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Egger Dairy Farm Was Once Part Of The Fabric Of The TJ River Valley

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Posted: Friday, June 7, 2019 1:02 pm

The dairy farm on Leon Avenue is no longer in use. In fact no farm noises have been heard since 1989. The once thriving dairy has an air of abandonment now even though parts have been leased to grow native plants. Farm equipment sits silent and tools still in their nooks and crannies are collecting dust. Despite the years, the memories for some are still alive.

There was a time when, before being know for its horses, the Tijuana River Valley was known for its cows - dairy cows specifically. There were a number of dairy farms operating in the valley, many owned by Swiss families. One of those dairies was Egger Dairy Farm, owned by Robert Egger. Tony Odermatt, who is Egger’s grandchild, has many fond memories of the dairy farm. “From the time I was 10 years old I remember driving the feed wagon at 2 to 3 miles per hour,” he recalled.

Odermatt and his friends rode what they called the “hay wagon” and drove between the feed spots and pitched hay to the cows. “To me it was normal stuff. Quite a few of my friends came down and played,” he said.

Egger was born in 1900 in Kerns, Kenton Obwalden, Switzerland and first moved to San Francisco. He eventually went south and worked at a dairy farm in the Imperial Valley. Odermatt explained his grandfather’s situation. Egger’s father had died and the custom was for the children to be placed in an orphanage because no one would marry a widow with children. Fortunately Egger was old enough to be on his own and with some family members moved to the U.S. After spending some time in the Imperial Valley he went further south to San Diego where he worked for a meat packing plant. Eventually he was hired at Henry Schnell Dairy Mart Farms in the river valley. Schnell had started his dairy in 1888 selling milk to the Hotel del Coronado.

Egger then met his future wife Emma Studer, also a Swiss from Ober-Frick in Kanton Aargau. Just like Egger, she had emigrated to the U.S. and worked in the Imperial Valley eventually making her way to San Diego. The two met at a church in Point Loma and were married in San Ysidro in 1932. After working for Schnell for some years, Egger bought the dairy between 1936 and 1938. His workdays were long, around 16 to 18 hours, while his wife Emma cooked for the family and the workers. The Eggers had three children: Robert Jr., Walter and Tony Odermatt’s mom, Mary, who was born in 1937 and was the youngest.

Once settled, Egger encouraged other Swiss families to start dairy farms in the valley. He had some success in attracting more people to the area and the Zumsteins and the Hofers who owned farms in the Imperial Valley and Pacific Beach moved near the Eggers and opened their own dairies.

As land in the area became available Egger saw the opportunity and started buying lots and used them for farming. The properties he accumulated included areas in Chula Vista, Otay Mesa and near Ream Field by the ocean. Egger was the only farmer who had owned both a dairy and a farm at that time. On one of the farms he grew vegetables including tomatoes, celery, green beans and later lettuce. Some of his tomatoes were sold and shipped to New York while the celery was sent all over the country. The Egger-Ghio Farm was located on 200 acres between Palm Avenue and the bay and was jointly owned by Emil Ghio and Egger. Of the 200 acres they owned, 34 were sold in 1982 and Southland Plaza Shopping Center was built in its place. That area was known as Egger Highlands and was part of the city of San Diego. Egger also owned land near Mar Vista Junior High. “He didn’t want to see [someone build] houses and traded it for piece of property, but wanted to make sure it would be used for a park,” said Odermatt. That park was called Robert Egger Sr. Park and is still in use today.

Egger also donated 20 acres to build Marian Catholic High School on Coronado Avenue. The current site of St. Charles Catholic Church was also one of Egger’s properties until he donated it to build the church. “My grandfather loved to buy land,” said Odermatt.

Odermatt’s father built St. Charles Church while Odermatt’s uncle hand crafted the stainless steel cross which was placed on the steeple of the church.

Tony Odermatt’s dad, Paul Odermatt, a Swiss immigrant and a builder, met Mary Egger while building a new house for the Eggers. “She was 10 years younger and they got married on her 19th birthday,” recalled Odermatt.

After they got married, Paul and Mary moved in the original Egger’s house where Mary grew up, while the in laws moved to the new house down the street.

In 1953 Egger sold a piece of land he owned in Chula Vista by the bay for a small fee to create the first Swiss Club Hall which was built in 1957. Thanks to the club, Swiss families held dances and celebrations and it also provided a way for people to meet. A Swiss style of wrestling, a cross between Greco-Roman and Judo called Schwingen saw a resurgence thanks to the Swiss Club. Egger was one of the sport’s aficionado. The first Schwingen Fest at the hall was held in 1949. Odermatt recalls Schwingen events followed by evening dances while growing up. The club was where Swiss traditions were continued and Odermatt has memories of going there to learn traditional dances.

In 1970 the hall was once again rebuilt when the freeway was widened. In the mid 1980s Egger’s son Robert Jr. donated more land to the club that was used for a parking lot. The Egger family has been heavily involved with the club since its inception. These days Tony Odermatt is its president, his wife Karen is the treasurer and Tony’s cousin Steve is the vice president.

The original acreage of the Egger Dairy farm was between 150-200 acres. Egger’s barn was particularly large measuring 125 feet long and 35 feet wide. In the 1950s it was moved half mile down. The hay for the dairy came from El Centro and the corn and alfa alfa which was fed to the cows were stored in three 55-ft. tall silos.

“As kids we played on them all the time,” said Odermatt.

Egger’s workers, which are estimated at one point to be between 200 and 300, lived on the farm and in quonset huts. Odermatt recalls they were about 100 square feet each. Through the bracero program in 1942, Egger hired Mexican workers who were allowed to enter the U.S. legally and work for six months due to the World War II labor shortage. Egger provided those laborers meat from the dairy farm and an opportunity to farm a 10 acre plot.

Odermatt recalls stories of his grandfather’s workers who on the weekends went to Tijuana to drink but some would not come back to work on Monday. To ensure they would return to work Egger told them he would provide them with free whiskey and wine, which he distilled on his property, if they did not go to Tijuana.

During the World War II, Egger had 1,000 cows which were milked by hand around the clock. Egger worked 20 hours a day and he and the other dairy farms in the area sent milk to Dairy Mart on a large tanker that went around the dairies to buy their milk. Around the same time, the irrigation water in the valley became salty because Cal American Water started diverting water to the ships at the naval base in Coronado. This gave Egger an idea to dig a 1,500-ft well where he found 97 degree water.

The farm officially was bought out by the government in 1989 due to the dairy surplus. “People were not drinking much milk then. My uncle Walter took over and knew his sons wouldn’t follow in his footsteps. At first the dairy started making cheese then the opportunity came along and the government bought the rights,” said Odermatt.

The government paid the dairy farm owners to sell or slaughter cows.

On a tour of the farm, Odermatt pointed out a large building that served as a garage with rooms under the floors so repairmen could work on trucks and farm equipment without lifts. Another nearby building was called “the hospital” which was the milking area.

The original Egger house on the property where Mary and eventually her children grew up has been unoccupied for over 30 years and shows signs of age. The family still holds on to the land and its memories.

“A lot of us don’t want to give it up; we have the memories, we walk around and remember how it was 50 years ago,” said Odermatt.

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