ten acre lemon and orange ranches, chiefly owned by semi-retired people.”
He also wrote that baseball was the chief diversion for the lemon pickers in town. “In 1915 Lemon Grove won what they called at that time the Valley Championship. Among the teams were North Park, Lakeside, El Cajon and Chula Vista. We had a diamond which the players had built themselves, and which they kept up.”
Sports today still is important to Lemon Grove. The Lemon Grove Little League rates its own banner near the big lemon, and one of the best known businesses is Berry’s Athletic Supply, which keeps a huge inventory so that it can fill orders immediately.
Although Lemon Grove still has a small-town feel, with the Chamber of Commerce trying to persuade passers-by that they are experiencing the ‘best climate on earth” and most businesses along Broadway and Lemon Grove Avenue being one-story affairs, national chains are coming to the suburb. Close to the giant lemon is a Starbucks coffee outlet, and about a mile down Broadway is a huge Home Depot.