By Diane Euston
By 1900, Kansas City swelled to over 160,000 people. The suburbs to the south had not been built, and the conditions of many of those who chose the city as their home were dire.
Located at 19th and McGee, McClure Flats housed the poorest of the city. The area lacked basic needs, including plumbing. An investigation in 1910 found that about 10,000 people in this slum didn’t have access to a bathtub.
Of course there were children living in this filth, and they are just a small sampling of the children who would become orphans or would be considered by city officials “neglected.”
Kansas City needed a solution for the many orphaned, runaway and neglected boys who made their way through the juvenile court system. The plan was to create a place where these wayward boys would be given the chance to work for a clean place to stay, and the program morphed into a summer camp in the outskirts of the city.
The Creation of the Boys’ Hotel
In the early 1900s, an organization called the Light Bearers’ Boys Club was created by a man named George M. Holt. He saw that young boys in the city who were already working to support themselves and their families didn’t have much to do, and when they were left to their own devices, they tended to get in trouble. He invited them into his home to play games and socialize, and as the program became more popular, they rented a hall to be used for the club.
Out of this effort, the Juvenile Improvement Association, later known as the Juvenile Improvement Club, was formed. In 1907, further concern for wayward boys was noted by the sheer number of homeless boys going through the court system. Judge Henry McCune of the juvenile division became the first president of this new organization.
Dr. E.L. Mathias, Rev. Daniel McGurk, pastor of Grand Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, and Dr. E.H. Skinner got to work setting up a program where these boys, about 30 in total, could stay in a safe environment and they would help them get jobs.
The hope was to create a viable social program for these boys that would keep them on a straight path. On the southwest corner of Admiral Blvd. and Locust, the first location of what became known as the Boys’ Hotel was opened. Boys 14 to 18 years old would pay two to three dollars per week for room and board.
Central to this long-term plan was Judge Edward E. Porterfield (1861-1933). Born in West Virginia, Porterfield was admitted to the bar in 1885 and moved first to Wichita. On a visit in 1886, Porterfield fell in love with Kansas City and decided to stay.
In 1907, Porterfield was appointed a judge, and two years later, he was moved into Judge McCune’s position and became the city’s juvenile court judge. It wasn’t a position anyone really wanted, because the situation with homeless, orphaned and neglected boys had become a systemic problem.
But Judge Porterfield was made for this position. He quickly noted that those children in front of him were often in dire circumstances with no way to overcome them. Many simply were stealing out of necessity, and most lacked any formal work training.
These different programs were created due to the popularity and extensive growth of the Juvenile Improvement Club. The Boys’ Hotel could only hold 30 people at the time, and Judge Porterfield knew they must fundraise in order to ensure the program was successful.
A New Location
In the summer of 1910, Judge Edward E. Porterfield – now president of the Juvenile Improvement Club- set aside his personal life to fundraise for a new “modern building” for the Boys’ Hotel. He needed the money and support of the community in order for this to happen.
One of the first $5,000 donations came from William Volker, and within that short summer, Porterfield was able to raise over $60,000 for the new hotel for boys.
In December 1910, the organization purchased land at 1601 Admiral Blvd. from the Shriners for the new location, and the building’s design was left to famed architect W.C. Root. Judge Porterfield told the Kansas City Star, “[The location] is near enough to town for the boys to get to work easily and is far enough to remove them from the temptation to go downtown at night.”
The new building held 125 boys and allowed for even more programs. Boys were given jobs outside of the Boys’ Hotel and had access to night classes given by two teachers supplied from Kansas City schools. The new Boys’ Hotel included medical care, a library, a recreation room and a large mess hall. The boys paid modest room and board and were encouraged to save the rest of their money.
The boys were even given etiquette classes, and “there were enough women about the place to give a touch of ‘mothering’ and to instruct the boys in the niceties of home life.”
In 1912, the Boys’ Hotel welcomed Charles B. Hahn (1882-1952) as their new executive director. Affectionately known as “Heinie,” he was “one of the most successful workers with the boys to be found anywhere.” Those residing in the Boys’ Hotel became known as “Heinie’s Boys.”
Heinie treated the boys with respect and dignity; he ensured that each boy knew that they were at home within the Boys’ Hotel. “His problem is my problem,” Heinie explained. “His personal welfare lies next to my heart.”
In 1921, the Juvenile Improvement Club joined the Boys Club Federation, a national organization devoted to the welfare of boys. The following year, the Boys’ Hotel got an extensive makeover when they added the Boys’ Club Memorial Building next to their original building on the east side.
Constructed for $100,000, the building was dedicated to eight former Boys’ Hotel residents who had died during World War I. It included an auditorium with a stage and a swimming pool.
The Memorial Building expanded the reach of the Boys’ Hotel to more than those boys who were without a home. It offered recreation for boys living outside of the hotel. Any boy in the community for a modest fee could participate in swimming, games and general play inside the gym.
Camp Bo-Ho-Ca on Blue River
In 1908, the Boys’ Hotel started a summer camp that would continue annually on land the Juvenile Improvement Club could rent. The first year was hosted on Indian Creek, and in 1909, the camp set up at 85th and Troost Ave. and was called “Camp Tomahawk.”
The establishment of a camp away from the city was a solution to a larger problem. As the Boys’ Hotel grew in size, younger boys between the ages of nine and 14 began to show up asking for help. Unfortunately, “it was found that boys from 12 to 14 did not mix well with those aged up to 18.”
