Fifteen years ago this month, a group of local residents created the Idyllwild Area Historical Society, dedicated to collecting, preserving and sharing evidence of our past. The society now has a loyal base of nearly 300 memberships scattered across the country, its own wholly owned museum campus, and a growing collection containing some 10,000 documents, photos and other artifacts.
Building on the foundation laid by John Robinson in his ground-breaking 1993 account of the San Jacinto Mountains’ history, an increasingly detailed picture of how our area came to be is continually unfolding. It’s an endless process of both discoveries and disappointments.
For example, three years ago I wrote in this column about Chauncey and Marie Rankin Clarke, one of Southern California’s wealthiest families. During 1924-25, they bought 10 acres of hillside land on Marion View Drive and built “Burley Oak,” as they called their Idyllwild retreat. Upon Marie Clarke’s death in 1948, Claremont Graduate University inherited her estate.
My interest in identifying the property was sparked by a museum visit from the daughter of a former employee at the Clarkes’ La Quinta ranch. Her donated 1931 home movies, together with old Idyllwild Breezes newspapers and a 1928 Idyllwild Inn publicity brochure containing a map locating all the structures in town eventually led me to a distinctive old house that seemed to fit. Its current owner even recalled that the Clarkes had built it.
Alas, during this year’s annual IAHS Home Tour, we found that the current owner of a different property, “Rock Hill,” has documents proving that it is actually the old Clarke place.
Concurrently, the daughter of a former owner contacted the Town Crier, objecting to misinformation in its advance story of the tour. From her and articles in the new online Town Crier archive, I learned that her parents, Mary and Louis Gast, bought the property from Claremont in 1953. They renamed it Rock Hill Lodge and offered food and lodging for vacationing tourists.
In 1955, the Gasts were caught up in the long-running Idyllwild controversy over liquor licenses. Many residents and religious camps took pride in being “the only resort in California without a single bar,” so they enlisted the County Board of Supervisors in a successful campaign to have the State Liquor Control Board deny the Gasts’ application. Mary Gast soon fell ill and the family was forced to close and put the property up for sale.
Although human memory is fallible, it does provide good stories and a feeling for former times. In that spirit, and recalling the all-day panel discussion in 2000 that inspired its creation, IAHS will mark its 15th anniversary this month. From 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, at the Idyllwild Library, a panel of longtime Hill residents will share their memories of earlier times, followed by an open house at the IAHS museum.
The event will provide a rare opportunity for the public to see inside the Frank and Mabel Moote Archive & Research Center, where the IAHS collection is preserved and researched to recapture the tales you’ve read here.
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].