The time has come to speak of Ernest Maxwell. In my reading of Idyllwild’s history, he stands among three visionaries from successive generations, each a new arrival here, who emerge as shapers of the village we know today.
In 1889, observing the horde of summer campers attracted to Strawberry Valley after the road from Hemet became toll-free, George Hannahs perceived a future beyond logging.
In 1917, Claudius Lee Emerson saw in the struggling Idyllwild Inn, whose owners seemed more interested in land sales, a nucleus around which to build a settled community.
And in 1946, Ernie Maxwell, born of missionary parents in Kuala Lumpur, artist, teacher, sportsman and activist, found a natural fit for his talents in a disaster-stricken village to which war’s end had granted an opportunity to start anew.
Hannahs and Emerson reshaped Idyllwild as a resort and a vacation community. Maxwell, as self-appointed prophet, instructor and cheerleader for both community development and environmental preservation, solidified the village’s character.
Maxwell, who identified himself as “Emax,” exerted influence mainly through two channels. One was the Town Crier, which became his voice for exhorting the community. The other was the Chamber of Commerce, which gave voice to the community in return.
Within a month of launching the newspaper, Emax began articulating principles to guide the future of the village and its surrounding forest. Foremost among them were the intrinsic value of the wilderness and its opportunities for “true re-creation”; a need to plan and regulate growth; provision for the younger generation; balancing private property rights and forest health; “pride in the [mountain] country and a willingness to share it with others who appreciate it”; and “community collaboration on common issues.”
His beliefs led Emax to press constantly for water conservation and sewage regulation. (Especially frustrating to him was the existence at that time of not just three, but six water districts.) He urged “houses adapted to rustic surroundings.” He pressured the Forest Service to protect the mountain watershed from uncontrolled logging. He preached strict planning to avoid becoming “an area of shooting galleries and hot dog stands.”
When heavy snowfall brightened a slow economy by attracting weekend crowds, Emax lectured businesses on the long-term value of treating visitors generously (“This is not Palm Springs or Sun Valley.”) He beat the drums for Town Hall, to restore the communal spirit that had once animated the village.
With publication of the Town Crier in November 1946, Emax was elected to the Chamber board. The Chamber at the time was rethinking its role in the face of postwar change. Its first move was to form a planning commission “to resist greedy development,” and it quickly became a substitute for local government, addressing big issues like sanitation, zoning and preserving Idyllwild’s rustic character.
Within a year Emax inspired creation of a Chamber Wildlife & Conservation Committee. It soon evolved into a chapter of the Izaak Walton League, which for four decades would unite outdoor sportsmen and conservationists in an alliance to preserve Idyllwild’s mountain environment. Membership soared past 100, and the “Ikes” took on a wide range of public policy issues, restoration projects and educational activities.
Emax lost his biggest battle, opposing construction of the Palm Springs Tramway. And his fears were prescient. Just last week I was indulging in my favorite recreation, strolling past Hidden Lake on a narrow trail through the wide wilderness. I soon noticed what looked like an out-of-season snowmobile track dug into the mountainside, leading up from the direction of the tram. Wider than the footpath, it overran the trail all the way to Round Valley, erratically veering into the surrounding landscape and back, repeatedly digging up the adjoining pine duff to evade obstacles like water bars implanted to minimize erosion.
But Ernie Maxwell and his allies did win the war to keep our high-country wilderness free of industrial recreation such as ski resorts. His legacy is the preservation ethic embedded in Idyllwild’s character as a magnet for the arts and outdoor recreation.