The History of Big Falls Lodge

By Shannon Wray

 

Two important events made Big Falls Lodge possible. The first was Redlands banker N.L. Levering’s purchase of a section of land (640 acres) from the Southern Pacific Railroad. Levering sub-divided the land, calling it Valley of the Falls Tract and officially it opened for sale on May 30, 1925. The second important event was the opening of a new paved road the length of Mill Creek Canyon on August 6, 1926. The upper reaches of “the scenic wilderness” were accessible at last, which made it possible to develop resorts.

 

Among the purchasers of large lots in the Valley of the Falls Tract in its first year of business was Mr. Guy O. Swartz. A rancher for several years in Valencia Heights near Covina, Swartz seized the opportunity to become a mountain resort owner. He spent the fall and winter of 1927 constructing a lodge with a store, delicatessen, and a café as well as ten cabins. Committed to opening the following summer, the Swartz’s set up camp in the canyon to work on their new resort and entertained friends for Thanksgiving. The new Big Falls Lodge resort officially opened on May 29, 1928 and the newspapers reported that many visitors spent their summer weeks that year in the pristine setting.

 

The primary means of communication during that period was mail and in August 1929 both G.O. Swartz and Mrs. James Roulette, owner of the Elkhorn Inn, petitioned the U.S. government to permit a Valley of the Falls post office at their resorts. The contract would virtually guarantee business for the stores at either resort and it became a hotly contested competition. “The postoffice [sic] department declined to permit use of the name ‘Valley of the Falls’ for the postoffice on the grounds that it was too long.” Instead, the government compressed the name to Falls Vale, which became the new name of the community from the Elkhorn Inn to the top of the canyon. Mrs. Roulette won the lucrative contract in December of that year, which must have been a blow to Mr. and Mrs. Swartz.

 

In July 1930, a gentleman named Rudy Copeland from Texas filed a fictitious business name registration certifying that he was transacting business at Big Falls Lodge in Fallsvale, but it’s unclear whether he became the owner, or if he partnered with Guy Swartz. Notably, the first advertisements for Big Falls Lodge appeared that same month and throughout the summer season.

 

 

In August of that summer, the owners advertised for “Female Help” with a query that is somewhat amusing.

 

 

What is certain is that G.O. Swartz was still in residence in the canyon in 1930 as evidenced by this disgruntled ad he placed in the newspaper in November.

 

 

The Valley of the Falls Tract had electrical power as of April of 1928, but an improvement to communications came in 1931 with a new telephone line and Big Falls Lodge telephone played an important role in emergency situations. The Swartz’s were very involved in the community through 1932, which suggests that they may have continued to own the resort until that time or longer. However, little information about ownership and operation of the lodge is available between 1932 and 1936, except that a Mrs. Alice M. Kohr was the manager during the 1935 summer season. It is well documented that it was a time of struggle for the other resorts in the canyon during the Depression years and it may be that G.O Swartz and his wife had to shutter their dream.

 

 

Big Falls Lodge 1937 Pomona Public Library Collection Retrieved from UC California, California Digital Library http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt7199q2s9/?query=Fallsvalle&brand=calispher

 

In 1936, Mr. and Mrs. Sherman Hart, citrus growers and ranchers in Greenspot, purchased Big Falls Lodge. The Harts had, perhaps, the greatest success with the resort, despite those challenging years, and they certainly had the longest ownership. By all accounts, they were a lively couple and infused Big Falls Lodge with a new character. Mrs. Hart was an accomplished pianist and patron of the arts and Mr. Hart advocated for winter sports with the enthusiastic support of the Mill Creek Chamber of Commerce. During the cold and very snowy winter of 1937, Mr. Hart and his sons, Donald and Gaylord, built an ice skating rink at the Lodge, which became a popular pastime in the canyon. The Harts were also very involved in the community. That January, when tragedy befell two families trapped in a cabin above the campground after the roofed caved in, Sherman Hart and his son, Donald, with two others, walked all day in more than twelve feet of snow to help the survivors and the Harts gave aid at the Lodge while they waited for rescue and medical assistance. The winter of 1938 was also exceptionally cold and snowy, and the rink at Big Falls Lodge was again a desirable destination for people in Redlands to come for skating and dining. Although most of Mill Creek Canyon was devastated by the March floods that year, the resort made it through the disaster with only minor damage.

 

 

Big Falls Lodge 1937 Pomona Public Library Collection Retrieved from UC California, California Digital Library http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt7199q2s9/?query=Fallsvalle&brand=calispher

 

During the milder months, Mrs. Hart frequently put on musicales and hosted artist, writer, and ladies’ groups at the Lodge. The County Board of Supervisors granted them a dance license in July 1941 and both dancing and cocktails became the vogue at the Lodge.

