I have heard many stories abut the Youth Center’s beginnings in the Los Alamitos area, but never a definitive, documentable explanation. And I suspect, as often happens with institutional histories, many innocent errors have morphed into “truths.” So the point of this article is to try to begin a process to document the real origins of the Youth Center.
What are the origins of the Los Alamitos Youth Center? A few years ago this was on their website:
In 1952, Los Alamitos was a growing rural rancho area. The main industries were sugar beet processing and dairy farms. Many of the residents were farmers, laborers or were employed by the large processing factory. Los Alamitos did not become an incorporated city until the 1960’s.
The Youth Center was the vision of community members who were concerned with potential youth delinquency. At that time, young people of the community had no options for productive after school activities or youth development programs.
Okay, even granting some literary license, by 1952 while there were still some sugar beets growing in the area, but since the 1920s, the beets were processed at Santa Ana, and then Brawley in the Imperial Valley. And while many residents were still “farmers or laborers”, a look at the census and directories tell us more worked at stores in town or at the growing Los Al Race Track, the Navy Air Base or in Long Beach at the shipyards, or the oil drilling rigs or refineries, or were even mechanics, line workers, or engineers at the nearby aviation companies. Some were teachers at the new Long Beach State or executives , in the growing Central Manufacturing District which was rapidly expanding down the new Santa Ana Freeway from East LA to Downey.
And, as for kids… granted, compared to now, there weren’t as many organized things to do, but old timers recall this as a great place to grow up. The whole community was your backyard. Jim Bell, Jr. would talk of hunting all over where Rossmoor is now, or in the Eucalyptus Grove by Old Ranch, of hunting for pheasant at Haagsma’s Dairy (“but don’t shoot my cows.”), or driving out the dirt road of Katella to Coyote Creek or east to Irvine Lake to go fishing.
But still there was a need for more organized events — skate, play basketball, hold dances, etc. Thus, the need for a Youth Center.
The Los Alamitos Youth Center’s beginnings go back to the late 1940s when Grace Johnson, the sometimes secretary (and even President during the war years) of the Chamber of Commerce began to push for a meeting place for the town’s youths. After Johnson died unexpectedly (in June 1949), a Press-Telegram newspaper article from July 17, 1949 mentions that Mrs. Ellen Fultz, acting Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce said that a Youth Center would be built through the cooperation of all organizations in the community and these organizations would meet on July 21 to decide where to place the new Grace Johnson Youth Center. “Present sentiment is on Katella, just east of Laurel School.”
Two weeks later (Aug. 6, 1949) the Press-Telegram announced that the campaign received its first donation ($100 from the Community Church, through Jim Watts) had already scheduled two events — a dance at the Fire Station and a calf to be auctioned off. Community members also decided that proceeds from their second Fall Festival would go towards the construction of their new Youth Center. Plans for the center were submitted to the county in January 1950 and a slab had been poured. This was certainly an improvement over the sites previous dust and mud but funds to complete the building remained elusive, even though a good portion of the Fall festival continued to go to the Youth Center Fund.
Marilynn Moore Poe, former Mayor and longtime city council member, who has been around Los Alamitos since she was two years old, remembers her neighbor and future father-in-law, Mr. William C. Poe, Jr., being involved with the campaign and telling her they could never really get over the financial hump to build much. But some of the local parent volunteers worked for Frank Vessels at his new Los Alamitos Race Track, and Frank Vessels Jr. was on the Fall Festival committee, and Poe, the only attorney in town at the time, did some legal work for Vessels. Somehow Vessels Sr. volunteered his financial help — for a price. “Vessels wanted to expand his racing card,” said Marilynn Poe. At the time the California Horse Racing Board was only granting him a couple weeks of racing. So he said, “You need money. I need another day of racing. I’ll help the center if you get me another day of racing.” The betting proceeds from one of the races on a given day could be donated to a charity — but the charity couldn’t have a person’s name on it.
This all seems to make sense to us. After a long struggle amidst much opposition from the thoroughbred horse racing establishment, Vessels finally got approval from the State Horse Racing Board to hold races with parimutuel betting in December 1951. Although it rained 10 of the meet’s 11 days, the Racing Board recognized Vessels’ hard work and gave him another season in Spring 1952. In February they announced he could also have two charity days. Designated charities could receive any profits (money beyond that day’s operational expenses). So Vessels would definitely be looking for a local charity. Not only was it good for the local charity, the track’s share of the additional days helped him amortize some of his track expenses.
