The 1953 Boy Scout National Jamboree
The biggest single Scouting event ever to hit Orange County was the Third National Jamboree, held here in July 1953. Some 50,000 Scouts and Scouters from across the United States descended on the Irvine Ranch for seven days of fellowship and fun.
The Jamboree came to Orange County almost by accident. A group of California Scout Executives was meeting in Los Angeles early in 1952, and the subject of possible Jamboree sites came up. Several places were mentioned before Orange Empire Area Council Scout Executive “Skip” Fife casually observed that “the only place big enough around here to handle that many kids would be the Irvine Ranch.”
Region XII Executive Don Moyer quickly seized on the idea and sent Fife to see what he could do about it. Fife knew just the man to call, Orange Empire Area Council Executive Board member William H. Spurgeon III, a vice president of The Irvine Company. Spurgeon took the idea to Ranch Manager Brad Hellis (a member of the Council Advisory Committee), and then to Irvine Company President Myford Irvine. Irvine and Hellis spent two hours talking it over, and then said “Sure! We’d be glad to have them!”
The very next day, Moyer and Ray Bryan, Director of Physical Arrangements for the Jamboree, visited the proposed site with Fife and Spurgeon. “They asked a million questions,” Fife recalled, “and Spurgeon and I had to get them the answers. They wanted to know about rail facilities in the area, water facilities, rain figures, temperatures....”
Rail connections were the last stumbling block. About 75% of the Jamboree participants would be coming by rail. More negotiations followed with Santa Fe, the Southern Pacific, and the Union Pacific before everything fell into place. In March 1952 everyone was in agreement – the 1953 National Jamboree would be held in Orange County. It was the first (and last) time a Jamboree has been held on the West Coast.
The 3,000-acre site was located above Pacific Coast Highway between MacArthur Blvd. and the Back Bay. Orange County papers at the time always refer to the area as Corona del Mar. Fashion Island, Newport Center and the communities of Big Canyon and East Bluff cover much of the site today, and the main road through the site has become today’s Jamboree Road.
In September 1952, Ray Bryan opened the Jamboree headquarters on the ranch and began directing the work of preparing the site. His assistant was former Orange Empire Area Council acting Scout Executive Jay Clements. The Austin Sturtevant Co. of Santa Ana got the contract for much of the work.
And there was plenty to do. Dirt roads had to be graded (about half of which would later be paved during the development of the area), miles of water lines installed (along with four miles of sewer pipe), 1,224 troop campsites had to be laid out, plus sub-camps and the headquarters area. Then there were electrical and phone lines to be strung (the Jamboree had its own exchange – dial Jamboree 1-9-5-3), and 4,500 latrines to be dug (after the Jamboree, eucalyptus trees were planted in many of the holes).
The Jamboree site was nothing less than a temporary city, and during its one-week lifespan it had a population about the same size as the City of Santa Ana. There were commissaries, and trading posts, and hospitals, and post offices, and fire crews, and about 30,000 tents. The First National Bank of Santa Ana even opened a branch office at the Jamboree.
The fee for the Jamboree was just $48 per boy, and yet they still turned a profit, and refunded each camper $13.50. The Irvine Company donated the site and some of the preparations, which helped keep the costs down, and lots of equipment was borrowed from the military.
The Jamboree officially began on July 17, 1953, but the first Scouts began arriving on the 12th. For the next four days they arrived at a rate of over 10,000 a day. 36,000 of them arrived by rail at one of four railroad stations – Santa Ana, Fullerton, East Lost Angeles, and Puente. There they boarded buses for the Jamboree. The total attendance, with Scouts, Scoutmasters, and staff was 51,680. The Newport-Balboa News-Times reported, “The once drab hills of Irvine Ranch are blossoming with the color of bright green tents, gigantic camp entry ways, troop flags and thousands of eager youngsters in Scout khaki or Explorer green.”
Naturally, both Orange County councils were well-represented. Since the Jamboree was held in its territory, the Orange Empire Area Council was the “Host Council” for the event. They sent 172 Scouts in five contingent troops – Jamboree Troop 1 under Howard Ulrich, Troop 2 with Harold Hall as Scoutmaster, Troop 3 led by Wayne Kohager, Troop 4 under Cliff Kasad, and Troop 5 with Ralph Gates as Scoutmaster. Troop 2’s campsite gateway was one of the stand outs of the Jamboree. Since the troop was primarily Scouts from coastal Orange County, the father of one of the boys (cartoonist Virgil Partch, better known as “VIP”) designed a gigantic King Neptune gateway, waving in welcome.
Another 105 local Scouts came with the Northern Orange County Council’s three contingent troops – Troop 26 with “Red” Knaus as Scoutmaster, Troop 27 under Wayne Herbst, and Troop 28 led by Dale Miller.