 

 

That summer, they formed the Hart Players of Valley of the Falls and performed an original old-time melodrama, written and produced by Fallsvale residents Paul and Joan Ferguson, for the Redlands Rotary Club. It was so well received that “Gay Nineties” plays with a melodrama entitled “The India Rubber Girl,” starring Helen Soffel became a feature every Saturday night beginning in the summer of 1942 and ending in August of 1947, which was also the end of Mr. and Mrs. Hart’s journey as resort owners.

 

On June 10, 1948, Clifford and Margaret Slaughter celebrated their new ownership of Big Falls Lodge with 50 canyon residents. According to the San Bernardino County Sun, June 22, 1948, “Following a wiener bake, the group sat around a huge bonfire and was entertained by Elmer Robinson, Slim Nichols, and his daughter Billy, who offered a group of old-time and western songs accompanied by guitars. Later in the evening the crowd enjoyed dancing in the lodge.” The Slaughters’ ownership of Big Falls Lodge brought a down-home charm to the resort, but also some significant improvements. A year later, in June of 1949, the first ads and articles began to appear about the large new swimming pool at the lodge with bathing beauties posed poolside and swimming touted as an attraction. The Slaughters also added a cocktail lounge and recreation room in addition to the existing cabins, a dining room with two fireplaces, and a store. Games and outdoor activities were a selling point under the Slaughter’s proprietorship with offerings of badminton, shuffleboard, croquet, horseback riding, and both ice skating and sledding in the winter months. Dancing featured prominently, with dinner dances promoted on the weekends. The Slaughters also received a permit from the U.S. Government for the long-sought post office in their store at the lodge in 1949.

 

 

Another innovation in 1949 was an attempt to try the country club model of business with sales of memberships in the Big Falls Lodge Club. A family membership for one year cost $19.90, though there is no information about what families would receive for that membership and the public was still welcome. Ads for a sales manager ran for about a year. As the summer season began in June 1951, Cliff and Margaret Slaughter still owned the Lodge, but only a month later ads in newspapers announced new ownership of the resort. The Slaughters, however, didn’t go far. In 1954, Cliff Slaughter received a permit to build a $12,400 store and post office directly across the street from Big Falls Lodge, which they operated well into the 1960s, and Margaret became the postmistress for Forest Falls, a post she held until 1970.

 

July 27, 1951 San Bernardino County Sun

 

The new owner, L.W. “Les” White from Alhambra, was the most aggressive marketer of Big Falls Lodge with frequent ads and even more frequent articles in Southern California newspapers extolling the beauty, relaxation, and virtues of the resort. He swiftly became a member and officer of the Mill Creek Chamber of Commerce and by 1953 had added a trailer court to the Lodge. That June, his sixteen-year-old daughter left for school on the bus to take her final exams for her junior year at Redlands High School and never arrived. Her disappearance was never publicly resolved. On December 8, 1953, Chester Gillmore & Son announced the sale of Big Falls Lodge for “a price in excess of $40,000” to Harris Enterprises. John Harris, manager, was planning major improvements. Les White’s brief and somewhat mysterious tenure at the resort marked the beginning of a period of rapid changes in ownership for Big Falls Lodge.

 

In January 1954, after an open house to introduce the new owners to canyon residents throughout the holidays, Big Falls Lodge Resort closed for renovation. The $650 remodeling of the lodge and cabins included the addition of a courtyard with a trout pond. By April, the dining room was open for business and the official re-opening for the summer season was announced on July 1, 1955. A gala six-course 4th of July dinner launched the newly renovated resort.

 

 

Although John Harris apparently spent a great deal of time, energy, and capital intending “to make it one of the most complete and picturesque resorts in the Southland,” the Lodge was up for sale again by the end of November 1955. Appraised at $95,000, it was on the market for $65,000.

 

On the night of December 2, 1957, Big Falls Lodge burned to the ground. The Redlands Daily Facts reported that, “F. Brooks Gresham, owner of the lodge, estimated the damage at $40,000. Mr. Gresham, who lives in a neighboring building, said all guests had left Sunday night, and no one was in the structure when it caught afire.” Sadly, the beautiful stone buildings that had housed the lodge and store were reduced to a pile of rubble. But Gresham was determined to rebuild.

 

Publicly, the new Big Falls Lodge that exists today began its life in November of 1958, when a notice appeared in the Redlands Daily Facts announcing that Big Falls Lodge was open for business and serving Thanksgiving dinner. It may have been a “soft” opening to initiate the new building because the official “Grand Spring Opening” occurred in April of 1959.

 

 

After the devastating fire of December 1957, tragedy struck again when Forest Brooks Gresham died on March 16, 1960 at the age of 48, leaving the Lodge to his wife Erma. Two years later, in March 1962, Mrs. Gresham transferred the business and its liquor license to Earl MacPherson and Carl Baker who were doing business as Valley of the Falls Corporation, effective May 1st of that year. She appears to have retained ownership of the property as she applied for a dance permit for Big Falls Lodge in 1966.

