Big Bear Valley Historical Museum: A Tale of Two Cities

Have you ever wondered if the vastly different cities of Big Bear City and La Quinta, California, could possibly have anything in common? One is high in the San Bernardino mountains , a few minutes from Big Bear Lake, and the other is near the Santa Rosa mountains in the low desert, approximately an hour’s drive to the largest body of water in the desert, the Salton Sea. Wonder no more. At both locations, exclusive resorts were built to promote new developments, and to attract Hollywood stars and perspective homeowners to its natural beauty. In Big Bear, Austrian-born real estate developer Harry Kiener built the Peter Pan Woodland Club (no longer standing) near the present-day Big Bear Airport. It was designed and constructed in 1930 by Guy Maltby, owner of the Bear Valley Milling and Lumber Company. Kiener chose the name Peter Pan because he felt the beauty of Big Bear Valley equaled the magical beauty of “Never Never Land.”

Photo courtesy of OAC (Online Archive of California), Pomona Public Library, Frasher Foto, 1937.

According to La Quinta Museum historian, Kim Richards, both La Quinta and Big Bear City share an amazing connection to Harry Kiener, Guy Maltby, and the Peter Pan Woodland Club. Kiener, of the Big Bear Land and Water Company, decided to make a sister club to the Peter Pan Woodland Club and chose the Desert Club (no longer standing) in La Quinta, east of Palm Springs. He hired Guy Maltby who built and lived in the Lumberyard building next to The La Quinta Museum –which is still standing, to get that project started. The Peter Pan Woodland Club and the Desert Club offered reciprocal privileges year round. The proverbial best of both worlds.

In the end, both resorts would even suffer similar fates. The Peter Pan Woodland Club experienced a devastating fire in 1948, completely destroying the clubhouse. It never re-opened. The original but smaller clubhouse built in 1927 south of Big Bear Boulevard was raised up and hauled by trucks down the hill to the golf course northwest of the Greenway and Country Club intersections and placed next to the resort’s swimming pool. It re-opened as Peter Pan Rancho but never recaptured the glory of the Woodland Club. The Desert Club burned down in 1989 but for very different reasons. The city of La Quinta, believing that it would never have the resources to restore the site it had been donated, allowed the California Department of Forestry and local volunteers to burn the structure for firefighting practice. The city later created a community park on the site named after the former owner of the Desert Club, Fritz Burns.

Photo courtesy of OAC (Online Archive of California), Pomona Public Library, Frasher Foto, 1947.

Bonus fact: Harry Kiener was the father-in-law to American novelist Louis L’Amour, best known for his fictional books about the Old West. Louis and his wife, Kathy, had a 60+ acre date and citrus “ranch” behind The La Quinta Hotel (no relation to The Desert Club) until the property was sold in the late 1960s.

Now, back to the mountains. No trip to the Big Bear Valley is really complete without a visit to the Big Bear Valley Historical Museum. Highlights include a furnished 1875 log cabin, the Shay Ranch cowboy bunkhouse, memorabilia from Hollywood’s glamorous golden age and its connection to Big Bear, a working blacksmith’s shop, Well’s Fargo office, the Juniper Point General Store, Post Office, carriage shed, 5-stamp mill and more.

Big Bear got its name due to the large number of grizzly bears that once roamed the area. Although grizzly bears went extinct in the valley at the turn of the 20th century, there are still thousands of black bears found in Big Bear Valley.

The museum offers hands-on gold panning at their sluice box to experience how miners used to separate gold. Sluicing is a method of separating and recovering gold from the placer gravel by the use of running water. Gold is caught or trapped by riffles.

Burros were introduced to the Big Bear area between 1900 and 1940. During this period, burros escaped from miners, movie sets, fox farms, and ranches. The present population of 60 wild individuals most likely became solidly established as a result of burros that escaped or were released from annual burro races in and around Big Bear City beginning in 1955.

The Dam Keeper’s Mule Barn was built in 1885. It sheltered his burros kept by the dam keeper near the dam. In October of 1890, the historic Dam Keeper’s House was built using hand-cut granite blocks from the same quarry that provided the stones for the first dam. For nearly a century, this was home to over a dozen dam keepers and their families. The famed Bill Knickerbocker and his family were early residents between 1909 and 1918. After the Municipal Water district purchased the lake in 1977, and water would no longer be released for irrigation, there would be no need for a resident dam keeper.

We enjoyed looking at an 1880s 5-stamp mill, which was used to crush ore from mines. Californian stamps were based on Cornish stamps and were used for the Californian gold mines. In these stamps the cam is arranged to lift the stamp from the side, so that it causes the stamp to rotate. This evens the wear on the shoe at the foot of the stamp, which improves efficiency. 

We really enjoyed a personal tour given to us by the museum’s curator, Jonni and her sister Karrie. Jonni is fascinating and able to talk about every exhibit in lively detail. Her roots in Big Bear go back an impressive number of decades. Much of her family’s belongings, even her Dad’s high school letter sweater, is on display. It is evident that she and volunteers have done an excellent job capturing the past. By the way, you may spy with your little eye the name of Mel Blanc in the background. Did you know Mel Blanc lived in Big Bear most his life? In fact, “The Man of a 1,000 Voices” served as the honorary mayor for 33 years.

