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By Miriam Raftery

April 28, 2013 (Deerhorn Valley) – The first-annual Deerhorn Valley Home and Garden Tour  on April 21 provided an intriguing glimpse into the history of this fascinating area of East County, as well as tours of a spectacular and diverse array of homes and gardens. 

A unique aspect of this tour, unlike others that are self-guided, was the tour bus provided along with helpful guides who gave details along the way not only of residences on the tour, but also colorful tales about the communities and rich heritage of this region.

Snacks were provided at each stop, with a delicious feast at the final destination, along with wine-tasting provided by Dube Vineyards.  The tour is sponsored by the Deerhorn Valley Community Association, with help from friends and neighbors.

This is a community that has forged bonds of friendship and strength after the Harris Fire, which touched nearly everyone’s lives in this rural community where some residents trace their roots back to the pioneer era.

Buoyed by the success of their first-ever home and garden tour, organizers are already looking ahead.

“We may have a wine party and Deerhorn Valley Festival for the future,”  Karen Koop said.

After boarding the bus, we headed out on Mother Grundy Truck Trail into an area settled by ranching families in the 1800s and previously occupied by Kumeyaay Indians.  We pass an eclectic array of homes including a llama ranch, a horse ranch, a tropical aviary, and an artist’s home with large carved buffalo in front. A a red llama born during the Harris wildfire is aptly named “Pyro.” We also see restoration underway of a historic schoolhouse that burned in the 2007 Harris Fire.

Pringle Canyon Ranch

Mary Jane Quinn, our first tour guide, is also owner of Pringle Canyon Ranch, our first stop on the tour.

En route, she told us how she and her husband, a retired firefighter, realized it was “love at first sight” when they first laid eyes on the area.   They built a beautiful straw-bale home and guest house, or casita (photo, left) in 2004-05 using local earthen plaster, reclaimed wood, and 36 photovoltaic panels.

A water catchment system uses buried downspouts and underground pipes to capture rainwater from metal roofs and collect water in a 6500 storage tank as well as a beautiful set of ponds rimmed with walkways lined by a variety of wild lilacs in brilliant splashes of purple.

 Landscaping features native plants that use very little water, also providing fire resistance and habitat for birds and wildlife. 

The property also features a courtyard with Spanish-tiled fountain, a hammock swinging lazily in the breeze, and a wooden hot tub tucked beneath a grove of shady oak trees. 

Around the home, hardscaping provides added fire protection.  That’s important in this brushy area, as the couple learned firsthand during the Harris Fire when Mary Jane’s husband put out several spot fires on the hillside behind their home.

Inside, the straw bale home is cool even on a very warm day.  The house has no air conditioning and has radiant heating in the floor.  A curved fireplace also helps heat the home in winter. 

Warm wooden beams, a mix of rustic and comfortable furnishings, and a collection of sombreros atop a high shelf evoke early California's Spanish heritage as well as contemporary flair.

Artwork, mostly from artists in the family, adorn the walls.  Lemonade and cookies hit the spot on this sunny day. 


Historic Walker/Bradford Ranch

Our next stop is at the Historic Walker/Bradford Ranch, founded in  1896, by Lew Walker and acquired by Robert and Carol Bradford in 1985. This was the first homestead on the "Flat."

Tour guide Kim Hamilton, editor of the Deerhorn Valley Antler, tells us how the Deerhorn Springs, also known as Deerhorn Flat, area here got its name.  Albert Walker and a friend came upon two deer skeletons with antlers tangled together, bucks fighting to the death. 

“They tossed the antlers in a tree,” Hamilton said.  Locals came to use the expression “Meet me by the springs in Deerhorn.”   The site was once a stop for the Butterfield Stage Coach.  Liquid amber trees planted along a creek put on a dazzling show of fall foliage in autumn.

Up the hill, we pass “Labrador Pond,” (photo, left) built by the current owners of the Walker/Bradford Ranch.  “My husband and I built it ourselves with a backhoe and hoses,” said Carol Bradford, whose labrador retrievers now enjoy swimming in the pond along with ducks and other waterfowl.

The property also includes the main house known as the lodge, as well as stables, a barn, and an old family cemetery.

There is also a residence for other family members as well as a historic “honey house” once used for honey production but now as a guest cottage (photo, left). 

The heavy-timbered lodge has rich paneled walls and vintage accessories from miniature trains to a stuffed deer head over the mantel.Inside, the residence evokes a cozy ambience and a sense of stepping back in time.  

The residence also features a wrap-around deck and sunken garden behind. 

The Bradfords, too, narrowly escaped disaster during the Harris Fire.  Manure in the barn caught fire.

“If my husband hadn’t been here taking away embers, we would have lost everything,” Carol recalls.

The property has abundant habitat for wildlife. During a brief stroll around the property, I spotted hawks, songbirds, squirrels, a woodpecker and bees. 

Juicy tangerines provide a refreshing snack mid-tour.  There are many fruit trees on the premises including peach, apple, pear, plum, lemon, tangerine, fig, persimmon and bear fruit.

In front of the lodge, stone steps curve down to a sparkling pool and spa; a cantilevered deck above affords an idyllic spot to while away an afternoon.

Elsewhere on the property, relics of old farm equipment stand as  reminders of a bygone era.


Casa Calibri

Our third stop on the tour is at the home of Kim Hamilton and Rob Deason. 

