Santee’s Walker family leaves a legacy for the San Diego River
The Walker family in Santee has played an integral role in the city since the 1920s, when they operated a dairy and farm alongside the San Diego River. Though the dairy and farm of Fred and Marie Walker are long gone, the family’s legacy reaches into today and well into the future, with the Walker Preserve Trail having just broken ground a month and a half ago. Sam Walker is the only grandchild living in the immediate area. He was at the groundbreaking along with Don Walker, a first cousin and Denis Walker, his second cousin with his wife Sherrie.
“It’s a great way to be celebrating my 89th birthday,” said Don Walker at the groundbreaking. The topography of the San Diego River was very different in the years of Walker’s grandparents’ dairy and farm. The river bottom was flat, nearly level with the surrounding land. But the river stopped running completely when San Vicente and El Capitan Reservoirs were built, Walker remembers.
“The river flow was seasonal, but allowed enough water for irrigation,” said Walker, a retired agriculture instructor at El Capitan High School. After WWII, there was a demand for sand, so the river bottom was excavated. Several companies including RCP all mined the river bottom. There were no trees in the river bottom because there was no water.
“In 1968 we had a wet year and the San Diego River flowed. That is when we got water in the river bottom,” Walker said.
The dairy and farm acreage had been in the family since 1926 until 1971, but for a long time, the family talked and negotiated with the City of Santee and the San Diego River Conservancy to acquire the property. The 109 acres for the trail is named the Walker Preserve Trail.
“We all thank the Walker family. For all the people, the flora and fauna, this will be an excellent addition,” said Ruth Hayward, vice chair of the San Diego River Conservancy.
Sam Walker is looking forward to riding out on the trail when it opens in about five months. He enjoys recalling the days when he worked alongside other members of the family on the farm. Born in 1951, he began helping out his family as soon as he could, as was the way of life back then.
“I started feeding milk to bucket calves at 10 years of age. At 12 years, I started cleaning out the milking barn and feeding alfalfa hay in the morning. By the time I was 14 years of age, I was moving the ‘hand move’ sprinkler lines on 40 acres, forking corn silage out of the upright silos into the manger, hooking up the tractor to the forage chopper and feeder wagon to go chop alfalfa for the milk cows’ evening feed,” Walker said.
The work was hard, the days long starting at 5:30 a.m. But, life was good, the house filled with happy laughter and talk, everyone at supper each evening by 6:30 p.m. The family was an extended one with grandparents living in the ranch house.
“There was even a house for the cow milker to live in,” Walker remembers.
The family farmed 45 acres on the north side of the river bottom. They bought alfalfa hay from the Imperial Valley and stored it in a hay barn. Feed grain for the milk cows was bought in from Harrison Reidy. On the farm, there was alfalfa hay, oat hay and corn silage for the cows, and barley for grain. In the evening, the cows also were fed green chopped alfalfa from the 20 acres that grew on the farm. On the south side of the river, the family planted 100 acres in dry land oat hay. There were 100 cows to milk on the north side of the river bottom. “Dairy farms are very labor intensive, 365 days a year. The cows were milked twice a day at 2 a.m. and 2 p.m. We had a cow milker but we had to milk on his day off. And I went to high school during the day,” Walker said.
By the 1960s, Fred and Marie Walker retired from farming, although they did farm part of Edgemoor, the County Farm.
“My dad did the farming and milked for the milker on his day off. I did the rest of the chores,” said Walker.
Remnants and reminders of the old Walker dairy and farm will be placed along the trail.
“We will have an old Moldboard Plow from the dairy out at the trailhead,” Walker said.
The development of the Walker Preserve Trail carries out the vision of Santee’s 1981 San Diego River Conceptual Master Plan. The riverfront parcel was purchased for $2,140,000 with grants from the State Coastal Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State Wildlife Conservation Board.