Bob Smith, local author and board member, docent and researcher for the Idyllwild Area Historical Society (IAHS), captures Idyllwild’s history in narrative and previously unpublished photographs in his just-released book, “Idyllwild and the High San Jacintos.” Published by Arcadia Publishing, the leading local history publisher in the U.S., Smith’s book is the latest in Arcadia’s “Images of America” series. The Associated Press says of the “Images” series: “In today’s world of flashy e-mail, celebrity book deals, these humble photo-essays on the late-19th and early- to mid-20th century have struck a chord with Americans looking for their past.”
Following the successful series format, Smith chronicles 80 years of the metamorphosis of Strawberry Valley as it changed character and name into Idyllwild, from 1880 until 1960, using more than 200 vintage black-and-white photographs and an easy-to-read narrative.
Smith guides the reader through six developmental “dimensions” that he uses to frame Hill growth from wilderness to community:
• Resource: the period when the mountain’s resources, especially lumber, were exploited and exported;
• Reserve: the period, beginning with President Grover Cleveland’s 1897 proclamation of the San Jacinto Forest Reserve, when Strawberry Valley use began to change from exploitation to recreation;
• Resort: when entrepreneurs began importing tourists to spas, sanatoriums, hotels and inns, and charmed visitors began building cabins;
• Residence: the period after the economic downturn and population bleed caused by the Great Depression and World War II when hotels gave way to new residences, service businesses and recreation venues, and a residential community began to form;
• Refuge: when people, including Smith’s grandparents, began to push further into the wilderness areas, seeking a more remote and finer experience of solitary;
• Renaissance: the arrival of Ernie Maxwell, the Town Crier, local developer Jerry Johnson whose purchase of a number of town buildings, venues and land parcels returned the town business core to local control, and the founding of the Idyllwild School of Music and Arts (ISOMATA, progenitor of Idyllwild Arts).
Smith concludes his examination of Idyllwild’s evolution from lumber source to burgeoning community in 1960 because, as Smith puts it, “By the ’60s, the characteristics that define Idyllwild had pretty much been fixed in place.”
Smith jokes that even now, 50 years after his book’s end point, Idyllwild is not really a part of the 21st century nor is it part of what passes for Southern California. Like Lerner and Lowe’s mythical town of Brigadoon, Idyllwild seems charmingly out of another time, inured and insulated from the rush of events and happily devoid of the trappings of contemporary commercial America — traffic lights, strip malls, McDonalds, and Wal-Marts. Community life, notes Smith, tends to be communal in the best sense. “As a result [of having no local government], village life has tended to be sustained through collaborative efforts of many rather than the leadership of a few,” said Smith.
Smith’s family has owned a cabin in the Fuller Mill Creek area since 1925. “I’ve been coming up here since 1939, for 70 summers,” said Smith. “I’ve always been intrigued by what makes Idyllwild Idyllwild,” he mused. The product of that fascination, “Idyllwild and the High San Jacintos,” took two years to develop, beginning in 2007 — one year of research and one year putting the book together.
The press release for “Idyllwild” sums up the character of the book and its purpose: “The uncommon village of Idyllwild was created by common people who were enchanted by the surrounding forest wilderness. Isolated here, high above the chaos of modern life, they have preserved a vestige of mid-20th century, small-town America in the woods. This collection of around 200 previously unpublished photographs, including stunning images by the gifted photographers Avery Field and Harry Wendelken, offers glimpses of the paths along which village and wilderness have shaped each other.” The Wendelken photos were part of Town Crier archives that the Crier donated to IAHS.
“An Afternoon of Vintage Idyllwild” book release party takes place from 1 pm. until 4 Friday, May 1 at the Rustic Theatre. The event will include a 1919 silent movie, vintage photo slideshow, and book signing with author Smith. For ticket information, e-mail Bob Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. “Idyllwild and the High San Jacintos,” a production of IAHS, retails for $21.99 and will be available locally at the IAHS and other local venues. All proceeds benefit IAHS.