By RICHARD THOMAS
It’s been around for a long time. A hundred years ago the little barn, surrounded by pastureland in the middle of a green valley, provided afternoon refuge to ranch hands and sheltered agricultural implements. By the middle of the last century, the pastures and open fields were nearly gone as freeways replaced the country roads. Shopping centers, office buildings, hotels and condominiums followed, leaving little evidence of the once-fertile valley floor. Still, the barn remained, hiding in plain sight.
The little barn changed with the times, clinging to its precarious location surrounded by urban growth, for another 70 years. Saddles and horses were exchanged for turf mowers and landscaping tools, but the barn didn’t care. It’s not much to look at — utilitarian in its design, if nothing else. Keeping itself useful was all that mattered.
Functioning as a grounds maintenance shed for the Mission Valley Golf Club when it opened in 1947, the building remained as ownership transferred to Harry Handlery in 1956, eventually becoming the Stardust County Club in 1961. Champions of the game, including Billy Casper and Arnold Palmer, made golf history in its shadow, playing in the San Diego Open Tournament as part of the PGA Tours in the 1960’s. Since 1998, the course has operated as the Riverwalk Golf Course — still retaining the ever-dutiful barn.
Now, however, the structure faces the end of its useful life. Planned development leaves no alternative for the barn other than to pass into the collective memory of what was once a simpler, slower paced time. With its passing, a relic of an era kept alive on a small piece of land in the corner of Mission Valley will have all but evaporated with time. The barn, once used by the pioneering Levi family of San Diego on their Mission Valley cattle ranch, will soon yield its ground to new development.
Fritz Ohre, the youngest of five boys in one of the original Mission Valley families, helped operate their Fagerheim Dairy until the late 1950’s — one of the last dairies in the valley. In a July 2002 interview published in the San Diego Reader, Ohre reminisced about the Levi Ranch barn.
“In the early years, we took cows that were no longer producing to Hardy’s Slaughterhouse where Levitz (Furniture) used to be,” he stated. “When we went through the Levi Ranch we had to open some gates and went right past his barn. (The barn) is still there, south of Friars Road where they keep golf equipment and mowers … across the street from the liquor store on Via Las Cumbres.”
The old barn, along with the golf course, will soon transition to the first phase of the master-planned, 200-acre mixed-use Riverwalk community, scheduled to open in 2023. When finished, the $2 billion dollar project developed by the global real estate investment and management group Hines will include 4,000 multifamily units, 140,00 square feet of retail space and one million square feet of office space.
Through all of this, what will not change is the San Diego River itself.
“Our plan is to try to leave the river alone as much as we can,” Hines project manager Bhavesh Parikh once told a community workshop in July, 2017. Eighty acres of planned trails and natural habitat along the river will be all that remains to preserve the memory of the valley’s past.
— Richard Thomas is a freelance journalist, author and native San Diegan currently residing in east San Diego County. For tips, comments or questions regarding community history stories please contact Richard on Facebook.