November 1957: Idyllwild had never seen anything like it. According to the Town Crier, the village was “a mass of uprooted trees, torn roofs, broken lines, crushed cars and splintered wood.” Six houses caught fire, 11 cars were crushed, electrical and phone services were down for days. A national forest survey estimated 300 to 500 trees down, and that was just along readily accessible trails.
For weeks, post office chatter dwelt on what-ifs and near hits. How the Jim Shermans and their infant were saved by their icebox when a pine crashed through the kitchen ceiling. How the Lee DeMents were pulling away from home in their car and missed being crushed when their second car was demolished just 15 feet away.
But this was Idyllwild, and residents typically pulled together to help each other recover and clean up from the strongest blast ever of Santa Ana wind, estimated in the range of 70 to 100 miles per hour. The California Water & Telephone Co. spent some $10,000 repairing water and phone lines on the Hill; 40 percent of their costs for the Hemet-San Jacinto-Hill area were in Idyllwild alone.
The best-known victim of the big wind, however, was a particular cedar tree. The gigantic George Thomas Cedar in Fern Valley near Humber Park had stood for some 800 years. While it bore only a single branch, it still bore signs of life when it crashed to the ground.
George Thomas is not exactly a household name, but he was one of Strawberry Valley’s earliest visitors. A native Nebraskan who’d settled with his foster mother in Riverside, he accompanied sheepherder relatives on a scouting trip into the mountains in 1874 at age 14, spending the night with Sam Temple in his cabin near the present site of Idyllwild School. Around 1880, he used San Jacinto Mountain Lumber to build his Riverside home. He visited Idyllwild periodically and finally bought a Fern Valley cabin lot in 1929. In the late 1930s, he became president of the Idyllwild Chamber of Commerce. After his wife died in 1941, he rarely returned.
What brought me to this story was a search in late-1950s Town Criers that had just become available online as part of a long-term project being carried out by the newspaper and the Idyllwild Area Historical Society.
We hope eventually to make all past issues available in a word-searchable format. By summer’s end, the years 1946 to 1960 should be complete and freely available on the Idyllwild Library’s computers or by subscription to GenealogyBank.com.
The project was launched in 2012 with a seed-money grant from the Idyllwild Community Fund. Further support has come from the historical society and Town Crier, as well as Idyllwild Rotary Anns, Pine Cove Property Owners and individual donors.
Commercial scanning, though costly, has greatly accelerated the process. Already we have an extremely valuable window into Idyllwild’s postwar renaissance for local history buffs, researchers and writers. You can help ensure its continuing growth by lending old newspaper copies for scanning or with monetary donations to the Idyllwild Area Historical Society.
Bob Smith is a researcher and archivist with the Idyllwild Area Historical Society. He welcomes comments, questions, corrections and suggested topics for this column at [email protected]