Looking Back- The Rock House (aka Castle Oaks Garage) History of the Le Chêne Building
by Peter C. Gray
Le Chêne French Cuisine is a popular destination restaurant on Sierra Highway near Agua Dulce. The restaurant has been delighting customers with fine food and wines for 30 years.
The translation of the restaurant’s name “Le Chêne” means “The Oak”. This area has always been noted for its beautiful, centennial, oak trees. Starting in 1917, there has been a long tradition of naming businesses operating at this location after these magnificent oak trees.
The stone building where the Le Chêne restaurant is today has stood proudly for 87 years. The site was originally developed by the Dodrill family in the early part of the last century. The first family member came to America as a Revolutionary War Tory soldier. His nickname was “English Bill”. He was taken prisoner and later escaped. He wanted to stay in America so he changed his name from Doddridge to Dodrill. His grandson, William Arch Dodrill was born in 1888 in Stevens Creek, Lancaster County, Nebraska.
In June 1915, Dodrill’s 27-year-old grandson, William A. Dodrill, married 22-year-old Rachel Joyce Swanson at the Bible Institute in Los Angeles. Soon afterwards, they settled along what is now the Sierra Highway in Mint Canyon, just north of the present-day community of Sleepy Valley. They bought a parcel of land from Mr. Seeley who had homesteaded 160 acres there in 1912. The Dodrills built a roadside gas station which first opened for business in 1917.
It started as a simple wooden building with a tar-papered roof, and with just one gasoline pump out front. The Dodrills positioned the building right next to a majestic oak tree, and called their new enterprise the “Oaks Garage”. In the shade of this oak, they built an outdoor refreshment stand selling bottled drinks such as Puritas brand Root Beer and Ginger Ale. The outdoor counter was subsequently enclosed in a small structure erected in late 1918, or early 1919.
The family lived in a wooden building with a tent-covered roof set back directly behind this beautiful oak tree. This was a form of temporary shelter that was commonly used in that era. Their first daughter, June, was born during their first year of operation in 1917. A second daughter, Nellie, followed in 1921.
The Oaks Garage faced a dirt road known back then as Mint Canyon Road. In the early days, this route started as a pack-animal trail. During the 1910’s, it was widened into a dirt road suitable for vehicular traffic running between Los Angeles and Lake Tahoe. Between 1937 and 1964, it was renamed U.S. Route 6. It was part of the longest transcontinental highway crossing the country at the time.
In addition to selling gasoline and motor oil to passing motorists, the garage provided automobile repairs. Will Dodrill was a certified auto mechanic. It was a popular stop for day trippers travelling from Los Angeles to Palmdale or Lancaster, perhaps enjoying side trips to attractions like Vasquez Rocks and the Red Rover gold mine. The Dodrills also had a half ownership in a gold mine near Vasquez Rocks.
After the first few years of operation, the Dodrills decided it was time to expand the business. Using a horse and wagon, they hauled river stones from Big Rock Creek in the Valyermo area, south of Pearblossom. This trip took two days to complete in each direction. In 1923, they extended the main structure by building a cafe and a family home for themselves adjoining the garage. They used the stones stockpiled the previous year to build the outer walls. Rachel’s father, Gus Swanson, a bricklayer by trade, came to help with the construction. These attractive, rounded stones gave the new building a castle-like appearance, and it quickly became known colloquially as the “rock house.” It was subsequently referred to as the “Castle Oaks Garage and Cafe” on postcards from that era.
A line of five new gas pumps stood in front of the new building. They had a public telephone booth right next to the gas pumps. Their telephone number was The Oaks No. 1. In those days, first grade Economy gasoline cost 17 cents a gallon. They accepted Standard Oil “credit cards”, and they offered a AAA tow truck service. The new cafe started as a window counter, and was later upgraded to a long, elegant counter with about 20 bar stools.
As an eye-catching feature, they incorporated the large oak tree that used to shade the old refreshment stand into the front stone wall of the new building. It stood majestically between the garage on the right, and the new cafe on the left. A drinking fountain was installed at the base of this signature oak tree. Unfortunately, this oak was damaged by a truck in the 1960’s and it did not survive. It remained standing as a dead trunk until the end of 1980, when the last remnants were finally removed.
The Dodrills built five wooden cabins which are still in use today (two of them are now joined together into a single structure). They were rented as overnight accommodation to passing motorists. They also developed a campground among a pleasant grove of oak trees directly across the road.
Will & Rachel’s first-born daughter, June, married the apprentice mechanic. His name was Monte Boster and he started working with June’s father in the garage at age 16. They were married when Monte turned 21.
The Oaks operated continuously right through the Depression and WWII. After 30 years of successful operation, the Dodrills sold their Oaks Garage business in 1946. William Dodrill was almost 60 at the time, and was suffering from poor health. The couple retired to Fall River Mills in northern California.
The Dodrill’s eight grand children are proud of their grandparents’ achievements. They would like to have the building recognized as a historic landmark.
The new owners were Chester and Marie Lamar. They owned The Oaks establishment from 1946 to 1957. They paid $25,000 in cash for both The Oaks and the property across the street. They ran the business for eleven years as a gas station, garage, tow service, ambulance service, wrecking yard, bar and restaurant. They kept horses, cows, and pigs. The pigs ate the leftovers from the restaurant.