 

In the first year of MacPherson and Baker’s proprietorship of the resort, the upper and lower parts of the canyon, which had always been the two separate communities of Forest Home and Fallsvale, were amalgamated and newly named Forest Falls. There was a longing for the past in the air with a centennial celebration on Labor Day weekend that year and during the following summer of 1963 the community held the first Chuck Wagon Days three-day event with an Old West theme. Big Falls Lodge was a focal point for these old-time celebrations, serving community breakfasts, staging parades, and providing Americana music and dances. But MacPherson and Baker also had to contend with massive floods, snow, and avalanches in the middle years of the decade. Moreover, social change had an impact on the resorts in the canyon during the 1960s. Over time the advent of affordable, efficient air conditioning made it less necessary to escape to cooler climes during the summer months and the 1950s family vacation at the cabin in the mountains was going out of fashion in favor of travels farther afield.

 

In 1967, the county Planning Commission approved a proposal to convert Big Falls Lodge into a youth camp for the Central Baptist Church of Anaheim and it was officially closed to the public for the first time in its long life. How long the church operated the Lodge is not evident in records, but the next documented iteration of Big Falls Lodge could not have been more opposite in its use.

 

Apparently, John F. Lawson IV, who owned the Elkhorn Store and Café as well as several other properties, owned Big Falls Lodge for a period in the early 1970s. In August of 1975, Lawson transferred the business and liquor license for Big Falls Inn to Kenneth Crofutt. The year prior, Crofutt had opened the Saddletramp Saloon in the annex of the San Gorgonio Lodge Restaurant as a bar and music venue. A legendary 1974 New Year’s Eve party closed out the Saddletramp as the lease expired on January 1, 1975. After the deal with Lawson was complete on August 29, 1975, Crofutt reopened the Saddletramp Saloon at the former Big Falls Lodge.

 

 

In its new life as the Saddletramp Saloon, Big Falls Lodge returned again to an Old West theme, with barbecues, beer, and American roots music, such as Bluegrass and Blues. Down home food was served and a good time was had by all.

 

 

The Saddletramp Saloon closed in 1977 and, in the spirit of its name, moved on to other pastures outside the canyon. It went out with a final music festival as described in this newspaper item.

 

March 4, 1977 San Bernardino County Sun

 

After the Saddletramp closed, others tried restaurants at Big Falls Lodge. In 1978, Andy and Evelyn Aguilera and Harry and Betty Miller opened R’Friends Mexican American Restaurant. A Canyon News Gazette review in the Fall 1978 issue noted, “this establishment has gained much popularity by visitors and canyon folk alike. Servings are generous, especially the tostadas with heaping lettuce and tomatoes covering. A wine and beer bar makes this a comfortable evening spot, and tourists enjoy the small shop of Mexican items located within the restaurant. Relatively new to the canyon, R’ Friends has become an old favorite in a short time.”

 

However, by the winter of that year, another stalwart restaurateur was already installed at Big Falls Lodge with a new restaurant called The Timbers, run by Mike O’Dell who came to Forest Falls from Chester, California near Mt. Lassen. The Canyon News Gazette review in the summer 1979 issue again describes a canyon favorite. “The food is mighty fine at The Timbers. Cook John Goodman has produced a new menu which includes such specialties as “Loenhorst Biscuits and Gravy [Loenhorst was the local sheriff then], Dobb’s Delight, Vivian’s sweet, Big Falls and Little Falls pancakes, and Mill Creek Steak and Eggs. The Timbers has become a favorite for many in the past few months. There’s horseshoe throwin’, pool shootin’, beer drinkin’, friendly talk, and plain good times. If you haven’t dropped by, better git down there quick!”

 

Quick was, indeed, the imperative as The Timbers seems to have disappeared a short time later, perhaps 1980 or 1981.

 

Restaurant concepts came and went without any real longevity. In November of 1988 another attempt at an old-time and good time eatery was made.

 

 

At that point, the resort that had begun with such big dreams in 1928 and that had been a gathering place in the canyon for 60 years began to slowly wane until it went to sleep. An icon of a forgotten era, the building only held memories of a time when people dined and danced and families whiled away lazy summer days together in the shade of pines and cedars.

 

The building that rose from the ashes in 1958 might have eventually gone back to the earth, but Forest Falls resident Gail D. Cox bequeathed the funds to the community to purchase the property. Volunteers in the canyon lovingly gave their time to rehabilitate the old building and in 2007 it was reborn as the Valley of the Falls Community Center, retaining its historical name of Big Falls Lodge.

 

 

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