Vessels main attorney was George Hart, of the powerhouse Long Beach firm of Ball, Hunt & Hart, (Hart was also on the track’s Board of Directors). But Vessels and Vessels Jr. likely knew Poe well, and his involvement with the Youth Center. So Poe convinced the Los Al group to change the name from the Grace Johnson Center to the Los Alamitos Youth Center. Vessels got his additional racing days, the Center got recurring funding from a once-a-year race which helped it finish its building campaign, and Grace Johnson’s name got tossed into the dustbin of history.
The first races benefitting the Youth Center took place in October 1952. The progress of the new building’s construction is detailed in newspaper articles. In a January 22, 1954 page one article in the Enterprise on building permits:
Building activities in northwestern Orange County, from Buena Park to Los Alamitos, picked up during the week, aggregating nearly $100,000 in value permits in the unincorporated territory. Principal building item was a $50,400 Youth Center at Los Alamitos.
So obviously, with plans to construct a $50,500 (over $400,000 in current dollars) building already in the bureaucratic pipeline, this discussion had to be at least 4-5 months old. Two weeks later, on Feb. 12, 1954, the Enterprise reported in a Page 1 article headlined “Committees for ’54 are Appointed by Los Alamitos C of C President.”
Tom Harris, Chairman of the building committee for the Los Alamitos Youth Center, was present to bring the group up to date on the latest developments of the Youth Center building program.
He said they hoped to have the building completed this year. The finished building will cost from $25,000 to $40,000, it is estimated.
Harris told the members that 14 groups are now active in the Youth Center program, and it is extremely successful,
Harris presented Larry Smith, who spoke on behalf of the Los Alamitos teen-agers, concerning dances for the youth. He told of the successful dances they had last year, but said they had to be discontinued because of lack of chaperones.
After Smith finished, Harris told of a plan that has been formulated to continue the dances. He will contact each organization in Los Alamitos and ask them to furnish three couples who will chaperone the dances and a few dollars for refreshments for the dances. In this way no one group will have the burden fall on them very often. The Chamber was very receptive to the idea.
Bernie Pica, whose family moved to Los Alamitos in 1951 when he was a teenager, was soon hanging around the Los Al race track and ranch, finding work doing little chores here and there. While hanging around the Vessels ranch, he recalls a call for workers to help out with the Youth Center. “They were looking for construction trade volunteers to help with it. I helped sheath and nail the roof one weekend and later worked on framing the upstairs in the back of the center.” [ref] email from Bernie Pica, Dec. 18, 2011.[/ref]
The photo to the left from a May 1954 Enterprise confirms that the Youth Center was receiving significant funds from the track. Noteworthy are the comments of Dale Kroesen, the Enterprise editor-publisher who goes out of his way to thank the state horse racing board, which makes me think the money came more from the charity day operations than any specific individual Vessels contribution.
From newspaper reports at the time, it seems the adults were more concerned with helping the local youth find a local place to hold dances at night, to keep them from going elsewhere for trouble, rather than getting in trouble after school. As for the last sentence, I believe William Poe II, who was involved in the Youth Center formation, was a lawyer, not a doctor. Poe was certainly involved, but to say he “spearheaded” the efforts is not documented by newspaper articles of the time who give the credit to Tom Harris, or later articles which give Race Track owner Frank Vessels Sr, even more credit. [But trust me, I realize newspaper articles are not always the ultimate authority.]
There is no more mention of the project in the pages of the Enterprise until much later that year when the October 14, 1955 when the Enterprise reported
At the Chamber meeting last week, C.J. Curtis reported on the developments of the Youth Center in connection with the possibility of joining with the Boy Clubs of America. A vote was taken and the majority agreed to recommend joining the national group.
The Dec. 17, 1954 Enterprise:
An annual Community Christmas program has been scheduled for Tuesday night at 6:30pm in the new Youth Center building by the Los Alamitos Chamber of Commerce it was announced this week by the Chamber secretary, Mrs. A.J. Labourdette.
The building probably was completed in a minimal state at first, because multiple sources state the formal opening of the Youth center was in December 1957. But the center was obviously being used prior to that because of references such as these:
From the March 9, 1956 Enterprise, on a report of the March Los Alamitos Chamber of Commerce meeting.
