by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When the town of Huntington Beach, named for Henry E. Huntington, transportation titan, real estate mogul and rare books and manuscripts collector (the art came just a little later, was founded in 1905, one of the more novel elements of the community was its “Tent City,” a ten-acre compound a bit west of downtown and built by the Methodist Episcopal Church for chatauqua-style meetings consisting of music, song, orations and other events in a large permanent auditorium with a capacity of about 2,000 persons. Surrounding the structure were large numbers of tents, most for rent by campers while others were used to provide food or for other purposes.
One of the first groups to utilize the tent city for about two weeks every August was the Southern California Veteran Association, a regional component of the Grand Army of the Republic, formed just after the conclusion of the Civil War and comprising veterans of the Union Army. G.A.R. “encampments” were held annually throughout the United States as former comrades in arms gathered in fellowship to recall the days when the nation was rent asunder by divisions of longstanding, most notably slavery, and plunged into four years of horrific conflict (and disease) that killed approximately 750,000 men.
The encampment of the SCVA began in the late 1880s, not surprisingly as the famed boom of that period was at its peak and so many migrants to the region were Civil War veterans. This was also the era in which the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers opened in Sawtelle, west of Los Angeles. Later, the organization included veterans of the Mexican-American War, Spanish-American War and generally any soldier who served on active duty. While it moved to various locations for its first seventeen years, the tent city at Huntington Beach proved to be so popular and convenient, including easy access to the site through Huntingon’s streetcar system that came to be known as the Pacific Electric Railway, that it remained there for a long period from 1905.
Tonight’s highlighted objects from the Homestead’s collection are two pamphlets and a flyer from the 1914 and 1915 editions of the encampment and the timing is notable because of the outbreak of the First World War, a conflict in which the United States was very determined to avoid joining. So, when the Los Angeles Times covered the 1914 edition of the encampment, its attempt at levity in describing the “invasion” of Huntington Beach seems a bit insensitive to the immense suffering taking place in Europe at the time.
In any case, the paper noted that
“Hundreds of ex-soldiers, ex-sailors and ex-marines of the wars and of the regular army and navy will start an invasion of Huntington Beach today with provisions to hold that place for ten or twelve days in military subjection i.e. of the unhostile kind . . .”
As far as the setting, the paper wrote strangely about “a veritable tent city resembling from outward appearances, any of those that have sprung up around many of the European cities involved in the war is awaiting the veterans.” Why the Times thought what was basically a massive campground near the balmy beaches of greater Los Angeles was in any way analogous to the dire situation of war-torn Europe is puzzling, to put it mildly.
The account went on to add that “the accommodations here will surpass anything ever seen on a battlefield,” all the more to question why the analogy was even considered. As far as what was provided, it included “electric lights, matting, a bed with springs and mattresses, washstand with bowl and pitcher, towels, soap, mirror, garbage can, broom, chairs and laundry of tent linen.”
In addition the grizzled veterans were joined by many wives who were members of ladies’ auxiliaries, while “friends and relatives are invited to stay through the encampment,” as well. The paper further observed that:
“The veterans will live over again in tales of valor and suffering told around the camp fires the days when the fought for ‘Old Glory.'”
In its coverage, the Los Angeles Express noted that special event elements for what was designed “Camp Sam Kutz,” after an SCVA officer, included an opening reception on the first day; a flag-raising the following morning; an evening campfire accompanied by drum corps performances; a reunion of veterans by their home states; a program by members of the auxiliaries; a children’s day; a mock court martial; a concert and dance; and others during the course of the fifteen days of the encampment.
For 1915, there was talk of moving the event to San Francisco or San Diego, apparently because the two metropolises were hosting major expositions, with the former being the site of the famous Panama-Pacific and the latter being the venue of the Panama-California, which, while lesser-known, was still a major event for that city and region. Organizers of the encampment, named “Camp Thomas B. Hartzell” after a G.A.R. notable and a well-known dentist, elected to stay in Huntington Beach and were expecting to have some 3,000 persons during the eleven days set aside for the event.
