Lawler Lodge, on Highway 243 in Dark Canyon, is one of the more obscure landmarks in our mountains. Its namesake, however, was anything but obscure in his day.
Oscar Lawler grew up in one of Southern California’s innumerable Iowa immigrant families. Lured by the great land boom of the 1880s, they arrived in 1888 just as it crashed. So, 13-year-old Oscar, one of 10 children, left school and went to work helping to support the family, launching a remarkable rags-to-riches career.
Among his first jobs was newsboy on a busy Los Angeles corner, which acquainted him with a Los Angeles Times circulation staffer named Harry Chandler. Chandler apparently got him a job as a bellboy at the bastion of Southern California wealth and power, the California Club.
There he was noticed by rising young attorney Henry O’Melveny, who took Lawler under his wing, guiding his informal education and legal training, until he was admitted to the California Bar in 1896.
In 1901, Lawler married into money, and soon his wife, Hilda Brode, bought several lots on Wilshire Boulevard. They moved into a new home there in 1907, the same year a family outing to Idyllwild gave them a first taste of the San Jacinto Mountains.
Lawler by then was well into a career defending the prerogatives of the rich and powerful, which made him a target for the disaffected.
By 1906, having become prominent in Los Angeles County Republican circles, he was appointed U.S. attorney for Southern California. President Taft elevated him to assistant attorney general for the Interior Department in 1909, which lasted only two scandal-marred years.
Returning to private practice in Los Angeles, Lawler continued to accept federal investigative assignments, first the 1910 bombing of the Times Building, then a rash of suspicious corporate water filings on public land in the San Jacintos. (He himself turned up in 1912 as counsel for a corporation planning to dam Strawberry Creek for a power plant!)
This return to the mountains and his long-time devotion to conservation of natural areas — Lawler Peak in the San Gabriels recognizes his efforts — led in 1916 to acquisition of land in Dark Canyon. There the family would build a retreat modeled on Yosemite Lodge.
1919 was a fateful year. Just after Lawler Lodge was completed, his Los Angeles home was bombed, and Hilda and Oscar barely escaped with their lives. Two months later they lost personal belongings to a fire while staying at Tahquitz Lodge in Keen Camp.
But the Lawlers moved on to Beverly Hills, becoming next-door neighbors of Will Rogers, who occasionally joined them in entertaining at Lawler Lodge. Lawler’s subsequent career attracted major corporate clients and Hollywood luminaries, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of both the Tarzan and John Carter characters.
When Hilda died unexpectedly in 1954, Oscar decided to honor her lifetime of charitable work on behalf of children by donating Lawler Lodge to Riverside County as a camp for youth groups. He then lived out his life quietly, dying in 1966 at age 90.
Bob Smith is a researcher and archivist with the Idyllwild Area Historical Society.