At first, they lived in two of the cabins next to The Oaks, while renting the others. They built a storage building across the road in the early 1950’s, and later built a home there with the help of Marie Lamar’s brother. A little known fact is they ran a water line under Highway 6 to supply water to this property.
Around 1949, they changed to Mobilgas brand gasoline. In order to get the account, the Mobilgas salesman made a deal where he agreed to exchange the old hand pumps and replace them with new electric gas pumps.
Marie Lamar had a sister, Shirley, who was married to Ray E. Jones. Ray and Shirley were original business partners in The Oaks for the first 6 years until the couple was divorced. Shirley ran away with the cook, Russell Winenger, whom she later married. After the divorce, Chester and Marie Lamar bought out their partners’ share in the business, and they became the sole owners around 1952.
The Oaks was a destination for many of the movie stars of the day. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans used to come by in their jeep to fill up with gas. William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy) would visit with his crew when they were shooting movies at Vasquez Rocks. “Hoppy” even used to help Marie Lamar in the kitchen. Jane Wyman would sit in the cafe and study her scripts. Mickey Cohan, the crime boss, was said to have conducted business while dining at The Oaks Cafe. He and his cohorts were regular customers. They were trying to attract cash investors in the oil fields near Newhall.
Clark Gable would park his motorbike outside and eat in the cafe. The Lamars’ grandson, Fred Sohegian Jr., relates a story about Clark Gable: “The Oaks was jammed, and Clark Gable was sitting at the counter. My grandfather always was in the garage or driving the tow truck or ambulance. If a cook didn’t show up, or they got busy, my grandmother would go get him to work, which he didn’t really like. He was waiting tables and Clark Gable stopped him and said, ‘ I have been waiting for service, and do you know who I am?’ My grandfather said, ‘ I know who you are’, and then asked if he knew who all these men were sitting at the counter and tables. Clark Gable says,’ no I don’t’. My grandfather told him that these were his regular customers and he can wait his turn, and kept going.”
During the 1930’s and 40’s, popular motocross events attracted other notable visitors from the Beverly Hills Motorcycle Club, including Gregory Peck, Wallace Beery, Keenan Wynn, and Lee Marvin. They came to ride their motorbikes in the hills across the street, or to watch the events. Other motorbike clubs that would visit from time to time were 13 Rebels, Galloping Goose, and the Hell’s Angels. The Lamars sold beer and sodas from coolers to the crowds at these events, in addition to normal service in the bar and restaurant. The roadway outside The Oaks would get so jammed with vehicles that police officers from Newhall had to be sent over to direct the traffic.
In 1957, Chester and Marie Lamar divided the property and sold it separately. They sold the stone building to Cindy Ferrero who ran it as a road-side diner and bar. She is described as a character reminiscent of the actress Zsa Zsa Gabor. After his release from jail in 1958, the serial killer, Charles Manson, tried to lease the house across the street from the Lamars. They refused.
The Lamars sold the remaining property and their house to Shauna Verbiesen in 1959. She still lives there today, now 93 years old. The Lamars moved to Fillmore, California, where they lived until Chester died in 1995 and Marie died in 1998. They were married 74 years.
In 1971, the Oaks building was made famous by the movie director, Steven Spielberg. He used it as a location in his feature-film debut, “Duel”. Now a cult classic, the success of this movie helped to establish Spielberg as a director.
“Duel” is the gripping story of a business commuter (Dennis Weaver) who is pursued and terrorized by a tanker-truck driver who tries to kill him with his truck for no apparent reason. The recognizable Castle Oaks building was the location for Chuck’s Cafe, a truck-stop diner featured in the movie. Several scenes were shot there, both inside and out.
“Duel” was first released as a 74 minute made-for-television movie in November, 1971. It was so well received by audiences that the producers asked Spielberg to shoot an additional 16 minutes of new material so a full feature-length version of the movie could be released theatrically in several countries around the world. The movie was nominated for a Golden Globe award, and won an Emmy.
By the mid-1970’s, the building was known as Margie’s Truck Stop, a business run by Marjorie Detterich. In 1976, Sandra Moore-Lang and family members purchased the property. The current owner of the “Castle Oaks”, Juan Alonso, leased the building in 1980 before buying the property in October the following year. In September, 1980, he started what is now the renowned Le Chêne French restaurant.
In 1987, Juan Alonso completely renovated the old garage area and turned it into a banquet room for special events. The kitchen was enlarged, and the whole building brought up to earthquake code. In 1990, a new dining-room wing was added, and the bar upgraded. It was also the year that the garden area was landscaped and planted.
Juan Alonso has established a 7-acre vineyard adjacent to the restaurant producing a variety of truly excellent wines. This wine-growing area was just awarded its own appellation; Sierra Pelona Ridge. The restaurant has a large underground wine cellar and boasts one of the finest wine lists in California, with a choice of almost a thousand specialty wines. Even the original mechanic’s pit had been used as a cellar to store wine, but was filled in just last year.
On September 8, the Le Chêne French restaurant celebrated its 30th anniversary, exactly 30 years to the day of its original opening.