The mystery of Idyllwild: then to now

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Historical Society’s annual meeting offers clues

The original house on the site of the U.S. Forest Service district office years ago. This pair and more than 90 other pairs of “then” and “now” photos appear in “Idyllwild Through Time” to be released on Aug. 28. Local residents John Drake, Rebecca Frazier and Robert “Bob” Smith are the authors and photographers of the “now” photos.
Photo courtesy the Idyllwild Area Historical Society

Typically, we associate research and analysis with real police detectives, doctors pursuing a patient diagnosis or fictional detectives such as Miss Marple or Lt. Columbo, but many professions and avocations require the same patience, attention to detail and recognition of patterns.

Friday, Aug. 4, at 2 p.m., Idyllwild can listen to the successful detective stories from three local “historians” at the museum Their cold cases began nearly 100 years ago and connect Idyllwild “then and now.”

At the annual meeting of the Idyllwild Area Historical Society, these three co-authors will discuss their forthcoming book “Idyllwild Through Time,” which will be available through Arcadia Publishing at the end of August.

The book matches more than 90 pairs of photos. For example, a black-and-white photo taken of a scene in Idyllwild or on the Hill prints next to John Drake’s current color photo of the same scene.

But replicating the “same scene” often took hours and days to identify where the original photo was taken. For some photos, they went to the original site several times to try and determine the exact location from where the photo was taken.

The U.S. Forest Service district office in Idyllwild today.

For example, a photo from around 1930 of a gas station in Garner Valley, which no longer exists, was puzzling because it seemed to be near Apple Canyon.

Eventually, Drake and wife Rebecca Frazier identified a roofline that seems to match the old station. Then they discovered the foundation. Initially, Bob Smith thought it might be an early segment of the Palms to Pines Highway in 1933.

“It was fun learning and discovering,” Drake said. “And all the climbing, hiking and walking we did. We had to find the right building and the right ridgeline.” For a photo taken in the current Idyllwild County Park, they had to find the “right” rocks.

An early photo of the U.S. Forest Service’s ranger station at Vista Grande posed similar issues. Frazier and Drake spent hours scouring the current site looking for something similar and near Highway 243.

Eventually, after hours of walking the area, they discovered the foundation and learned that the building was adjacent to the original 1910 Banning Highway, not 243.

Changing photographic equipment, such as lens, made the identification of locations difficult, too, according to Drake. Sometimes his lens did not produce the same perspective or clarity as the original prints had.

“These pairs bring back memories for many,” said Frazier.

The idea for the book originated in 2013, Frazier said. She and Drake have been digitizing the museum’s photo collection for several years and then got curious about the contemporary view of some of the historic locations. The book includes 44 photos of historic structures, as well as many landscape views.

“There were a lot more pairs with a lot of flat open space then that are now covered in trees,” Drake noted. Smith pointed out that Skunk Cabbage, behind Saddle Junction, was flat and easy to traverse years ago. The ground vegetation is much more recent.

One of Frazier’s favorite pairs is the curve at the southern entrance to Idyllwild near Bluebird Inn. The original photo had a car in the picture. “We had to wait for just the right car on location before taking it,” she said.

The book’s cover photo of the current Forest Service district office is Drake’s favorite. “It’s an exciting ‘now and then.’ It overlaps the past and present well,” he said.

Like all good researchers, their work becomes a whirlpool. “The answer to one question raises more questions,” Smith said, describing them as “research junkies.”

“There are so many stories connected to all the pictures,” he emphasized.

“The book is a self-guided tour to Idyllwild,” Smith said. It is divided into chapters that begin in town, wind through Strawberry Valley to Mountain Center and back to Pine Cove. There is also a chapter about enduring local topics.

“People can physically follow the book,” Drake urged.

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  1. Love this idea. We have done a bit of this in the forest photographing Wellman’s cabin, Law’s cabin, an old cabin site next to Tahquitz Meadow, and Sawmill Flats.

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