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History of Our Town

Idyllwild History - Tahquitz Rock and “Strawberry Valley”

The earliest humans to occupy the (Idyllwild and Fern) valleys and the surrounding San Jacinto Mountains were the Cahuilla Indians and later the Luiseno tribes. The Cahuilla would migrate up from the lower desert areas each summer to escape the heat and supplement their winter food stocks by gathering and grinding acorns along with hunting the nearby game. The Cahuilla grinding slabs or ‘metates’ can still be found in large granite slabs nearby.

Legend has it that a fallen Cahuilla chieftain named Tahquitz, or Takwish, was possessed by an evil spirit and had killed his sweetheart. As his tribesmen chanted over his body, he began to glow like fire and rose up to eventually be encased and forever trapped inside what is now called Tahquitz Rock. In the legend, he occupies the rock with a rattlesnake and a condor and when the mountain shakes it is because the chieftain is conjuring up ‘bad medicine’.

The Cahuilla eventually succumbed to disease brought by early European explorers in 1774 and by Anglo-Americans later in the1840s. During this period, nearly eighty percent of the Cahuilla tribes died from theses diseases. As their population continued to decline, the remaining remnant of Cahuillas were forced onto reservations that were established after several years of conflict with local and federal authorities.

How Idyllwild Got Its’ Name

Originally know as Strawberry Valley because of the abundance of wild strawberries that grew alongside Strawberry Creek and throughout what is now the town, by the late 1860’s, prospectors from all over and shepherds from the lower basins near Hemet were among the first white settlers to occupy the mountain valley and what later became the Garner Valley further south. Among these was the Domenigoni family, sheepherders from San Jacinto who homesteaded land near what is now the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Soon thereafter a toll road was constructed up the mountain from Hemet creating an influx of new settlers, loggers and tourists. By 1889, George and Sarah Hannahs built a sawmill in upper Dutch Flat and constructed a summer camp next to the site. They named it Camp Idyllwilde. At this time, however, the town was referred to as Rayneta after the Hannahs' son Raymond. By 1893 the Reynata Post Office was established with George Hannahs as the first Postmaster.

In 1901, an infirmary was erected by Dr. Walter Lindley to treat tuberculosis patients and adopted the name “Idyllwild Sanatorium.” The hospice was located in what is now the center of town and was managed by Laura Rutledge and her husband. After it burned down in 1904 the new building was reborn as a resort and was renamed “Idyllwild Among the Pines” and lastly the “Idyllwild Inn.” The settlement’s name was officially changed to Idyllwild this same year. The name change is generally credited to Mrs, Rutledge although some think George Hannahs was the responsible party.

Tourists and Developers

Since 1871 Leland Stanford and the Southern Pacific Railroad owned nearly half of the San Jacinto Mountain range as a result of a federal land grant for constructing the southern transcontinental line. That changed in 1897 when President Grover Cleveland created the San Jacinto Forest Reserve which later, in 1925, became part of the Cleveland National Forest.

With the advent of the automobile came tourists and Idyllwild became a popular destination resort for Southern California visitors. Hotels and businesses promoted the town as an “Alpine Village” and adopted German-sounding names as a promotional campaign. But this practice soon ended with the start of World War II.

Land developers entered the scene when, in 1906, the Idyllwild Mountain Park Company was formed by buying the Idyllwild Inn along with 2,600 acres in the Fern Valley. In 1917, Claudius Emerson purchased the Idyllwild Inn along with 1000 acres of adjoining property. He promoted the area as a year-round destination and sold vacation homesites, thus creating the birthplace of a community. Emerson’s plans were thwarted as the Great Depression reared its ugly head and by 1938 the Emerson family was bankrupt.

The Arts, the Crafts and the Movies

From the 1930s to the late 50s Idyllwild became famous for its production of knotty pine furniture. It followed in the tradition of the “Arts and Crafts” movement of Gustav Stickley furniture design and Green and Green style architecture. Much of the furniture can still be found in many Idyllwild homes and cabins today.

The Movie Industry realized the amazing scenery that the valley and surrounding mountains displayed and set up shop as early as 1914 when Cecil B. DeMille began filming “The Girl of the Golden West” in Strawberry Valley and Garner Valley. More than 20 Feature films along with television series and commercials were filmed here and the area remains a favorite retreat for Hollywood personalities.

Idyllwild is also home to Music, the Arts and the Performing Arts. In 1950 the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts was opened, initially offering a summer program for artists and musicians. It later became a branch of the University of Southern California until two decades later when, in 1983, it became the Idyllwild Arts Foundation. In 1986 the foundation launched the Idyllwild Arts Academy, the West’s only residential arts high school, which is home to highly talented students from around the world.

The area was famous for hosting music festivals like the Idyllwild Bluegrass Invitational, in the 70s, then the only bluegrass music festival in Southern California and the Bear Flag Festival in the 1950s through the 1970s, a festival to honor California's Bear Flag and to mark the passing of the grizzly bear from California, the last of which, according to local legend, was killed at Hurkey Creek in Garner Valley. The tradition continues today with the “Jazz in the Pines” Annual festival along with a myriad of Art walks and Art Festivals.

And finally, The Great Outdoors

Idyllwild is very popular among outdoor enthusiast, especially those who love rock climbing, mountain biking, camping, fishing, and hiking. Serious climbers in Southern California discovered Tahquitz Rock (also called Lily Rock) back in the 1930s. It was here that they first developed the Yosemite Decimal System of grading routes and gauging difficulty that became the standard in Yosemite and elsewhere. Today there are some 500 named routes up iconic Tahquitz Rock and its near neighbor, Suicide Rock.


Learn more history of the valley by visiting the Idyllwild Area Historical Society