IDYLLWILD, Calif. — Down at the quiet end of Cedar Street, overlooking Strawberry Creek, stands Silver Pines Lodge. Known as a favorite getaway of the late California TV personality Huell Howser, it’s a quintessential Idyllwild hostelry with a long history. Its earliest chapters revolve around a family who migrated here when the village was first becoming a summer residential community and stayed to have a lasting influence.
The story begins in 1923, when newlyweds Howell Holcomb and Pauline Poates honeymooned in Idyllwild. So taken with the setting, Hal and Polly immediately decided to settle here. Neighbors along River Drive and Cedar Street arriving to spend a quiet summer of 1924 at their cabins were taken aback to find a big commercial building rising in their midst. Holcomb, a contractor and master carpenter, needed both living and shop space to run his business. Then Polly’s mother, Anna “Ma” Poates, impressed by her daughter’s enthusiasm for Idyllwild, quickly picked up the rest of the family and moved to town. Her motherly helpfulness quickly endeared her to the neighbors, and they adjusted to their neighbor’s new business. To support her family Anna decided to try turning her cooking skill into a livelihood, first at a local golf club, then launching the “Rustic Shop Tavern” in half of Holcomb’s building. The other half housed his shop and showroom for craftsman furniture. Pioneering an Idyllwild industry that would persist for 35 years, Holcomb used local pine as a basic working material, but his specialty was manzanita. Billing himself as “The Rustic Man,” he offered to duplicate any furniture piece made of wood “in rustic.” Buoyed by the village’s first population boom, by 1927 Hal had three assistants working in the shop. At that time his most memorable job was building all the clubhouse furnishings for the Mount San Jacinto Golf Club being developed on Saunders Meadow. (That clubhouse lives on today as the Astrocamp dining hall.)
Life was good for the Holcombs, and they became deeply involved in mountain life. In 1928, for example, Hal and Polly joined fellow residents in what would today be termed a demonstration: a two-day, 100-person “march” to the top of San Jacinto Peak in support of creating the proposed state park.
By 1932 the Rustic had become something of a regional attraction. Holcomb had built a toboggan run modeled after a bobsled track down the bank behind the main building to Strawberry Creek’s flood plain. Riverside newspapers carried ads for a gala New Year’s Eve “sliding party.”
But with the Great Depression life began to sour. The Holcombs’ two-year-old daughter Barbara died in 1931. Business gradually dried up, and in 1934 they lost some property to foreclosure. So Hal and Polly moved on, settling in Nevada City in the Sierra gold country, where Hal resumed a construction career.
The rest of the Poates family stayed put. By now the owner of the Rustic property, Ma Poates turned the furniture shop into a soda fountain and continued to run the thriving Rustic Shop Tavern until 1944. She then sold the property to Paul Foster, a Los Angeles physician (and namesake of Foster Lake) who was simultaneously buying up most of the depressed assets lost to bankruptcy by Idyllwild’s primary developer, Claudius Emerson.
Ma Poates’s three sons, Lem, Vic, and Bill, had followed brother-in-law Hal Holcomb into construction before branching out. Led by Lem, the brothers built a number of local homes, as well as the nearby 1933 Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp, which housed the manpower for building many of our existing forest campgrounds, trails, and administrative facilities. Lem in particular would became a local hero by directing volunteer crews in the construction of Town Hall.
When Bill Poates returned from the war, he met and married an exotic newcomer. Liane Popelik, a Czech-German escapee from the Holocaust, had landed in South America, where she had a brief marriage and career singing with dance bands until her brother brought her here. Karl- Heinz Popelik was known locally under his assumed American name, Tommi Tyndall, as the ski instructor at a short-lived resort in Fern Valley called Hidden Lodge. (Tyndall quickly realized there was no skiing future in Idyllwild’s climate and terrain, moved on to Big Bear, and founded the Snow Summit resort.)
Bill and Liane Poates moved north to Grass Valley, bought a gold mine on the Yuba River, and spent their lives together as miners before eventually retiring back in Idyllwild.
