Legendary Col. Ed Fletcher’s descendants reunite — for 92nd straight year


For the Fletcher family, Fourth of July is never complete without a group photo. That can be a quite a chore when five generations need to get rounded up.

“This is not easy,” real estate agent Ron Fletcher said with a combination of good humor and exasperation as the Fletcher clan moseyed across a beach around noontime Tuesday, July 4.

He and about 120 others were gathered for their 92nd consecutive annual reunion in Del Mar, a community whose development is among the many legacies of the family’s late patriarch — the legendary Col. Ed Fletcher.

“This is like herding cats,” said Grant Fletcher, at age 57 the youngest grandson of the colonel, who came to San Diego in the late 1880s with $6.10 in his pockets and ended up living a tale resembling that of Horatio Alger.

By the time the colonel — who received his title from an appointment to the California National Guard — died in 1955, he and his wife, Mary, had raised 10 children and helped turn San Diego County from a sparse Southern California outpost into a major metropolitan area.

With a knack for salesmanship and a discerning eye for real estate and other financial opportunities, Ed Fletcher was instrumental in the development of Rancho Santa Fe, Grossmont, Mount Helix and a host of other projects, such as the Pine Hills Lodge in Julian. His name also graces Fletcher Cove in Solana Beach and Fletcher Hills in East County. And he served in the state Senate between 1935 and 1947.

Thousands of motorists drive on Fletcher Parkway each day and many residents relax at Lake Hodges, one of several water infrastructure projects that Fletcher helped shepherd.

Less well-known is a more personal project that Fletcher established — the annual Fourth of July family reunion. From the Jazz Age to the digital era, relatives have gathered at the Fletcher family compound in Del Mar each year since.

And yes, the group photo was taken Tuesday, July 4.

As toddlers squirmed in the front rows, the most senior member of the Fletcher clan posed in a plastic beach chair: 96-year-old Charlotte Taylor Rowe, whose mother was the eldest of Col. Fletcher and Mary’s children.

“It’s just wonderful to see the tradition carry on,” Rowe said. “I’m sure our grandmother would have loved it.”

Bonnie Fletcher, a La Jolla law firm administrator and Ron Fletcher’s sister, said the key to a successful string of family reunions is keeping a low-key attitude.

“The environment here is kids and hot dogs and hamburgers,” she said. “The only competition is who can surf better.”

Like many, Ron Fletcher said the annual reunion is a highlight for him every year. “I don’t even think about a Fourth of July anywhere else,” he said.

Mary Catherine Taylor Escherich, 91, the second-oldest granddaughter who now lives in Pomona, remembered Col. Fletcher as a visionary who formed a fondness for the backcountry as he got his start in the area delivering fruit on dirt roads.

“He loved it so much and wanted to see it developed,” Escherich said. “Maybe he didn’t have the education, but he could see where the dams and other things should go and he knew someday, somebody would be happy living there.”

Eighty-year-old Larry Fletcher, one of the colonel and Mary’s grandsons, still lives in Fletcher Hills, the El Cajon-La Mesa neighborhood his grandfather helped construct.

He recalled that while Col. Fletcher was a literal mover and shaker in the San Diego region — for example, redirecting a river in Del Mar to make room for more oceanfront lots — it was Mary Fletcher who often had the final say-so on familial matters.

“Grandfather took her out (in El Cajon) to show her the new house he had bought because it had a lot of bedrooms so they could raise their family there,” he said. “And grandmother said after a half a day’s ride by buggy to get there, absolutely not, I’m not going to live this far out. So he had to turn around and sell it. She ruled the roost.”

Col. Fletcher had a significant role in shaping the community of Del Mar, including the establishment of the Del Mar Racetrack and fairgrounds. He also directed surveyors and the mule team that dragged logs through Del Mar’s rugged hillsides and laid out the city’s plot maps in the early 1900s.

Each lot had a view along Del Mar’s winding streets, and Col. Fletcher built the first seaside beach house in the Del Mar Beach Colony.

“When I was a child, we would have Sunday picnics out here with my grandmother and grandfather all year long, not just during the summer,” said Virginia Mack Wofford, 78, whose mother was Col. Fletcher and Mary’s eighth child.

Wofford even remembers the family actually having to pay people to stay at the houses on the beach during the winters to make sure the homes were protected from storms that sent waves onshore.

“We paid them $25 to $50 a month to live in them because no one was here in the winter,” she said, which is startling when one considers how much year-round vacation rentals go for today.

The Fletcher Fourth of July celebration also provides the family an opportune time to gather and determine which local charities will receive earnings from the Fletcher family foundation endowment.

Bonnie Fletcher said once members of the family reach age 21, they’re eligible to take part in fundraising and discussions about foundation disbursements.

Another big family decision?

“Who has to bring the food next year,” Ron Fletcher said. “They kind of elect you.”

– Rob Nikolewski is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune