A Page from History: The Point Loma legacy of the Jennings brothers
Driving a wagon down Chicken Ranch Canyon, one could see the sparkling waters of San Diego Bay spread out ahead. The dirt road was hard-packed and dusty, little more than a wagon track. Rounding the corner onto Main Street, the charming homes of Frank Jennings and George Crippen came into view. Already landmarks, the two stately structures anchored the southern end of the village of Roseville. The year was 1900.
Many generations have passed. The quiet beauty of Chicken Ranch Canyon has been replaced by a busy thoroughfare called Talbot Street. The view of San Diego Bay is unobstructed no longer. Along with horses and buggies, the Crippen home is long gone. But the Jennings House endures on what is now called Rosecrans Street.
The house, built in 1887 by Frank Jennings, looks much as it always has, maybe better.
“Being from the East Coast, I’ve always had a love of old houses,” said Cathy Gallagher, co-owner of the Jennings House Cafe. “I knew the house was special the moment I saw it, but I knew nothing about its history.”
What she came to discover was the legacy of the Jennings brothers of Point Loma.
Frank Jennings and his family, brother Fred, brother-in-law George Crippen and their families arrived in Roseville in 1887. Twenty years earlier, Louis Rose had established the community along the eastern shore of the Point Loma peninsula. Yet when the Jennings brothers arrived, Roseville consisted of little more than a hotel, a wharf and a few scattered fishermen’s shacks.
Seeing the potential of the area’s climate and location, Frank Jennings and Crippen formed the Point Loma Land, Loan and Town Co. The company began acquiring residential lots in Roseville and tracts of pueblo lands to the south in La Playa and on the west side of the hill in Ocean Beach. The road from Old Town to Roseville was sandy and boggy, and the journey from Alonso Horton’s “New Town” (downtown) could take most of the morning.
The calm waters of San Diego Bay beckoned. Within a year, Jennings and Crippen began their renovation of Rose’s Wharf and had obtained a license from the city of San Diego to run a ferry boat back and forth across the bay. As the San Diego Weekly Union reported in 1888: “The Roseville wharf will be extended about 100 feet and a waiting room 40 by 56 feet will be built on the south side of the wharf. It will be constructed with a good dancing floor and there will be a wide veranda on the side facing the bay.”
The Roseville ferry, which also visited National City, became one of the first commercial ferries to operate on San Diego Bay.
“The Roseville is a staunch craft and it is well-officered,” the Union observed. “On board the boat, visitors are most pleasantly surprised. Their time is spent in viewing the wonderful beauties of the bay’s surroundings and listening to music from the piano, with which the cozy cabin of the Roseville is provided.”
In honor of village founder Rose, the Point Loma Land, Loan and Town Co. named two of its new subdivisions New Roseville and Roseville Heights. Jennings and Crippen’s company would go on to sell several parcels along the bay and in what is now known as the Wooded Area to new Point Loma neighbor Katherine Tingley, leader of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society.
As Roseville continued to grow, so did Jennings’ interest in the community. In 1913, he offered to lease four lots to a group of women organizing a local improvement society. The lease required the women to pay 1 cent annually, provided they would incorporate their group and build a meeting hall within one year. Jennings even offered to subsidize 10 percent of the construction costs of the hall.
The Point Loma Assembly was incorporated in 1913 and the Assembly Hall was completed in 1914. Thirty-five years later, Jennings sold the building and the land to the organization for $5.
Meanwhile, further up the canyon, younger brother Fred Jennings, with the help of his father-in-law, had become the proprietor of a large chicken ranch. The poultry yard had about 260 laying hens, which supplied the steady market of Madame Tingley’s homestead at Lomaland up on the hill. In the widest part of the canyon, near the present-day intersection of Gage Drive and Talbot Street, Fred built a large farmhouse for his growing family.
After crossing the bay via the Roseville ferry, visitors to Point Loma would board a tally-ho (horse-drawn buggy or wagon) at the Roseville Pavilion. As the tally-ho rolled up through Chicken Ranch Canyon toward the homestead, passengers were charmed by “the particularly clean and vigorous trees and by the banks, walls and beds of flowers” that were part of the Jennings ranch, according to the Union in 1902.
The Jennings ranch also was abundant with watermelons, fig trees, orange trees and animals. Besides the cows, horses and chickens, Fred was known to take home wild ponies for his children to ride.
Together with the foxes, raccoons, skunks, snakes, possums and other critters living in the canyon, it is no surprise that Fred’s oldest daughter, Belle, a real-life Elly May Clampett, would grow up to be the famous “Zoo Lady.” Belle Jennings Benchley would serve as director of the San Diego Zoo during its formative years from 1927 to 1953 as the zoo expanded from a small collection of animals to the world-famous zoo of today.
The influence of the Jennings brothers was not restricted to Point Loma. Somehow between running a chicken ranch and operating a real estate company, both Frank and Fred managed to become San Diego County sheriffs at different times. Part Matt Dillon and part Andy Griffith, their duties included everything from breaking up gunfights to rounding up the local moonshiners in La Playa. Roseville was a dry town.
“Prisoners make merry as result of kindheartedness of Sheriff Fred Jennings,” according to a headline in the San Diego Union. The story described a Christmas dinner provided to 75 county jail inmates in 1908. The menu included:
• Soup a la Christmas
• Roast young pork, dressing and brown gravy
• Mashed potatoes
• Boiled beef with Spanish sauce
• Baked apples, cream sauce, plum pudding, fruitcake and pumpkin pie
• Cigars and tobacco
“The young pork was killed at the Jennings ranch at Los Coches and brought directly to the jail kitchen,” the article read. “Madame Katherine Tingley, head of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society at Point Loma, sent $10 to buy tobacco for the prisoners and they will be given their choice of kinds and brands. They can have cigars, ‘makin’s’ or pipe tobacco, as they select.”
The Jennings House on Rosecrans has worn many hats over the years. After housing the Frank Jennings family for decades, it became a sweet shop and apartments in the 1930s and a boarding house for soldiers and fishermen in the 1940s. In the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the house was a Bohemian bakery, a clothing boutique, a gift shop, a bookstore, a yarn barn, legal offices and an art gallery.
More recently, as Cafe 1018, the sturdy old home began its career as a coffeehouse and eatery. Also known as The Living Room for several years, the house has been lovingly restored by Gallagher and her partner as the Jennings House Cafe.
“There is so much more to know about it,” Gallagher said, “and I love it when people come in and share their memories.”
Perhaps the only remnant of Fred Jennings’ chicken ranch is a 70-foot-tall Torrey pine that still stands majestically on what was once farmland. Below the wide branches of the old tree you can almost hear the sounds of children shouting as they chase the hens and wild ponies.
Kitty McDaniel is president of La Playa Trail Association (laplayatrail.org). Ocean Beach Historical Society President Eric DuVall contributed to this article.