When was the last time you enjoyed a little history with your sack lunch? Did you know you could do it in a County Park, at one of the region’s oldest park properties? Lakeside’s El Monte County Park tells stories of days past – with prohibition-era cement picnic tables and plaques honoring local legends.
The inspiration for these tables came from a place called Camp Cajon in San Bernardino. From 1919 to 1921, the owner of the camp designed and built a series of concrete tables featuring plaques to honor the fraternal organizations that sponsored them. Tables quickly became a “thing to see” among camp patrons – and the envy of other parks from neighboring jurisdictions.
El Monte County Park was a logical place for such tables; even before it became a park in 1921 it was an enormously popular place for picnicking – drawing groups of up to 6,000 people. With the necessary money and labor, and approval from Camp Cajon, a total of five tables were installed between 1924 and 1927. Four of them are round featuring one rectangular, one hexagonal and two round plaques. A fifth table is rectangular with a rectangular plaque.
The eldest table in the bunch was donated by park caretaker and previous land owner Julius Vanoni. Julius sold 10 to 15 acres of his land to the County to enlarge El Monte County Park, and stayed on site in a caretaker’s house from 1922 to 1934. Built by “the people of El Monte Valley” the table was dedicated to “all lovers of outdoor life.” District Manager Aliah Brozowski is in the process of securing a vendor to fix a crack in the table’s surface; if all goes according to plan, the table will be restored to its original splendor by the end of year.
Table #2 was commissioned by Arthur Bertram (A. B.) Foster, a philanthropist and organizer of campouts for the county’s poor and orphaned children. He’d host weeklong events for up to 450 children – complete with small tents with cots, a large circus tent, and all the watermelon the kids could eat. According to an article in the San Diego Union, the shopping list included, “… four tons of watermelons, 100 gallons of milk a day, eggs as fresh as California hens can lay them, 50 pounds of country-churned butter, a wagonload of roasting ears and bushels of oranges and lemons.” Continuing on, the poultry men of El Cajon would furnish 25 dozen fryers, the P.M. Dairy would send 40 gallons of ice cream, San Diego bankers would donate 450 boxes of candy, the U.S. Naval Hospital would offer five gallons of castor oil, and local organizations would sponsor daily programming. A.B. Foster’s name is included on his plaque with his sons, Clarence and Ralph, – and his sons-in-law, Charles Clifford Bogue and Stuart Daniel Swink. The motto of this plaque reads, “It passed from a dream to reality.”
Real estate tycoon Seth George (S. G.) Ames is responsible for table #3, the last one built in 1924. He is also responsible for the cement construction of the first two tables, in addition to his own. Ames was one of the first San Diegans to own a car (at a time when there were only 250 automobiles in the entire county!) and was lovingly deemed one of San Diego’s “most enthusiastic admirers.” Sadly, his notoriety also comes from a 1931 mail fraud conviction based on his connection to land-development enterprise Ramola, Inc. – an organization that accepted $11 million in investments for fig and grapefruit groves, and only spent $3 million for that purpose.
The fourth table, dating back to 1926, is called the Senter Martin table. It was sponsored by the San Diego chapter of the Nomads of Avrudaka, (the women’s auxiliary of the Knights of Pythias). The Nomads appreciated Martin for his, “strong sturdy character,” and for the fact that he, “loved the great outdoors and was ever-ready to help his fellow man.” Martin was an engineer by profession and served as the director of works for the Nomads.
The youngest table in the bunch was established in 1927 by the County Employes Association (yes, employes with only one “e” – it was a way to save both time and ink!). The Association sponsored the table because of their annual picnic at the park which drew upwards of 1,500 people and housed entertainment ranging from mock courts and cigarette races to live music and Charleston dance contests. During the official presentation of the table in 1928, it was said that, “workers in the county employ have taken the lead in making El Monte the playground of the people of the county.”
All five tables have been recognized as historic in the County of San Diego Department of Park and Recreation (DPR) Cultural Resources Survey and Inventory for El Monte County Park (2008) and in the State of California’s Archeological Site Record (1993).
See them for yourself! El Monte’s historic tables are available for picnics year-round. For more information about the park, contact the ranger station at 619-443-1474. To make a reservation in one of its many rentable spaces, call the front desk at 877-565-3600. To learn more about park history, or for a list of other parks with historic tables, connect with the DPR History Center at 858-966-1304.