The original Idyllwild School. Photo by Harry Wendelken

Most of us with careers in education know the sense of relief that comes with the end of a school year. I suspect that never was this sense more palpable than at Idyllwild School in 1949, when pupils and teachers bade farewell to their old schoolhouse.

From a student body of two to three dozen during the war years, Idyllwild’s postwar population boom brought sudden growth to 125 by 1947.

In the face of severe overcrowding and no prospect of resources for expansion, the local school board voted to merge with the Hemet District. Ernie Maxwell conceded in a Town Crier editorial that while he lamented the trend toward “chain-store” vs. locally autonomous schools, Idyllwild alone in no way could ensure adequate facilities for its growing schoolchildren population.

Consequently, in 1949 the new school year opened in the first of today’s buildings on Highway 243. Still, it was hard to let go of the rustically elegant 1929 schoolhouse.

It was retained, since it was conveniently set back a respectable distance from the highway and could house kindergarten. Years would pass before continuing expansion finally forced its demolition.

Idyllwild School’s well being had always been a bit tenuous. Its roots lay in developer Claudius Lee Emerson’s drive to expand the Idyllwild Inn resort to year-round operation and to surround it with a settled community.

In 1922, when the school first opened in a borrowed cabin, it served eight of Emerson’s employees. It was administered directly out of the Riverside County Schools superintendent’s office, financed as an “emergency school” from a fund that supported year-to-year operation of rural schools serving tiny, fluctuating populations.

By the end of the first year enrollment had doubled to 16. So, Idyllwild being very much a company town, Emerson had his building contractor, J. W. Bryant, construct a small schoolhouse near the inn on the spot where the Courtyard Gallery stands today. Emerson’s daughter Marjorie, newly graduated from Pomona College, was hired as teacher for the 1923-24 school year.

In fall 1924 enrollment took a nosedive, and the county superintendent closed the school in November. It didn’t reopen until 1926. This time, though still an emergency school, its growing enrollment supported a school year lasting until the end of April.

Population growth also brought political clout. The superintendent’s decision to make the school a permanent unit of the Keen Camp School District gave Idyllwild a voice in the spring 1927 school board election.

That voice was quickly heard when Milton Nims, a part-owner of Emerson’s holding company, accused the board of malconduct by counting ballots of voters not legally registered in the district. A court agreed and threw out the election, directing the county superintendent to appoint a new board member.

Before the end of 1927, Keen Camp District schools were consolidated in Idyllwild, with an enrollment of 21. By 1929, both Nims and Emerson’s wife, Zelma, had gained seats on the school board, and an $8,000 school bond was publicly approved to build a new school and “teacherage” for the district.

The site selected was historic Green Meadow Park on the main road to Hemet. There, in 1882, pioneer logger Amasa Saunders had built a home. In 1890 his cabin became the first building of John and Mary Keen’s “Keen House,” which, with added buildings, was Strawberry Valley’s leading hotel through the 1890s. When the Keens moved in 1905 to the site of today’s Living Free animal sanctuary and created Keen Camp, they dismantled their hotel for building materials.

This left the open space where, in 1929, the school year opened in style, with a classy new structure beside a brand-new highway.