C.J. Curtis and Josephine Baker are representatives for the Youth Center. A.C. Brown, who did represent the Chamber is now Youth Center President and cannot represent another group.
The Youth Center that was built was a different animal than the one occupied today. Newspaper articles tell us the Center had two basketball courts. It also was open for skating. The Nov. 1, 1956 Enterprise tells us:
Two Times Set for Skating at L.A. Youth Center
LOS ALAMTOS— Saturday evenings have been divided into two time periods, one for skating for younger children, and one for older children.
Chaperones Mrs. Jo Baker and Mrs. Russ Munday, said that the younger ones should come from 6:30 to 8pm, and the older ones from 8 to 9:30 p.m.
Skaters are asked to furnish their own skates and transportation.
Despite the request there was apparently a shortage of equipment. A week later (Nov. 8) the following letter appeared in the Enterprise:
Last Saturday night at the Los Alamitos Youth Center a skating party for the youth of the community was held free of charge. The one requirement was that each bring their own skates. Of the 36 or more that showed up, there were only about 12 with skates. If you can help us run this program by donating old or no longer used skates, please call E.W. Scholl at HE-9-5493 and he will pick them up at your home.
The skates collected will be kept at the Youth Center as loan-outs for partys. Thank you. THE SKATING COMMITTEE
That same issue showed us that the Boy Scouts also used the facility to host their Court of Honor, and that the Business Association planned to use it to host their annual Christmas Party.
The interior was big enough it was also the site for the most of the activities for the Los Alamitos Festival held in early October 1956. It hosted many booths sponsored by local organizations, and the Youth Center stage was used to host entertainment and the Festival Beauty contest. (That year’s winner, Jeanne Miller, would return to the Youth center a year later with the State Fair Maid of California title under belt. )
The Enterprise’s Letters to the Editor” section had the following fairly complete surmisal of the Youth Center’s 1956 activities.
The public might like to know how the Los Alamitos Youth Center activities are progressing and the amount of money collected from the recent drive and what it is going to be used for. First the activities now in progress.
Mrs. Randolph donated a pair of roller skates to start roller skating which is every Saturday evening from 6:30 to 9:00 with about 70 youngsters and 10 to 12 adults participating in and having lots of fun. More help is needed on the floor. Anyone for roller skating?
Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts are using the hall a few afternoons and evenings a month for their activities.
The recently formed activities committee headed by Leo Domas, and assisted by Earl Scholl, Don Mitchell and Russ Munday, organized a fundraising drive, assisted by Boy Scouts, who distributed handbills stating when. $320.00 was collected by Den Mothers, Boy Scout Mothers, Girl Scout Mothers, and just mothers all over town and a great big thanks goes to scouts and mothers who participated to make the drive a success.
Mrs. Lois Anderson presented a check of $265.89 to Bud Cook which was the amount of money left in the Alamo Property Owners Association. These were property owners living from Lexington Street, east a few streets of which the association, being now dissolved, decided to use the money for equipment for the youth center, therefore the donation. Total cash for equipment to date $585.89 of which $81.00 was spent for doors inside the building so the smaller equipment could be locked up and signed out when activities were in progress.
Some equipment also was donated by those listed below:
- Mr. and Mrs. W.S. Brown donated a basketball and softball.
- Mr and Mrs. Dick Fulford donated the basketball hangers and backstops mounted in the building right after January 1st.
- Mr. Sandkamp, owner of Jess’ Cafe, donated a shuffleboard.
- Mr. and Mrs. Bud Cook donated a shuffleboard set being used already.
- Mr. Gillium of the Sanitarium donated a 10-gal. ice cream freezer.
The equipment which will be bought is listed below:
- carom boards
- volleyball set
- tennis set
- checkers, dominoes
- tetherball set
- and possibly, tumbling mats. If we can find anyone interested in donating his or her time to instruct same, contact Mr. Hammers, HE 8-6228 or Mr. Munday, HE 9-5493, for roller skating help.
W.S. Brown for help in coaching basketball and softball. Needed yet is help for the rest of the activities. Leo Domas, HE4-7827, Don Mitchell HE9-2562, or Earl School HE9-5493 are numbers to call for donation of your time, You can assists or direct any of the activities.
