OAK GROVE — Despite its condition, there is an air of dignity about the Oak Grove stage station.
Its roof is sagging, and many of its wooden window frames lean to one side. It has been years since they held glass.
The station's thick adobe-brick walls are likewise chipped and rounded with age, and weeds are growing tall around them.
This was once a lively place where travelers from across the United States found meals and homey lodging. They stabled their horses in the barn across the road, and, in later years, gassed up their cars at a red pump just outside the station's front door.
Those days are gone now, but the Oak Grove stage station still stands. A survivor from the days of the pioneers, it symbolizes how little life has changed in Oak Grove--one of San Diego County's oldest, most remote and most obscure communities.
If you call information and ask for a phone number in Oak Grove, chances are the operator will try to convince you that the place doesn't exist. Don't bother looking for Oak Grove on Rand McNally's new map of northern San Diego County, either--it simply doesn't appear.
But drive north on California 79 about 15 miles past Warner Springs and you can't miss it. Oak Grove is aptly named. It sits in a broad, quiet valley filled with oaks, about three miles from the county's northern boundary.
Along with two nearby communities that you've likewise probably never heard of--Sunshine Summit and Chihuahua Valley--Oak Grove forms a kind of back-country town. About 500 people live in the three communities; they share a volunteer fire department and send their children to schools in Warner Springs and Julian.
Sunshine Summit, with a grocery store, a brand-new hardware store and a cafe that advertises "real buffalo burgers," is the commercial center. Chihuahua Valley--a boulder-strewn valley given over to small ranches--is strictly a residential area.
Oak Grove has a community hall, a U.S. Forest Service station and campground, and a few scattered ranches. It also has the most history in the area--and the most oaks. They line the highway through Oak Grove like sentinels; some stand nearly 100 feet high.
"They're coast live oaks, and they need a lot of water, but the water table here is up high enough to support them," said John Wentworth. "Some of the biggest ones are more than 200 years old, at least."
Something about Oak Grove has caused people like Wentworth, 51, to remain in the area all their lives. He is a fourth-generation resident, and like a number of the others is descended from one of the handful of families that homesteaded the area more than a century ago.
The presence of so many people with long historical and emotional ties to the area has helped make Oak Grove one of the few places in San Diego County that has escaped being inundated by development: People hold on to their land. But it can also make it hard on newcomers.
"I'm just starting to be accepted," said Rob Walker, owner of the Sunshine Summit grocery store. Though Walker and his wife moved to the area 12 years ago, it has been only recently that "the established families have finally started inviting us to their parties," Walker said. "To some, I'm still the new guy."
Wentworth, a soft-spoken man with a graying mustache, acknowledges that "it's a pretty close community. Everybody knows everybody."
Asked how many people live in Oak Grove, he estimated about 50 (although the town's sign says 100). Then, he closed his eyes and began to count them mentally, one by one.
Oak Grove became a brief footnote to the nation's history in the 19th Century. In 1858, Oak Grove became a stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail stage coach route, which ran 2,800 miles from Tipton, Mo., to San Francisco.
The Oak Grove stage station was finished in September of that year.
The adobe-brick walls about three feet thick ensured that the building stayed cool through the summer. Heavy wooden beams that supported the roof were hand cut by Indian laborers.
Warren Hall, a stage driver and the line's regional manager, moved in right away. And it was well he did. The first stagecoach arrived Oct. 6, after spending nearly two weeks crossing the Western deserts.
"Our road lay through some delightful oak groves--a most decided improvement on the desert," wrote Waterman Lily Ormsby, a New York Herald correspondent who was a passenger on that first stage. "The stations (of) Hall's Oak Grove, Aguanga, Laguna and Temecula are all at convenient distances, and the accommodations excellent, and the road is lined with prosperous ranches."
Politicians and businessmen expected the Butterfield Overland Mail route to spur development of the West. But the line was discontinued in 1861 when the Civil War broke out.