Scotsman’s dreams take root

CARDIFF-BY-THE-SEA — As one of the five communities that make up Encinitas, Cardiff-by-the-Sea has a distinct early story. The history is steeped in the pull of possibilities.
The opportunity to create a life in unchartered territory brought Hector MacKinnon to the northern mouth of the San Elijo Lagoon in 1875. With his wife, Sarah, and three small children in tow, MacKinnon set out from Cleveland, Ohio, and took a circuitous route by train to San Francisco, then boarded a steamer to San Diego, eventually making the final leg of the journey by horse and buggy.
The Glasgow, Scotland, native purchased 600 acres of the swampy expanse and at age 35 set his mind to prove wrong the naysayers who doubted farming could be successful so near the
coast. The family’s nearest neighbor lived more than two miles away according to historical documents.
While the ranch was moderately successful in yielding barley and corn, it was not enough to sustain the growing brood, which had grown to six. As a result, MacKinnon became a master mechanic for the San Diego Railroad and stayed in the city during the week while Sarah and the children raised cows, hens and goats on the homestead to sell butter and eggs for supplementary income. Her delectable jams were also known to fetch a handsome sum.
Sarah, a well-educated New Yorker, took easily to the toil and simplicity of life in the uncultivated area. Surrounded by some of her Victorian furnishings she managed to bring from Ohio, Sarah was at home in the area then known as San Dieguito. According to historical narratives, the MacKinnons hosted soirées that attracted neighbors from miles around. Guests would typically stay overnight as the musicians played late into the evening and traveling the deeply rutted infrastructure at night could prove dangerous.
The couple opened the area’s first school in their barn in 1881. Documents reveal that a recent graduate from a “normal school” was brought in to teach in exchange for room and board. In 1882, as snow fell from the sky to the ocean, the young teacher and her students were moved into the family’s kitchen to huddle around the wood-burning stove during lessons.
By all accounts the family was industrious. When the financial purse strings contracted, MacKinnon sold some of his land to Frank Cullen, a developer, and parcels to the San Elijo Gun Club, a group of businessmen from San Diego. However, he held onto 400 acres that he was able to pass along to his children.
MacKinnon, a veteran of the Civil War, labored until his death in 1912 at the age of 72.
The importance of the area’s early history cannot be understated. “The 100th anniversary of the founding of Cardiff gives us an opportunity to celebrate the present by reflecting on the past,” said Sue Steele, San Dieguito Heritage Museum board president.
She said that to be mindful of the past allows a citizenry to understand the aspirations of local people today. “Everything that happens in Cardiff is a piece of a long line of events, decisions and lives that came before. By not knowing the past, it is not possible to know the present nor plan well for the future. By examining the struggles, successes and failures of our ancestors, we learn how to examine ourselves and move forward.”

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  1. Kate DuVivier says:

    A very nice story! I’d love to know where you got your information so I can find out more about the Mackinnons who are my great-great-grandparents. (We usually spell it with a lower-case k.)
    I’d like to share two other interesting early adventures… First, Hector survived a shipwreck off the coast of Canada when he was only a toddler and his father swam three miles to shore with him & his mother. ( A long way, but probably in the gulf stream, so hopefully not too cold.) Eventually, Hector’s parents and siblings settled in Ohio. Secondly, he met his wife when he fell down a well shaft while he was working as a surveyor in New York, (after surviving seven Civil War battles as a Union soldier) and that’s where Sarah found him. I have seen a newspaper story about the shipwreck, but have only heard about the falling into a well.
    I also heard they arrived in what became Cardiff in 1874, not 1875, and that Hector worked as a mechanic in Julian before getting his homestead, and that actually he was not much of a farmer at all. However he was a highly regarded mechanic/engineer who had several patents to his name, including one for the traveling trunk with drawers inside, and also had started up the copper mine in Olivenhain as well as working for the railroad. They did keep some cows and horses and they planted a vineyard, but the plants were killed by the Grape Disease of that era.
    About land sales, the story I heard is that he traded his land for a dog and a gun, in hopes that Cullen would make something of it, so that the area would prosper. Times were hard though, and sometimes Sarah Mackinnon and the kids sold baked goods door to door in Cardiff, while Hector Mackinnon was away in San Diego, working on the railroad. I believe he commuted home on weekends.
    It’s an interesting story and I really appreciate your efforts as well as those of the San Dieguito Heritage Museum (and other history buffs) in doing research about our area’s early history. I know far less about my other ancestors, but this story, with its mishaps and dangers, illustrates how fortunate we ALL are just to be here today.
    Thanks a lot for the information1

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