Our beloved Strawberry Valley hasn’t always been the main tourist attraction in the San Jacinto Mountains. Between 1915 and 1924, the Idyllwild Inn had strong, and at times superior, competition from Tahquitz Lodge, located 6 miles down the Hill at Keen Camp.
While Idyllwild tended to draw from the coastal cities, Inland Empire residents actually preferred Tahquitz Lodge. It was a bit quieter, more rustic and easier to get to. And it attracted a steady stream of movie crews.
Keen Camp is remembered today only in the name of a nearby summit on Highway 74, but it once was a settlement at the site now occupied by Living Free Animal Sanctuary.
It was founded in 1905 by John and Mary Keen, two experienced hotel owners, who had come to Strawberry Valley in 1890. They bought pioneer logger Amasa Saunders’s cabin and elaborated it into the Keen House, the valley’s premier lodging through the 1890s.
In 1901, the scale and elegance of new hotel facilities at the Idyllwild Sanatorium overshadowed the Keen House, so the Keens bought a ranch on the old Mayberry Road to Lake Hemet. They set up a campground, which they named Keen Camp. Then they had the Keen House disassembled and reused its materials in new cabins and a modest lodge.
The Keens retired in 1911, when they sold Keen Camp to Percy and Anita Walker, a pair of ranchers from Sage. Within a year Percy met a tragic end, drowning in Lake Hemet while trying to rescue a capsized fisherman. Anita carried on by teaching at Kenworthy School in Garner Valley, living there with her two daughters during the week, then running Keen Camp on weekends.
In 1914, Anita hired Robert Elliot to manage the lodge, which burned down the next year. Undaunted, the two married and rebuilt a grander facility, which they named Tahquitz Lodge.
By then Cecil B. DeMille had discovered Keen Camp, using it as a base for filming portions of the first feature film produced in Hollywood, “The Squaw Man.”
Tahquitz Lodge had all the amenities: tennis courts, swimming pool, stables, comfortable cabins and reputedly the largest ballroom in Riverside County.
Renowned photographer Stephen Willard publicized it with picture postcards he created after his 1917 stay. (The Elliotts changed the spelling to “Tauquitz” after 1920, believing it to be closer to Cahuilla pronunciation, only to revert to the “h” in 1937 for consistency with other landmarks.)
In 1924, the Elliott family sold the resort to a group of Los Angeles businessmen, who turned it into a private club. The deal bogged down for six years in lawsuits over payments and title issues. Anita Walker Elliott caught pneumonia at Tahquitz Lodge and died shortly before the court returned property to her family.
Robert reopened the resort in 1930, managed by Anita’s daughter Alyce Walker Murphy, but while it could still attract 500 people for special dance dates, its day had passed. In foreclosure by 1942, the final blow, with a sale already in progress, was the 1943 wildfire that razed the resort, sparing only the general store.
In 1944 the Pasadena YWCA bought the property, which became Tahquitz Meadows summer camp until 1980, when Emily Jo Beard acquired it for Living Free.