As planning continued, it was announced in the Santa Ana Register in early June that most days would be earmarked for specific locales and groups, including Huntington Beach Day; Tropico [Glendale] Post Day; Daughters of Veterans Day; Ladies of the G.A.R. Day; Whittier Post Day; Spanish War Veterans Day; and others. There was added detail in the Express including an address by the mayor of Huntington Beach; performances by local citizens; a comedy program; a dress parade; a trip to the national soldiers home at Sawtelle; and “a bean day,” in which all the baked beans one could eat were provided and which were to remind veterans of their days of eating out in the battlefield or camp site.
In its coverage, the Express reported that “the encampment will be the most largely attended in the history of the organization, as all friends of veterans and their families [the veterans, that is] have been invited.” One highlighted improvement in accommodations over the previous year had to do with the “bill of fare,” or food. Specifically, the paper observed, “pie, cake, ham and eggs, porterhouse steaks, flaky biscuits, and other good things will replace the bacon and hardtack [a hard cracker or biscuit] of war days.”
As for the Times, it fell back on its metaphors once more, opening its coverage with the declaration that “Huntington Beach has capitulated, Mayor [Eugene E.] French having surrendered unconditionally today” as the SCVA’s elected commander, A.M. Brown arrived from Colton. The paper did observe that no other organizations that met at the tent city during the course of the year “attract anything like the attention that greets the coming of the boys in blue who defended the flag.”
Moreover, the account continued, “no one else can get the same thrill from the fife and drum as the ones who furnished music on those memorable occasions, the soul-stirring notes quicken the step of both old and young; and those who have passed the allotted three score and ten [that is, age of seventy years] feel as young as they used to be.” In addition to reviewing the program, as noted above, there was the added amusement of the city marshal “arresting” anyone found not wearing the official encampment badge, including those who assumed they were meant only for veterans and their families.
There was, apparently, only one major problem that crept up during the course of the 1915 encampment, as Nathan Ward Fitz-Gerald, described as an author of “patriotic poetry,” apparently crashed the party and tried to sell his verse in defiance of encampment rules against commercial endeavors. Fitz-Gerald claimed he was invited to speak on one of the evenings, but officials not only denied this, but said the eighty-something poet had caused problems at past encampments in trying to sell his products and that he was so resistant to their efforts to stop him at this event that he had to be physically removed from the grounds. The aged versifier filed a $10,000 suit claiming he had been showered with both blows and insults, though it is not known what transpired beyond that.
As to the three artifacts, these include pocked-sized pamphlets for the encampments including general orders; tent city rates from $1.25 to $.2.25 per day for two to six persons and weekly and ten-day rates; a description of what was included with the accommodations; fares for transportation on the Pacific Electric streetcar system, ranging from forty cents from Santa Ana and Long Beach to a dollar from Monrovia, Whittier and Santa Monica as well as general notes on fares on the Santa Fe and Salt Lake railroads; baggage arrangements; the memorial roll of the deceased read out at a Memorial Sunday service; daily event listings and lists of officers, administration council members; auxiliary officers and others.
There is also a program flyer for a specific date, the 17th of August, for the 1915 encampment, with local advertisements on the border and the listing of twelve event components. These include the drum corps; solo singing; character impersonations by Peggy Pettijohn; comic performances; a whistling solo [this was definitely a thing in days of yore!]; a monologue; and the ubiquitous “darkey song,” a rendition of “Early in De Mornin'” sang by “Sambo,” said to be “Right from Alabama,” and almost certainly a white performer in black face. These racist presentations were all-too-common and accepted by the dominant demographic, but it seems even more strange given what the Civil War was fundamentally about.
These kinds of military encampments began to decline in ensuing years as the number of G.A.R. veterans dwindled rapidly and younger veterans found other ways to organize and commune. As for the tent city at Huntington Beach, it fell victim to the rapid development of oil prospecting, including by Walter P. Temple, as the 1920s dawned. Today, that section of town is a densely populated area and almost no traces of the tent city survive, save for an old building used as a corner market.
The pamphlets and flyer are, however, fascinating reminders of veterans events that were a major part of the summer festivities taking place in Huntington Beach in that city’s earliest days as well as about the role of memory, place and the recognition of veterans from the Mexican-American War to the 1910s.