Besides all the American Scouts, about 125 Scouts from 16 countries also attended the Jamboree. The most unusual contingent was a Scoutmaster and four Scouts from St. Jerome, Canada, who chartered a taxi to drive them to the Jamboree! (The $700 fare, they explained, was cheaper than train tickets.) Unfortunately, they had failed to make reservations, and were not allowed to camp on the Jamboree site, or anywhere within 50 miles of it (the usual rule for Scouts during a Jamboree). Santa Ana Scoutmaster Paul Gustlin finally came to their rescue, and invited them to stay at his home, and visit the Jamboree from there.
The opening ceremony was held on the “Avenue of Flags” leading up to the headquarters (near the site of Corona del Mar High School today). After the American Flag was raised, the flags of 54 other nations around the world that had Scouting organizations were all raised together. Comedian Bob Hope would later dub the Jamboree, “the United Nations in short pants.”
The opening show was held in the main amphitheatre (now part of Big Canyon). Just getting all those Scouts into the amphitheatre was a show in itself. From the farthest subcamps, boys began marching towards the amphitheatre two abreast. As they passed the next camp, two more lines joined them, then four more, then eight, and so on, until they were perhaps 24 abreast parading into the amphitheatre.
The show that first night was a historical pageant entitled “The Building of a Nation.” It began with a single Scout on the vast stage, talking about his first trip across the country coming to the Jamboree. Then an old timer (played by cowboy sidekick Chill Wills) entered, and traced the history of the United States through various eras and areas – Washington at Valley Forge, the California Gold Rush, the driving of the Golden Spike. Each scene was played out on a grand scale, with covered wagons, mock Indian battles, and two genuine steam locomotives on specially laid rails. Some 10,000 people (mostly Scouts) took part in the show in front of an audience of over 50,000.
A filmed address from President Eisenhower was shown, and California Lt. Governor Goodwin Knight spoke, as did Myford Irvine who said, “I can say this is the greatest moment of my life and I hope for you also. On behalf of the Irvine Ranch I extend to you a welcome as big as all outdoors.”
The next day, Vice President Richard Nixon arrived, and spent the night with the Scouts from Whittier. The next morning, he helped the boys cook breakfast, then set off to walk around the Jamboree (wearing shorts, no less!) to visit with the boys and hand out autographs. 40,000 other visitors showed up at the Jamboree that day.
Another campwide show was held that night. As it was Sunday, the theme was “My Duty to God.” “It is far more important than perhaps you realize,” Nixon told them, “that this extraordinary organization of yours has dedicated itself to the spiritual side of youth growth, as well as the physical, and that the establishment of peace is the concern of every one of you.” The evening closed with a candle-lighting ceremony in the darkened amphitheatre, each Scout sharing the flame with his neighbor until the arena was filled with light. Then they all stood together to repeat their Scout Oath.
Tuesday night’s show was Hollywood’s Salute to Scouting, with Bob Hope as master of ceremonies and a parade of stars – literally, as the stars were driven through in open cars. Among the luminaries attending were Danny Kaye, Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, Lash LaRue, June Allison, Rory Calhoun, Dick Powell, and Will Rogers Jr.
As often seems to happen at Jamborees, the weather was also memorable. This time it was a heat wave, with temperatures up over 100º by the time the Scouts arrived. All this made the freshly cleared Jamboree site that much dustier and the nearby coastline all the more popular. Arrangements were made to use about a mile of Huntington Beach State Park as the Jamboree swimming area, and every Scout got two chances to ride the buses down to the water. The swimming was done in proper BSA style, complete with “buddy checks” hollered out over a loudspeaker system. Meanwhile, local Sea Scouts patrolled the Back Bay to try to stop any unauthorized swimming there.
Another popular activity at the Jamboree was “swapping.” Next to each of the six trading posts was a Swap Tent, but the swapping went on most everywhere. Patch trading was not the big attraction that it would later become. Scouts at the 1953 Jamboree swapped just about anything you could imagine – live snakes, bottles full of dirt from Harry Truman’s home in Missouri, horned toads, water from “the rivers of the world,” abalone shells, rats, square nails from California ghost towns, frogs, starfish, rabbits, avocados, lizards, rocks, one Scout even brought bags of water, which he claimed were snowballs from the previous winter.
Orange County Sea Scouts swapped pieces of a 200-year-old Chinese Junk. Orange Empire Troop 1 got a carload of cow horns from a Los Angeles packing plant and fixed them up like powder horns to hold survival kits. Everyone tried to bring something intriguing or something distinctive from their part of the country. “Some boys will try to see how many different things they can amass,” the Newport-Balboa Press reported, “others will be striving for one thing which they spotted early in the Jamboree.”
Before, during, and after the Jamboree, the Scouts visited many other Southern California attractions. The West also came to them in the form of two big rodeo grounds on the Jamboree site, where stars such as Monty Montana performed.
The Jamboree finally came to an end on July 23. One last show was held in the big amphitheatre, with 90,000 people in attendance. “Auld Lang Syne” was the last song sung, and then the exodus began.
Over the next four days the Scouts left at an even faster pace than they had arrived. By the 28th, the place was a ghost town. Ray Bryan, the Director of Physical Arrangements, had been the first to arrive in September of 1952. On September 15, 1953 he was the last to leave. The 1953 Jamboree passed into history.