The Big Bear Valley was home to the indigenous Yuhaaviatam, a clan of the Serranos, for about 2,000 years. The name ‘Serrano’ or ‘mountaineers’ was given to the natives by Spanish explorers. The Serrano Indians are the indigenous people of the San Bernardino highlands, passes, valleys and mountains who share a common language and culture. You will find a Yuhaaviatam encampment, donated by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and the James Ramos family, outside the Shay Bunkhouse. The museum property is very near the site of a Serrano creation legend.

The Cienega Large Cabin is a hunting cabin built in 1875. It is the oldest building in Big Bear Valley. Today, it displays a typical home of the late 1800s.

Necessary cooking implements, rocking chair, spinning wheel and a Holy Bible were some of the many items you would find in a well-stocked pioneer family’s cabin. Other creature comforts included beds with hand-sewn quilts, wood tables, a wash basin and lanterns; all authentically represented in the museum.

Built in 1919, the Camp Juniper Point Store and Minnelusa Post Office was originally located on North Shore Drive, on Juniper Point, which was known as a summertime camp and resort. The post office was in operation until 1940.

You will see all manner of dry goods and merchandise old timey general stores used to have on display. General stores weren’t just a place to buy essential items but also served as a community hub where local community news and gossip was exchanged amongst townsfolk and strangers, a treat when children were occasionally rewarded with penny candy, and a place where mail was sent or eagerly received.

Years ago a single cent could satisfy a child’s sweet tooth. Penny Candy made its debut sometime circa 1896 with the Tootsie Roll at Woolworth’s Five and Dime. When the chain closed its U.S. stores in the 1980s much of the popularity of penny candy died out.

What is Delaware Punch, you may ask. Delaware Punch was created by Job Daniel Rubio Delgado in Delaware, Ohio, in 1913. The fruit-based brand is currently owned by The Coca-Cola Company, but has been discontinued. The beverage is difficult to find, but is still served in some restaurants in Houston, Texas.

A couple of docents outside the window held hands in a porch swing outside the general store, greeting those who entered and answering questions.

The utterance of the word ‘gold’ was usually all it took, and the rush was on, probably before most prospectors finished unpacking their picks and shovels. Just up a pretty good road from the Doble town site is the remnants of the Lucky Baldwin mine and, beyond in Holcolmb Valley, the location of the famous kidnapping scene from the Paramount Pictures film, Paint Your Wagon (1969) with Lee Marvin. Our photo depicts a screen capture from the movie matched with a photo we took where the scene was shot.

The Doble Schoolhouse is a recreation of a 1901 building that once stood in Doble. All that remains of Doble, is the Doble Cemetery. Before it was Doble (pronounced, ‘Doe-bull’) , the place was known as “Bairdstown.”  It came to life after the Carter brothers filed four gold mining claims in 1873, on the mountainside that now wears their name.  

Most days you will see a working blacksmith demonstrating his skills with iron, tools and fire. On the day we visited, blacksmiths were making ice cream spoons for children in the audience.

Blacksmithing is the art of hot and cold forging metal using tools like a hammer and an anvil to make objects, like hinges, nails, hammers, decorative art and knives. 

A skilled blacksmith can judge just how hot and malleable a piece of metal is by its color-white, yellow, orange, red or purple. The softened iron is shaped or turned into wrought iron by pounding it against a heavy steel anvil. 

Here, the curator of the museum, Jonni Vindiola, demonstrates safe weapon handling at the Wells Fargo exhibit, which features the impressive and effective coach gun (12 and 10 gauge being the most common at the time), and important memorabilia from the era. After the discovery of gold in California, Wells Fargo became a business that connected the East with remote gold fields out West. Henry Wells and William Fargo met in New York City on March 18, 1852, and started Wells Fargo, and offered banking, express, and mail delivery services to merchants and miners.

This structure, built in 1916, was originally at the Shay Cattle Ranch. The bunk house features living quarters, saloon, barbershop and dentist, with life-size mannequins recreating scenes from the past.

Barbers often took on the role of dentist in addition to their many other skills such as hair cuts and shaves, due to their expertise with sharp instruments & dexterity when tooth extractions needed to be performed. There is also a Peter Pan Woodland Club exhibit at the bunkhouse.

A recreation of a prospector’s camp is on the museum grounds. Miners were willing to endure physical hardships in exchange for the bounty that a strike of gold could offer. Some prospectors worked by themselves or in small groups while others established entire mining companies to be able to reach the inner depth of a lode.

Big Bear Valley Historical Museum is open Memorial Day weekend through the second week in September, Saturdays, Sundays, Wednesdays and Holiday Mondays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

While you’re in Big Bear, we recommend you visit The Village, where you will find restaurants with live music, old fashion candy and ice cream stores, assorted shops and interesting places to stop by. And of course, please drive around to enjoy viewing Big Bear Lake from many scenic areas at various points around the nearly 7 miles-long, and 1/2 mile wide lake. Big Bear is famous for its ski resorts in the winter but there are lots of activities to take part in almost all year round. There is even a zoo. For pilots, Big Bear City Airport is open around the clock and equipped for night landings.

Don’t forget Big Bear Lake offers annual Fourth of July Fireworks to the public and it’s a popular event, so come early. For off-road adventurers and day trippers, you may want to tour famous Holcomb Valley to visit Wilbur’s Grave, see where many Hollywood westerns were made and follow the Gold Fever Trail to see Bellville Cabin, hike a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, visit Bluff Lake Reserve or camp out under the stars. Needless to say, there’s always a lot to do in Big Bear to keep grown-ups and the kiddos entertained. Just remember how it all started.

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