Descanso Branch Library - 9545 River Dr. (619)445-5279
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Interview with Don Russell

Author: Jenny Belle Bowman

   The Friends of the Descanso Library want to thank Don Russell for the huge donation from his family picture albums. His father, Lewis F. Russell, took pictures of Descanso during the early nineteen hundreds  with their family camera. He glued them in black-paged-albums typical of that day. With white ink he wrote detailed descriptions under each picture.

   Lewis was a carpenter and worked on most of the early houses on River Drive and Hulburd Grove. Cora Russell, Don’s mother, helped out by cooking in Gorton’s Guatay Café and Hulburd Grove Resort. After the 1927 flood his father worked with with Mr. Smucker, Mr. Palmer and Mr. Mc Coy to build the wooden bridge that crossed the Sweetwater River from Hulburd Grove Resort and “T” into River Drive. The bridge gave access to the newly developed Hulburd Grove Estates subdivision. At that time River Drive didn’t connect to Viejas Blvd. adjacent to the school as it does today. It stopped at Meadow Lane to the East and at the river to the North.

  Lewis helped build many of the homes in the Hulburd Grove Estates on River Drive and Tanglewood Lane. The same crew of men kept busy building the cabins, store, gas station, lodge etc. in Hulburd Grove Resort and many homes around the community.  Don was a young boy and spent hours with his Dad during the construction of many Descanso homes. 

   The Russells were one of the first families to purchase a lot in the new development on River Drive.  His father built a structure where the family lived in one half and their new 1927 Dodge Coupe was parked in the other half.  Mildred and Johnny Van Ort were the last to buy the Russell property and enlarged their home by adding on to the Russell’s original place.


   Don spent thirteen impressionable young years growing up in Descanso. He was born in Long Beach in 1923. The Russell’s moved to Imperial Valley living in a tent while developing their homestead. Diving through Laguna one summer the family decided to move to the mountains where the summers are cooler. Don lived in Descanso from 1926 to 1939. He attended the second Descanso Elementary School, which has been remodeled in to a darling home. Fortunately, old school house is recognizable after its facelift. It’s located on the west side of the river and to the south after crossing the first bridge from the junction on Riverside Drive. He attended one year in the third and present Descanso Elementary School before he was sent to live with his mother’s family in San Diego in order to finish his schooling. (The first Descanso Elementary School was located on the Ellis Ranch. The foundation is still visible close to Hwy.79 and the Iron Gate that is closest to the junction.)

   He graduated from Grossmont High in 1941, then started working for the California Department of Forestry (CDF) in 1942.  While living at the CDF Station in Campo he met and married Patricia Gould in 1945.  Four healthy Russell sons, two of which were twins, arrived in the following years to keep them busy.  With a lifetime of memories from living in the mountain area Don has helped fill in many pieces of lost or unknown information about Descanso.

   After retiring, Don and Pat spent fifteen years in Montana where they cleared virgin land and built a log cabin.  In 1994 they moved back to California where the winters are milder. After Don lost Pat due to illness in 2003 he settled in Ramona, which is centrally located from a couple of his sons.

   For a several years Don worked hard enlarging and framing his family photos to sell locally. Recently, he has graciously given the Friends his complete collection of  historical pictures. The Friends have hung seventeen of the Russell pictures in the library for all to view. We plan to continue selling the Descanso historical pictures to raise funds for the library. Out of the goodness of his heart, Don has offered to continue to enlarge and frame the Descanso pictures replacing the sold photos.

Contents for this article acquired from Descanso Place of Rest and Don Russell’s written memoirs.

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