If anyone who has donated in the past for the construction of the Youth center or helped in any way hasn’t been thanked for your help or donation, please accept the thanks of the rest of the community for the building being completed as far as it is today. — Thanks a million — from The Members of the Youth Center, Inc., The Members of the Youth Center Activities, and the Members of the Youth Center, Inc. at large.
The February 28, 1957 Enterprise (p. 5) carried another long report on the Center’s progress.
LOS ALAMITOS — Another milestone was passed in the completion of the Los Alamitos Youth Center recently when Southern California Edison hooked up the service from the building.
The opening date of The Youth Center for activities still hinges upon the completion of the following:
- shelves to be erected in the locker room.
- paintings of the various courts on the floor
- replacing broken windows
- erecting the basketball backstops
- and hanging of the doors
Help is still needed for the above jobs so let’s not work the same four or five people till they give up, committee officers asked.
[TEXT STILL TO BE ENTERED]
New officers FOR 1957 are Leo Domas (a teacher at Laurel), President; Carl Hammers, Vice-President; Aline Cook secretary-treasurer; and five on the Board of Directors: Mr. and Mrs. Russ Munday, Katie Stein, Don Mitchell and Ray Baker.
But while the Center had a very active schedule, it still was not complete. In fact, some utilities still had not been connected. Below is from the 1967 Chamber of Commerce Business Directory.
A ten-year old facility which furnishes area youth with recreational activity ranging from craft instruction to basketball and table tennis is available as a result of a truly community effort.
The idea was conceived by the Chamber of Commerce, but it took all of the clubs and organizations in town, plus interested individuals, several years to make it a reality.
After the clubs had raised some money and proceeded with the project, the late Frank Vessels, Sr, took an interest. With personal donations and cooperation with building firms with which he has contact, he pushed the final work on it and the center was completed and the doors opened December 7, 1957.
Receives Charity Funds
Mr. Vessels and his family assured basic annual financial aid to the center in the form of a yearly grant of charity funds from the race track which they operate. The rest of the money needed to operate the facility is acquired by fund-raising activities of the center itself, plus occasional donations of both money and equipment from area clubs.
Director Gale Reid has been with the center since its beginning. The activities of the more than 600 youths who belong under his guidance, and they include the badminton, basketball on the Center’s two courts, volleyball, pool tables, TV and a conference room, shuffleboard, tumbling, table tennis, crafts and other types of recreation, including regular dances for teenagers. Plans are being made for additional sporting facilities to be built on additional land recently acquired by the Center.
The Center is located at the corner of Katella and Los Alamitos Blvd. , and the phone number is 431-2670.
Further adding to the confusion is this article from the December 13, 1957 Enterprise:–
700 ATTEND OPENING OF NEW YOUTH CENTER.
Among those attending were Frank Vessels, principal supporter of the center and Jim Bell, long-time President of the Los Al Chamber of Commerce. Among those youth in attendance were three who “made good.” Richard Austin, 1957 U.S. marbles champion, Jeannie Miller who was crowned Miss 1957 Maid of California at the State Fair (but only after beginning that journey by winning the Los Alamitos Festival Fall 1956 beauty crown), and singing star Kenny Otte, who won many major on-air talent contests on both radio and TV and had his own half-hour show in Las Vegas. Otte was the voice of Eddie Cantor as a boy in “The Cantor Story.”
Per Luretta Moeser, (in her 20-page History of Los Alamitos, dated March 1, 1976) the Youth Center Building was sold in 1971and made into office buildings. The city at this time appointed a full-time Recreational Director and built a small Community Center on 10921 Oak St. to better serve all its citizens. On Jan. 25, 1975, groundbreaking ceremonies for the construction of a new 7800 sq. ft Recreational and Social Center and a gymnasium complex. This was finished by the sale of the Old Youth Building, and money from the Federal Funding Program. It is being built adjacent to the present Community Center on Oak St. and the new facility will provide an area to accommodate a full range of recreation and entertainment for its citizens of all ages. Plans are made for the opening in May of 1976. The Gymnasium at Oak Middle School was a joint effort with the Anaheim Union High School District (whose interest transferred to the Los Alamitos School District upon unification), the City of Los Alamitos, and the County of Orange (which was acting on behalf of Rossmoor). ‘
As with any history, this story is a work in progress. If you have confirmed info on the early days of the Youth Center, please feel free to contribute your information. We admit we are still quite confused at times.