Trailfinders history

Harry  James
Harry James

Harry and Grace James are celebrated here because fifty years ago they saw to it that their precious land and home would become a permanent place for environmental education and scientific research. Harry Claybourne James was a young man when he traveled from his birthplace in Ottawa, Canada to Los Angeles in 1919. He was particularly fascinated by the people who were starting the fledgling movie industry. Harry never made it to college, but was a prolific reader and writer, and was soon working as an assistant Director for Bob Leonard and Mae Murray’s silent movie studio, while spending much of his spare time hiking through the Hollywood Hills.

Harry was gregarious, and on one of his walks met a young Cahuenga Indian lad his own age, and together started an informal hiking club. Local interest grew and eventually Harry formally called his club the “The Western Rangers,” meeting weekly in the basement of a local library, and growing into several separate “Councils.” Harry sought the advice of a well-known western author and outdoorsman, Ernest Thompson Seton, and in the process became lifelong friends. Harry also wrote a handbook of outdoor crafts and camping techniques, and refined his Western Rangers into a well-known organization in much the same way as Baden Powell had developed the Boy Scout movement in England. In 1915, Harry established “The Trailfinders School for Boys,” a private school that would incorporate the outdoors into all aspects of the curriculum. In 1927, Harry married a schoolteacher named Grace Clifford, and the Trailfinders became a family enterprise.

That their school was successful could be attested by the nearly 40,000 boys that attended their full-time and part-time programs over the span of 40 years. Their formula for success was simple. Boys would learn self reliance and teamwork, and exercise the mind, body and spirit. The Trailfinder School took junior high school-aged boys on outdoor expeditions that included retracing the travels of Lewis and Clark, and climbing summits in the Sierra Nevada, the Grand Tetons, and the Rocky Mountains. They spent summers on Hopi Reservations in Arizona learning Native American culture, as well as time in Europe to study the classics of music. More photographic memories of those days can be seen here, thanks to former Trailfinder Jim Moule. Today, staff at the James Reserve, working with local educators and interested groups in Idyllwild, are trying to rekindle the spirit of the Trailfinders with outdoor programs for young boys and girls (Reviving Harry James’s Trailfinders).

Lolomi Lodge

When the James’s reached retirement age around 1946, a long-time friend gave to them a wonderful piece of property that Harry had occasionally camped on with his boys located high in the San Jacinto Mountains. They built a spectacular summer home from locally cut logs, and called it Lolomi Lodge, from the Hopi word for “peace.” It wasn’t long before Harry and Grace decided to move in full-time, and make Lolomi Lodge their permanent home. Many of his boys went on to become successful lawyers, scientists and business people, but would regularly find their way to visit Lolomi Lodge at least once a year. Harry even wrote a column for the Idyllwild newspaper, the Town Crier!

Lolomi lodge
Lolomi Lodge Image credit: Lobsang Wangdu

Harry spent most of his later years writing books and articles in-between battles with the Forest Service to protect the San Gorgonio wilderness. He founded the Desert Protective Council, an organization that continues to work today to expand Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. One of the few battles that Harry lost was opposing the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Harry made it one of his life-long goals to personally know the “movers and shakers of his time” as he called them. Two former Presidents of the United States are included in the Lolomi Lodge guest book, and based upon his personal letters, whenever the local district ranger would propose some obnoxious project in Harry’s backyard, Harry would simply call the Chief of the Forest Service in Washington to get things straightened out.

In 1965, close friend Professor Mildred Mathias, a UCLA professor of botany, suggested that Harry and Grace consider selling their land to the University of California to become part of the newly established Natural Reserve System. Mathias explained that they would be granted a life estate in exchange for allowing students and professors to use their property for teaching and research. The idea struck a chord with the Jameses, and in 1966 the Regents of the University of California established the James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve. The reserve is now part of a network of more than 41 ecological reserves encompassing over 47,000 acres, the largest university-administered network of reserves in the world.

If you were a Trailfinder with Harry and Grace James, and want to reconnect with other Trailfinders or know what is happening at the James Reserve, please email us at call us at 915-827-6836. We produce a newsletter twice a year and would be happy to send you either a paper or electronic copy. We can also share your information with the Trailfinders organization so you can reunite with fellow alumni.

Related links

Trailfinders collection at Calisphere, UC’s digitized collections gateway