Poates’s second daughter, Lavenia, married and moved away, but her youngest daughter, Eleanor, remained to become one of Idyllwild’s leading citizens. She married Gerald “Jerry” Johnson, who came to town in 1928, worked for a time as Hal Holcomb’s bookkeeper and briefly joined the CCC, but then found his niche in real estate and steadily assumed Emerson’s mantle as Idyllwild’s primary postwar developer. After the old Idyllwild Inn was destroyed by a 1945 fire and the ruins were cleared, Eleanor single-handedly engineered creation of a beloved park on the site in the village center. Until shortly after her death in 1982, Eleanor Park remained a monument to her influence on Idyllwild. Then the land reverted to commercial use and is now occupied by Jo’An’s Restaurant.
Hal Holcomb himself returned to Idyllwild once more for a few months in 1954, when he brought his company, Tim-Buk-Too Construction (slogan: “We’d go to Tim-Buk-Too to build a house that’s handsome!”), to build a classy new motel for Johnson.
And what became of Ma Poates’s Rustic Tavern? Absentee owner Paul Foster leased the former restaurant space to a Palm Springs couple, who began showing movies for the public and using the space as a meeting room. Queen of Angels Catholic Church, for example, moved its services there for three years after a heavy 1944 snowstorm collapsed the roof of its original cabin, until the present church on North Circle Drive was completed.
In the spring of 1946 Jerry Johnson’s company bought the Rustic property from Foster, then flipped it to local buyers Glenn and Nina Froehlich. The Froehlichs renamed it “Rustic Theatre,” installed real theater seating, and scheduled films every night during the summer season, four nights over weekends in the off-season. Even after Town Hall was finished in 1947, the Rustic remained a popular gathering spot until 1952, when the Froehlichs built and opened the present movie house on North Circle Drive, taking the name “Rustic” with them.
The former Rustic property faded into temporary obscurity until Phyllis & Stan Peterson discovered it in 1955. Phyllis had been enjoying the summer program at Idyllwild Arts so much, she couldn’t face returning to the drabness of the family farm in San Jacinto. Casting about for a way to make a living on the Hill, the Petersons imagined in the Rustic a potential outlet for their life-long enjoyment of square dancing. After expansion and refurbishing of the lodge and cabins, newly renamed Hillbilly Lodge, they invited the public to an old-fashioned dance in January 1957. It drew an enthusiastic crowd of more than 100, who hatched the Hilltop Twirlers square dance club. As word spread to other clubs, the Petersons soon found themselves booking groups from throughout Southern California every weekend. In addition to housing dancers at the lodge, they would plan a full schedule of activity: shopping, nature walks with their right-hand man Bob Beggs, or just lounging around the fireplace.
When age took its toll on the Petersons, they sold Hillbilly Lodge to the Beggs family in 1961, and Bob Beggs became manager. Further remodeling of main lodge, bunkhouse, and a cabin raised capacity to 70 lodgers, and that became its primary function. But it also remained a meeting place for local organizations, as well as a retreat center for off-Hill groups. It appeared briefly as Hillbilly Lodge in the Peter Fonda movie “Wild Angels,” which was partially filmed in Idyllwild in 1965.
That same year ownership changed once again. According to current owner Chris Singer, the new owners, Ed and Dorothy Stacy, quickly tired of being asked whether the lodge had running water and plumbing. The enchanting sight of moonlight on pine needles inspired the new name Silver Pines Lodge. And Silver Pines it has remained, through a series of subsequent owners.
Singer, who has been the proprietor for the last 22 years, continues the tradition of hosting meetings of Idyllwild organizations in the historic old tavern/theater/dance hall/meeting room. Visitors continue to enjoy a taste of early Idyllwild. And the familiar facade at the end of Cedar Street beckons much as it has for 92 years.
© Copyright to Bob Smith, volunteer archivist for Idyllwild Area Historical Society.