Fortunately for present and future Idyllwild residents, much of the Hill’s history is preserved in photographs.
We’ve seen more than our share of outstanding photographers through the years, but the most familiar name is Gray. Father and son, Ernest Benjamin (“E.B.”) Gray and Robert (“Bob”) Gray left a legacy expressed largely in their picture postcards produced between 1904 and the 1980s.
Settling in Pasadena in 1899, 25-year-old E.B., with his wife Marguerite and the first of their four children, saw his photographic career blossom — his work earned a blue ribbon at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
At that point, he worked for three summers (1904-1906) as photographer for the Idyllwild Inn. His postcards from that early time can be identified by his signature in the lower-left corner.
The family then began spending summers at the Mt. Wilson Hotel, where Marguerite ran the lunch counter and maintained cottages. E.B. worked for the Mt. Wilson Observatory and photographed hotel guests. When the family returned to Pasadena after a wartime stint in San Diego, they operated their “Little Gray Inn,” a lunch counter at the bottom of the Sturtevant Trail out of Sierra Madre.
An interesting sidelight: During 1916-18, E.B.’s brother, Edward Harold (“E.H.”) Gray lived in Idyllwild, and his postcards still circulate among collectors. Ever drawn to Idyllwild, E.B. and Marguerite in 1930 settled permanently here.
They bought Avery Field’s studio on Ridgecrest (where the Suburban Propane office is now located), opened a photo and souvenir shop, and began pumping out postcards with Idyllwild-area scenes.
Less familiar is the Gray family’s athletic prowess. E.B.’s enthusiasm was gymnastics. The family had wintered in Miami for years, where son Bob was born in 1913. In both Florida and Southern California, he directed gymnastics programs. For five years, he and his daughter, Edith, toured their own costume gymnastic show. During these years, E.B. added underwater photography and “wing-walking” photos from flying airplanes to his repertoire.
Two of Gray’s children became champion mountain runners. Daughter Edith and son Bob both set long-standing records in the Sierra Madre-to-Mt. Wilson trail race. (It was his practice to run the three miles between home and school daily.)
At age 17, in 1931, Bob also broke the all-time record for an 11-mile run from Idyllwild to San Jacinto Peak via Round Valley by 39 minutes — his time was 2 hours, 11 minutes — despite contending with several inches of fresh late-August snow near the peak.
In 1934, Bob Gray married Virginia, a college acquaintance, and the newlyweds settled in Idyllwild. Bob joined his father in the “E.B. Gray and Son” enterprise.
E.B. died in 1940, but his postcards continued to be in use through the 1950s. In 1939, Bob and Virginia built their own shop, Gray’s Photo and Gifts, next door to what would become the Red Kettle. This Gray’s would stand as a landmark at the gateway to downtown Idyllwild for the next 57 years.
While Bob traveled worldwide in the military during World War II, Virginia ran the business. (You can find her mark (“V.G.”) as author of their postwar color-card captions.) Like thousands of people who attended summer camp in Idyllwild during the 1940s and 1950s, I recall fondly the panoramic photos Bob customarily made of entire camp populations.
By the 1980s, business at Gray’s Photo began to tail off, and in their later years the Grays commuted daily from Hemet. In 1996, they sold the shop building and retired permanently to their Hemet home. With Bob’s death two years later, the long dynasty finally ended.