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The Original Off-Road Vehicles

November 12, 2000|BILL MANSON

Oak Grove, along sleepy Route 79 just south of the San Diego-Riverside border, was the Orange Crush interchange of its day. It's hard to imagine it now, but the clues are there for anyone willing to look.

A low tan adobe beneath 400-year-old live oak trees is a rare survivor of the approximately 140 Butterfield Overland Mail stop stations that dotted a 2,800-mile fair-weather, flatland stagecoach route--the longest in the world--from St. Louis to San Francisco via Yuma. In its heyday, two stages from each direction stopped for fresh horses and food each week. Oak Grove had some of the best chow on the route, according to a Butterfield historian, and an estimated 22,000 soldiers passed through en route to the Civil War.

To get a weird feeling for those crazy '50s--the 1850s--climb down into the gloom of a nearby gully. There you'll find a couple of transportation relics-- the last of a group of hay carts, covered wagons and stagecoaches that for years sagged on their huge wheels, their hoops and cabins leaning crazily, awaiting the love and attention of property owners Mark Shook and his father, Miles, who have been collecting wagons and stagecoaches for years.

"We saved as much of the originals as we could," says the younger Shook. "So far we've fixed up one stagecoach, one covered wagon, two open wagons and one flatbed hay cart."

He points out that these aren't the Concord coaches and "celerity" wagons that Butterfield used between 1858 and the early 1860s, but rather lighter day-coaches and short-distance wagons. Still, the scene has the peculiar feel of an Old West boneyard.

The Shooks, who grow flowers commercially on their 60-acre property, have spent about $250,000 to replace the building's roof and many of its timbers. They've even turned part of it into a museum, though visitors can only peek through the windows because earthquake codes prohibit them from entering. Why do they bother?

"This is a national historic property, and the Department of the Interior considered it 'in danger of being lost forever,' " Shook says. "So it just seemed like the thing to do."

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