California Historical Landmark No. 626: Bancroft Ranch House

The springs of the area now known as Spring Valley have provided water for the region’s inhabitants for two thousand years. In the era of Spanish colonization, the Kumeyaay village of Meti was located at this spring, and later, Americans built a ranch house out of adobe at the site. The house and surrounding lands changed hands several times, eventually ending up under the ownership of Hubert Howe Bancroft, a wealthy businessman who wrote a history of California. Currently the adobe ranch house is a museum run by the Spring Valley Historical Society.

California Historical Landmark No. 626

The site was used as a campsite and inhabited for about two thousand years, eventually becoming the semi-permanent Kumeyaay village of Meti. In October 1775, Spanish missionaries baptized some members of the rancheria and the spring was named after San Jorge. It is believed that the inhabitants of Meti participated in the assault on Mission San Diego in November 1775, resulting in the death of Father Luis Jayme. Fearing reprisal by the Spanish, the village was mostly abandoned and forgotten. By the late 1830’s, the Kumeyaay had been removed from the site and the land was used for cattle and sheep grazing.

In 1863, Judge and former Assemblyman Augustus S. Ensworth filed a claim for the land, and built the two-room adobe house not far from the spring, the first house erected by a white man in east county. The structural wood for the 18′ x 32′ house was salvaged from the Clarissa Andrews, which had gone aground in San Diego Harbor in the 1850s. Never actually living at the house, Ensworth eventually sold the ranch in 1865 to Rufus King Porter to cover medical expenses after a fall left him with a mortal injury.

Porter, with his wife and daughter, moved into the ranch, naming the area Spring Valley, and ran it as a farm. The house was expanded and a cellar added. Porter, a newspaper correspondent, also named the nearby Mt. Helix (after the Latin name of some snails found in the area) and ran the local post office out of his dining room – named Helix since the Postal Service had disallowed two word names.

In 1885, Hubert Howe Bancroft purchased the property and adjacent lands, covering 500 acres. In retirement from his previous business ventures, including the writing of a giant 39-volume history of California and the West, Bancroft ran Helix Farms, adding barns, and the Rock House, and a large olla-shaped water tank on Cactus Hill. By the 1910s, Helix Farms was one of the largest olive producers in the area. After Bancroft died in 1918, his property was sold and subdivided. One story of this era involved two lovebirds from San Diego’s Chinese community escaping from a disapproving mob in the Chinese district of downtown, and hiding in the cellar of Bancroft’s home before eventually fleeing to Mexico to marry. Bancroft kept a lot of cattle on the site, as well as some greyhounds and even a pair of chimpanzees.

bancroft-ranch-house-2In 1940, the Spring Valley Chamber of Commerce purchased the plot containing the adobe ranch house and turned it into a community meeting place, adding a wooden building on the north side, now known as the annex. The passageway between the annex and the adobe was also covered in. Also during this time, a poured concrete structure was built just east of the adobe and used as an armory by the local militia, and later was called a bomb shelter.

In 1958, the site was registered as a California Historical Landmark, and in 1963, the building was opened as a museum by the Spring Valley Historical Society, with the cellar filled and adobe reinforced. In the 1970s, the archaeology department at San Diego State University used the site as a training site for students, uncovering artifacts and remains from the pre-historic period.

Today, the Ranch House is run by the Spring Valley Historical Society, which has a display of material from the Bancroft period in one room, and a display of native American artifacts in another room. The annex is used as a meeting place and has a display of Spring Valley history, especially during the WWII era when the annex was built.
The spring and the Rock House are part of neighboring Bancroft County Park. The Rock House has been restored very recently and has some great interpretive information about the history of the site, including a comprehensive look at how the indigenous peoples used the site and how they fared under Spanish, Mexican, and American rule.

Plaque Text:

    Adobe built about 1850 by A. S. Ensworth. Home of Capt. Rufus K. Porter and family. Curved timbers brought from the "Clarissa Andrews," famed coaling hulk formerly of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft later owned this estate and here wrote a part of his monumental History of California.


    Marker placed by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and the Historical Markers Committee
    Erected 1958

Now the plaque has a typo as well as some historical inaccuracies. First off, the Plaque is designated No. 656, but according to state records, this landmark is No. 626. Oops! (The real No. 656 is the Bella Union Hotel site in Los Angeles County). Next, the plaque mentions that the house was built about 1850. 1863 was when Ensworth first made a claim to the property, bring sheep to graze, and later to fulfill the claim by improving it, he built the house before selling it in 1865. Finally, Bancroft may not have written a part of his history of California here as he began publishing his history of California before purchasing the ranch house and moving in. This goes to show that even historical landmark plaques don’t always get the whole story right.


The Bancroft Ranch House Museum is located at the east end of Memory Lane, just off of Bancroft Drive in Spring Valley. The address is
9050 Memory Lane, Spring Valley, CA 91977
(619) 469-1480
The Museum is open Friday – Sunday 1pm to 4pm or by appointment.

The landmark plaque is found on a marker next to the flagpole in the roundabout at the end of Memory Lane, and is street accessible.


The Rock House and the spring are located in Bancroft County Park:
3554 James Circle, Spring Valley, CA 91977

While the county park abuts the ranch house property, there is no direct access from one property to another – visiting both sites involves a short drive around the corner to enter the county park.


Visit my set of pictures of Bancroft Ranch House Museum, as well as the Rock House and Spring site on flickr.

The Spring Valley Historical Society has a great section of photos from the Helix Farms time period.

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