By Kathy Day
Get Jennie Collins talking about her life in Rancho Santa Fe and you stand to learn a lot about the past 50 years or so.
She and her husband Wieland “Butch” Collins bought their property off Via de Santa Fe in 1956 and to this day the 92-year-old woman still raises goats, tends a garden full of vegetables and fires up her golf cart to get around her 14 acres.
“My horses brought me here,” she said. She and Butch, who died in 1997, moved from Lynwood, Calif., where they had a nursery. He also operated the concessions at Lake Morena and Lake Hodges. The couple founded and for years ran the Nurseryland garden center chain – which they sold and saw it become Armstrong Garden Centers.
The small house and its outbuildings sit off Via de Santa Fe, just around the corner from The Vegetable Shop at The Chino Family Farm and adjacent to the Osuna Ranch. For years it housed greenhouses and growing grounds; today, the stables where she once kept her horses are leased out.
“”We were looking for a place to move when our son Mark was 6 and ready to start first grade,” she said, relaxing in her antique-filled living room. Mark followed in his parents’ footsteps and owns Evergreen Nursery. His older brother, Ron, taught for 32 years at Oceanside High School, and their sister, Joyce, “a pretty good horsewoman,” is a taxidermist.
The couple first looked at property in Bonita, she said. “But I told him ‘no’ because the land there would not be as valuable.”
Then they looked in the San Pasqual Valley but it was too hot.
On their way to the races at Del Mar, they drove through Rancho Santa Fe. When they got to the races they ran into friends who encouraged them to look around.
“My husband told them we couldn’t afford to step foot on the grounds, but we decided anyway to just go look,” Jennie said. “Little did I know there were no ‘For Sale’ signs allowed.”
As they drove down Via de Santa Fe, she saw some horse fences and some children playing so they stopped and asked if they knew of any homes for sale.
“This one is,” they answered. So they tracked down the owner, Mr. Fleetwood. Jennie told her husband to go back to Los Angeles and ask him if they paid him $45,000 in cash if he would sell it to them.
“He took it,” she said. “That’s when gas was 25 cents a gallon in Escondido.”
There were no street lights – “everything was black” – and no other houses around.
There were only two pine trees and some eucalyptus trees on the land – none of the palms and plants they would grow and sell on the property. Nor were the 50-year-old flowering mulberry or the fig or persimmon trees that bear fruit sold at the Chino’s Vegetable Shop there. (The Chinos and Jennie have quite a bartering system.)
Born in Youngstown, Ohio, Jennie and her family moved to Compton when she was a young girl, arriving in a 1927 Essex her father had rigged so they could cook over the engine along the way. They settled on an acre of farmland in the Los Angeles suburb, where as the oldest of five children she had responsibility for caring the animals, learning skills that included delivering foals and baby goats.
Here are some of Jennie’s anecdotes about living in the ranch over the past 56 years:
•Shortly after they moved in, there was a big rainstorm. Drainage then ran down Via de Santa Fe towards Via de la Valle. There was flooding all around. During a second major storm in the ‘70s, the bridge washed out, the cows were pushed to the ocean and the Chinos brought their tractors in to help protect the property.
The drainage problem got her so fired up that she went to a Rancho Santa Fe Association meeting with a neighbor. When they asked her what was wrong, she said, “I told them. This part of Rancho Santa Fe was the a-----e of Rancho Santa Fe.”
•Years ago a sewer plant sat on the hill three lots to the north of the Collins’ property.
“I could see the spray through the kitchen window ... They moved it into the river. I don’t know how they got it moved there.”
•There were coyotes and deer all around. “You couldn’t drive to Escondido (where the only market was when they moved to the Ranch) without seeing deer.
She learned about the “coyote experience” the hard way. She brought her big duck, Donald, with them from Lynnwood. Thinking that he would love the freedom, she left him outside the first night. The next morning, he and the other ducks were gone.
•Jennie raised four race horses, had foals each year and her daughter Joyce’s riding horse. She loved going to Del Mar, where they had a box seat for 50 years.
She had “one good horse – The Rage.”
He was kind of a rogue horse, she said. “He didn’t like women and he didn’t like chains over his nose.”
He ran at Hollywood Park and then they moved him to Caliente, where he was trained and “turned out to be the best horse ever.”
She also had two horses that were brought over from Australia with a shipload of sheep, including Avro who was the first horse to test the grass track at Del Mar. After she ran it, “the guys decided the turn could be made.”
•And for a while she had Rista, a quarterhorse they later sold to the doctor next door.
“One day the kids left the door open and the horse went in the house,” Jennie recalled with a sly twinkle in her eye. “The lady phoned and asked what to do. I told her to walk it out the front door.”
But she wouldn’t do it. “She told me she didn’t want the neighbors to see her walking the horse out the front door.”
•When their daughter, Joyce, was growing up she and her best friend would take their horses and the Collins’ dog out to Rancho Zorro – now Fairbanks Ranch – and camp overnight on the weekends.
“You wouldn’t do that now.”
Or they would ride down the river to the ocean with the dog trailing along. One time, though, the girls came back without the dog.
“Soon a very fancy car pulled up with that doggone Doberman in the back seat.”
•Jennie grows butternut squash – a popular item for the Chinos, who named it “Mrs. Collins’ Squash. Her lima beans originated from a seed she purchased from a seed company years ago. Her mother, who was blind, would shell them and Jennie would take them to the Chinos, who now grow limas from the same line. She also grows a tasty, small tomato she calls “Ping Point” and everything in between.
“If it tastes good, I save the seeds.”
She cooks much of her food from scratch, cans and freezes “everything” and, says her niece Wendy Austin, has an amazing number of “thrifty ways of saving money. … I always learn things being here.”