Mary Jane Hartley’s contributions to North Park
By Katherine Hon | PastMatters
Happy National Preservation Month! As we celebrate history, let’s remember that “her-story” is important, too. And no individual woman contributed more to North Park’s early development than Mary Jane Hartley.
Mary Jane was the wife of James Monroe Hartley, who bought 40 acres within the Park Villas tract in 1893 and named it Hartley’s North Park. The empty land, bordered by University Avenue and Dwight Street on the north and south, and Ray and 32nd streets on the west and east, was planted with lemon trees. The Hartley family had come to San Diego from Kansas in 1882 and homesteaded a ranch in Dehesa in East County before James bought the land that would eventually become the heart of North Park.
While James travelled selling insurance, Mary Jane and their children worked both the Dehesa ranch and the North Park lemon orchard. In 1896, the family of eight moved to a six-room house located at what is now University Avenue and 31st Street, and soon afterwards sold their ranch. A severe drought and the death of James Hartley in 1904 caused the family to give up the orchard business. They cleared the North Park land of buildings and trees and waited for the right time to sell the property.
In 1932, in the middle of the Great Depression, Mary Jane would remember those early years and tell a reporter, “People may think they are having hard times now, but they should have been here back in 98. We really did have a desperate struggle trying to make a livelihood. But we got along all right, just kept smiling and did the best we could.”
She was well-prepared for difficult living conditions by her pioneer upbringing. She was raised on farms in Iowa and Kansas, where she learned how to card wool, spin and weave, knit, make tallow candles and maple sugar, and hew and haul logs. Her obituary in 1940 said she had three hobbies: flowers, her grandchildren and piecing quilts. But beyond those activities, she made many civic contributions to the North Park community as it grew from fallow ranches and sagebrush to a bustling urban area. The year before her death, she had been honored as the “Mother of the North Park District” at a special Mother’s Day meeting of the North Park Lion’s Club.
One of Mary Jane’s contributions was land for Fire Station No. 14. In 1910, property owners in the growing area petitioned the city for fire protection and in response got a simple fire alarm box mounted at 30th Street and University Avenue. Mary Jane then donated to the city a prime parcel facing University Avenue near Ray Street in the Hartley’s North Park tract. The land was given with the condition that the city would establish an official fire department station there. The resulting building, with its distinctive campanile tower used for drying hoses, gave North Park increased security from fire and an important civic landmark. Fire Station No. 14 served the community well on its donated plot for decades before it was rebuilt at 32nd Street and Lincoln Avenue in 1943.
In 1926, Mary Jane commissioned the imposing Nordberg building at 3043 University Ave. — currently the home of North Park Fitness. The building constructed by Siguard G. Nordberg & Company held the contractor’s offices, retail spaces and other professional offices. Even more importantly, an expansive ballroom on the second floor became an ideal space for community events, including civic celebrations, community dances and banquets. The ballroom became known as “The Tent” because its ceiling was draped with gossamer fabric inspired by Hollywood “sheik” movies of the Rudolph Valentino era.
In addition to these contributions, Mary Jane was known for her welcoming hospitality. The matriarch of North Park’s founding family was described by her daughter Maud Hartley MacDougall as a person who “made the most of the good that came her way, and the best of the other. … She was interested in things in general, and therefore interesting, to all her friends.”
In that spirit, as announced in this column last month, the North Park Historical Society welcomes everyone to enjoy a free lecture by Elsa Sevilla, host of the KPBS TV show “San Diego’s Historic Places,” on Thursday, May 18, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the second floor Fellowship Room of Grace Lutheran Church, 3967 Park Blvd. Sevilla will tell some of San Diego’s story, and her story too.
—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-294-8990.