A highlight of the tour is Casa Calibri, which means “Hummingbird Home” in Spanish.  

The straw-bale studio (photo, left) was built after the Harris Fire destroyed an outbuilding and now serves as a studio for the couple’s art and music endeavors.

“Once we saw Pringle Canyon, we were smitten,” Hamilton says of the straw-bale construction.  The couple held parties to lay the first bale and to add mudding and adobe plaster.  The studio is energy-saving and attractive.  Aged heavy timers salvaged from Old Town’s Casa Bandini add an aura of antiquity.

A solarium off the main house is built around a rock, with clear walls and ceiling affording pleasing views of natural boulders, oak trees, and a bird sanctuary outside with feeders, bird baths and bird houses.  

Rob serves up home-roasted coffee for those who want to sit and commune with nature for a while.

The property also includes a screened-in garden to keep the critters out, with raised beds inside filled with fresh vegetables.

Solar panels on a garage produce renewable energy, powered by the sun.

A rock-lined creek and pond are recent additions to the property.


Strewn through the grounds are seating areas and otherl places to relax--including a large boulder accessible with a ladder propped beside it, inviting one to climb up and bask, lizard-like,in the warm East County sun.

“I’ve slowed down, living up here,” Hamilton muses, “and learned that everything is on a continuum; nothing is ever done.”

Back on the bus, we drive past the home of our driver, Luis Chavez with Sundance Stage.  He  moved here in 2006 and lost his home to the 2007 wildfire.  But he has rebuilt a spacious two-story home--this time using insulated concrete form that is fire resistant and 12-inches thick, providing excellent insulation.

Hamilton tells us about life in Deerhorn Valley, a rural community where the annual Fourth of July Parade features tractors, wagons, vintage cars and ponies. 

Perched atop a hill nearby stands, incongruously, a tower.  It was built by a man of German heritage, reportedly descended from a knight.

The Pete and Karen Garden

Our next stop is at the amazing gardens cultivated by Karen Koop and her husband, Pete. 

Organic, raised beds gardens produce enormous vegetables fertilized with local horse manure as well as composted chicken litter from the couple’s flock of free-roaming hens including Rhode Island reds, white leghorns, Araucanas, and black hens.

The chickens, housed in a coop resembling a little red barn, also provide fresh eggs with deep-orange yolks and a variety of colored shells ranging from pink to blue.  Karen serves up the tastiest egg salad ever, along with an olive tapenade spread.

The homeowners also raise bees which pollinate the garden, harkening back to this region’s historic roots, when honey was a major product exported as far away as Europe.

They’ve learned some things along the way. “We didn’t anticipate the weight,” Karen says of the dirty within the boards used for their raised beds initially. “So it looks like really warped canoes.” 

She says the best compost is provided by her chickens; pine shavings absorb odors.  “At first we used straw on the garden floor to act as mulch, but it germinated and we kept pulling up oats!” Karen says.

The couple’s barn burned down in the fire. Instead of replacing it, they are turning it into a second garden, still in progress.  The property also has walnut trees that feed squirrels as well as the family.

Karen has been a life-long gardener whose passion was inspired by her father.  She shares some tips, such as organic castor oil to keep out moles and banana peels in soil to repel aphids.  Nets keep birds off fruits, while a spray made by boiling habanera peppers and garlic for several hours, then pureeing the mixture will keep away many bugs and other critters.

Each guest is given an heirloom vegetable plant to take home as a souvenir of this stop.


Talamar Gardens, Home of Susie and Jim Norton

We end our tour at Talamar Gardens, home of Susie Walker-Norton and Jim Norton on the land of the family’s 1896 homestead.   Susie is the great-granddaughter of Lew Walker, founder of the historic home seen earlier on the tour. 

The current home, a two-story dwelling with arched wrap-around porch and balcony, as built in 2003-04.  Walls, patios and stairs divert water and reduce erosion. 

The property also features a gazebo with birds-eye view, a lacy domed top forming curved shadows.

Below, a pavilion area provides ample space for outdoor entertaining (where we enjoyed our feast and wine tasting), along with extensive hard-scaping.

Fort Jackalope, a play area for children complete with climbing area  and teepee.

Low-maintenance landscaping includes lavender, poppies and succulents, while an enclosed greenhouse give plants an early start each spring.

An alcove area has been carved out of massive boulders; nearby, an unusual rock formation called a hoodoo (photo, left)provides an eye-catching focal point beside the home. 

Guests also admired artwork available for purchase by several local artists.

Inside the home, unusual details include elaborate antique dining room furnishings with elegant carved details, including wolves, griffins, and rope-style braiding.

Comfortable leather furnishings and a wood stove in the living room provide a cozy place to savor spectacular views out corner picture windows.

Downstairs includes a home laboratory as well as a wine cellar stocked with favorite vintages.

An upstairs landing has been converted into a library, an idyllic place to curl up and read a good book. 

Susie showed us a sunny guest room, where walls display a collection of artwork featuring wildlife, each with baby animals.

A home theater is complete with comfortable reclining chairs, where tired tour-goers relax at the end of this delightful day.


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Wonderful article! I love the community spirit of Deerhorn Valley. Of note, I noticed an error in that MaryJane Quinn is incorrectly referred to as Karen in the section "Pringle Canyon Ranch." The article reads, "Karen’s husband put out several spot fires on the hillside behind their home." Actually, that was my mother, MaryJane's husband, retired firefighter Robert Hill Sr.