Simanaitis Says

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TOURING THE WORLD’S LETTUCE CAPITAL

EL CENTRO, once renowned as the Lettuce Capital of the World, is in California’s Imperial Valley, about 115 miles east of San Diego and 15 miles north of the Mexican border. Whereas San Diego sparkles with the Pacific Ocean, the Imperial Valley’s bountiful yield of year-around crops depends on a river that, miles upstream and eons ago, carved the Grand Canyon.

Wife Dottie was born and raised in the Imperial Valley. Joe Livernois’ Hetzel the Photographer: Impressions of Imperial Valley, one of her books, bristles with tidbits about the place and its people. A tough bunch, desert rats, even tougher back when the Imperial Valley developed relatively late among U.S. locales, a century ago.

Victor Leopold Hetzel, 1877–1949, American photographer of the southwest, particularly California’s Imperial Valley.

Leo Hetzel arrived in the Imperial Valley in 1915, his camera at the ready. During a 34-year career, he captured Kenyon’s El Centro Plunge, Daredevil Cathey’s 100-hour marathon drive, the refrigerated Barbara Worth Hotel, the region’s plank road, its speakeasy casinos just across the Mexican border, and a lot more.

Here are photographic examples, with annotations by the Ditchbank Girl, Wife Dottie.

Above, the Barbara Worth Hotel, built in 1915 and named after the heroine in Harold Bell Wright’s novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth. Below, its lobby, with murals painted by Chicago artists Luvena Buchanan and Edward Vysekal.

The Hetzel book describes the Barbara Worth Hotel as “The Valley’s showcase of extravagance.” Long before modern air conditioning, it was “Completely Refrigerated” by circulating ice water through an extensive network of pipelines.

The El Centro Plunge, the community swimming pool, had a facade modeled after the Alamo.

Ditchback Girl remembers taking swimming lessons at The Plunge, but learned to swim in an irrigation canal. We know of another community pool with a sign that says The Plunge, in Brea, California. Is The Plunge a California thing? Or common elsewhere in the country?

The Mexicali Border.

Border formalities were rather less elaborate than today’s. However, early on, temperance types forced a 9 p.m. closure to encourage their menfolk homeward.

The Owl Casino, one of Mexicali’s “palaces of chance.”

According to the Hetzel book, Mexicali “was established when a shack was set up just south of the border to quench Valleyites’ thirsts with bootleg Mescal.” In fact, this Mexican city has always been considerably larger than El Centro.

Ditchbank Girl’s father never hung out there. Indeed, a family tale has it that he once stepped into an El Centro bar for a cool refreshment while her mother and Dottie were grocery shopping. Young Dottie was so shocked seeing Daddy exit the place that she sobbed uncontrollably all the way home. (She was probably a pest in other ways too.)

The single-lane plank road had turnouts every quarter-mile, on the off-chance of encountering another car.

Plank roads made an appearance here at SimanaitisSays. Ditchbank Girl’s mother remembered riding on this one, east of El Centro near Yuma, Arizona.

Ditchbank Girl and her high-school friends felt a frisson (though the time and climate likely precluded this term) when larking around the abandoned Yuma Prison and seeing “the pit.” So the legend went, troublesome prisoners were thrown into this hole, which was then topped with corrugated steel to offer sweltering confinement.

Desparados, horse thieves, and others “skirting standards of societal responsibility” spent time in the Yuma Territorial Prison, located on the east side of the Colorado River in Arizona.

It was years later that a Park Guide told Wife Dottie and me, “Oh, you must be from the Imperial Valley. Actually, the pit was dug for an early movie.”

Lee “Daredevil” Cathey drove a 100-hour marathon for a local car dealer’s publicity.

Dance Marathons were the big thing in the Thirties. Getting in the spirit and sponsored by a local car dealer, “Daredevil” Cathey drove a car for 100 hours straight. Cathey finished things off with a nap in full display in the dealership showroom.

El Centro was known as the Lettuce Capital of the World.

The ubiquity of lettuce in Ditchbank Girl’s youth may hint at why she avoids it today in any salad, sandwich, tostada, taco, or other food. She remembers when a dump truck would deposit a pile of “cull” lettuce into a cow pasture. Cull lettuce was smaller than the big, round heads sent to the markets.

Bon appetite! And thanks, Mr. Hetzel. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

6 comments on “TOURING THE WORLD’S LETTUCE CAPITAL

  1. Bob DuBois
    June 24, 2017

    Add to your list of “plunges”: the Perris Hill Plunge in San Bernardino ( I spent many Summer days there in my youth) , and the Vallejo Plunge in Vallejo.

  2. Horacio Sosa
    June 24, 2017

    Grew up reading you, me Egan, et al, in Mexi/cali across the border from Cal/exico, literally learning English to be able to understand every last word written in R&T.

    Our valley has a really strange origin, being the dream of a veritable visionnaire from the 40’s -that’s the 1840’s- and his successors, the founders of the company that finally irrigated The Valley in 1901.
    Mexicali (in Mexico), Calexico, El Centro, Holtville, etc were the product of the same drawing board and Mkt plan. Water had an easier way to run the 60 miles from the Colorado river near Yuma to The Valley, through a natural creek that happened to be just in the Mexican side of the border, so Mexicali was needed, negotiated with the Mexican government and born with a channel / river in the middle, in a geographic location adequate to bring back the stream to US soil in Calexico.
    It’s true that there were many bars and even Hollywood royalty including Rodolfo Valentino came to marry here but it’s origins are not derivative but simultaneous with all of The Valley.

    Finally it is an understatement to say that Mexicali is bigger than El Centro, as the 2010 census registered just north of 800,000 souls living here, vs 35,000 in El Centro and around 185,000 in all of The Imperial Valley.
    It is really remarkable that all this history happened in an area under sea level and with summer average temperatures in the 100’s

    Visit the Imperial/Mexicali valleys 🙂

    In winter

    • simanaitissays
      June 24, 2017

      Thanks, Horacio, for your kind words concerning R&T’s influence on your language skills. Thanks also for your mini history on the long and complex paths of the Colorado meandering to help this part of the southwest. Agreed about the relative sizes of the communities; this is why I used the words “considerably larger.” Also, since the Hetzel days, I believe El Centro has stayed about the same and Mexicali has grown.
      And, indeed, Wife Dottie and I have even visited in the summer. Her late sister taught school in El Centro for years.

      • horacio sosa
        June 24, 2017

        You are right!, I misread that, my bad, If for some reason, when you visit El Centro again, you want to also visit Mexico, we will be more than happy to show you around, those R&T avid readings lead yours truly to becoming an industrial designer and eventually the founder of the ID program in the State University and obviously, the development of a very strong craft beer movement supported by some of my ex students. Indeed we will be more than happy to show you guys around.

      • simanaitissays
        June 24, 2017

        Thanks again for your kind words. You have evidently put your R&T studies to good use!

      • stylumdesign
        June 24, 2017

        You are right!, I misread that, my bad, If for some crazy reason, when you visit El Centro in the summer again, you want to also visit Mexico, we will be more than happy to show you around, those R&T avid readings lead yours truly becoming an industrial designer and eventually the founder of the ID program in the State University and obviously, the development of a very strong craft beer movement supported by some of my ex students. Indeed we will be more than happy to show you guys around.

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