History of Le CheneIt's quite a story!
The Rock House (aka Castle Oaks Garage) Becomes Le Chene
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. William Arch Dodrill was born in 1888 in Stevens Creek, Lancaster County, Nebraska. His grandparents had emigrated from England and settled in Virginia. His grandfather was in the Revolutionary War, was captured, escaped, and changed his name from Dodridge to Dodrill in order to stay in America.
It started as a simple wooden building with a tar-papered roof, and with just one gasoline pump out front. The Dodrill’s positioned the building right next to a majestic oak tree, and called their new enterprise the “Oaks Garage”. At the base 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 Oaks Garage faced a dirt road known at the time 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. In 1921, it was renamed US Highway 6.
In addition to selling gasoline and motor oil to passing motorists, the garage provided automobile repairs. William Dodrill was a trained mechanic. The Oaks Garage also offered a vulcanizing service. This is a curing process for treating rubber with sulphur or sulphur compounds under heat and pressure to improve elasticity and strength.
The Oaks Garage was a popular stop for day trippers traveling from Los Angeles to Palmdale or Lancaster, perhaps enjoying side trips to attractions like Vasquez Rocks and the Red Rover gold mine. The Dodrill’s also had a half ownership in a gold mine near Vasquez Rocks. It was also a place to stop for refreshments and supplies for longer trips to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On the front of the Oaks Garage, they painted the distances to destinations of interest to motorists traveling along this route, namely Palmdale, Lancaster, Mojave, Lebec, Bakersfield, Saugus, and Los Angeles.
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.
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 did not survive. It remained standing as a dead trunk until the end of 1980 when the last remnants were finally removed.
At first, they lived in two of the cabins next to The Oaks, while renting the others. They built a storage building across the street in early 1950’s, and later built a home there as well. 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 replaced 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 about 6 years until the couple were divorced. Shirley ran away with the cook, Russell Winenger, whom she later married. After the divorce, Chester and Marie Lamar bought out their partner’s 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) visited 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 café and study her scripts. Mickey Cohan, the crime boss, was also said to have conducted business while dining at The Oaks Cafe. He was a regular customer.
During the 1940’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 Hells Angels. The Lamar’s sold beer and sodas from coolers to the spectators at these events. The roadway outside The Oaks would get so crowded with vehicles that police officers from Newhall had to be sent over to direct the traffic.
“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 1975, the building was known as Margie’s Truck Stop, a business run by Marjorie Detterich. In 1979(?), Sandra More-Lang purchased the property. She is the owner of Bullwinkle’s gifts and antiques in Agua Dulce. The current owner of the “Castle Oaks”, Juan Alonso, leased the building in 1980 before buying the property 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 into a banquet room for special events. The kitchen was enlarged, and the whole building was brought up to earthquake code. In 1990, a new dining-room wing was added, and the bar upgraded. It was also the year the garden area was landscaped and planted.
The Le Chêne French restaurant will celebrate its 30th anniversary on September 8, exactly 30 years to the day of its original opening.
By Peter C. Gray is a freelance writer and amateur historian living in Agua Dulce.