The World War exacerbated this problem as so many fathers went off to serve and left their wives and children at home with no income to support them. The solution was to have a camp away from the Boys’ Hotel, and the younger boys moved to this site.
The Juvenile Improvement Club was able to expand their operations past the Boys’ Hotel in 1927 when Emma Siggins White (1857-1936), the widow of lumber baron John Barber White, donated the money to purchase land and establish a permanent campsite for boys.
The land was situated on a tract deep in the hills and included land on the Blue River. Located from approximately 126th St. to Martha Truman Rd. and accessible by the newly-excavated Blue River Rd., the campsite was a gorgeous, isolated getaway for the boys.
Around $10,000 was raised to erect eight cabins that fit approximately 15 boys each and were put on-site “in a sanitary and comfortable condition.” Names for the cabins included “Freckles,” “Barefoot,” and “Face of Tan.”
The Juvenile Improvement Club announced in a fundraising pamphlet, “We want to give that boy a chance of a summer outing whose father is not rich enough to send him to the expensive camps in Wisconsin, Michigan and Colorado and not poor enough to accept the offer of a free camp.”
Called Camp Bo-Ho-Ca, short for Boys’ Hotel Camp, the new spot was an hour’s drive from the Boys’ Hotel on Admiral Blvd. and was “wonderfully wild and quite adapted to boy work.”
In the wooded hills between Martin City and Red Bridge Rd., Bo-Ho-Ca’s buildings were located on a high hill overlooking a broad lowland where an athletic field was built.
By 1931, Bo-Ho-Ca was open to any boy in Kansas City. For four dollars per week, boys could camp for a period of two weeks or stay for the whole summer.
Camp Life at Bo-Ho-Ca
Managed by Charles B. Hahn “Heinie,” the camp composed of “real camping grounds with acres of oak, hickory, elm, ash and sycamore trees, plenty of open space for gardens and playgrounds through which the Big Blue winds its way for more than a half mile.”
Two permanent buildings were erected at Bo-Ho-Ca. White Hall, named for Emma S. White who donated the camp site, served as a mess hall where food was cooked by a woman “who [knew] how to please boys.” Three meals a day were served in “a screened and sanitary mess hall.”
The recreational building, first built of wood, was donated by Mrs. Julia Hurley, the wife of the Hurley Lumber Company empire. When that building burnt down in 1932, Miss Alice Hurley donated the money in honor of her parents to rebuild.
The boys at Bo-Ho-Ca decided to quarry their own stone on-site in order to build a sturdier structure where the new Hurley Hall included a library, a stage, a high-beamed ceiling and a large fireplace.
Bo-Ho-Ca was open in the summertime from June to August for the cost of 50 cents per day to boys 10-16 years old. No firearms or use of tobacco was permitted. Boys could leave for camp any Saturday in the summer where a truck would take the boys from the Boys’ Hotel to Bo-Ho-Ca.
Khaki clothes were strongly recommended for campers, and in the summer session, the program of activities would change daily. Boys could swim in the Blue River “under competent leadership.” Those who didn’t know how to swim were taught, and more experienced swimmers could use the dock and diving board fashioned on the banks of the river.
An “ample supply of boats” was available for everyone at Bo-Ho-Ca, and boys were taught to properly row and take care of the boats. Daily boat races kept things interesting for the competitive boys. In addition, boys would enjoy fishing but were advised to bring their own tackle from home.
The 10-acre field in the bottomlands of the Blue River, free from trees and wildlife, was used for baseball, horseshoes, croquet, archery and other outdoor games that the boys enjoyed. The “clean athletics” would ensure, according to the Juvenile Improvement Club, that “the weak and under developed boy will be looked after with as much care as his stronger and better developed brother.”
Nature studies and hikes through the umbrella of trees in the woods were enjoyed by the boys, and for at least an hour per day, they would tend to the garden on the property.
Although used mostly in the summer months, Bo-Ho-Ca was also made into a winter retreat. Thirty-five boys lived there year-round. The buildings were “warm and sufficiently heated by natural gas from the gas wells on the property.” White Hall and Hurley Hall both were equipped with electricity.
Judge Porterfield would visit the camp and “would sit for hours entertaining the boys, many of whom addressed him affectionately as ‘Uncle Port.’”
The Depression Opens a New Mission for the Boys’ Hotel
By the late 1920s, the Juvenile Improvement Club included three parts: the hotel for homeless boys, the boys’ club and the all-year camp for younger boys. Unfortunately, worldwide events were about to put a halt to many of the programs.
Some of Kansas City’s most well-known citizens such as R.A. Long and William Volker sat on the advisory board for the Juvenile Improvement Club. However, due to the Great Depression, funds quickly dried up. Central to the structure of the Boys’ Hotel was helping the boys find a job so they could contribute to their room and board. The Depression destroyed the ability to find employment.
In 1934, the Boys’ Hotel closed at 1601 Admiral Blvd., and Charles B. Hahn was without a job for the first time in two decades. The 40 boys who were still living there shook hands with Heinie and moved away. Heinie had dedicated himself to keeping these young boys straight and on the right path. Heinie even proclaimed, “I have been so busy with boys all these years that I have never had time even to get married.”
The trend in juvenile matters had shifted from “institutionalized care” like what was offered at the Boys’ Hotel to “foster home care” that is still prevalent today.
When Heinie stepped aside, he had successfully seen over 6,000 boys pass through the Boys’ Hotel. In 1935, John Thornberry took over the operation, and the name was changed to the Boys Club.
Instead of being a home for wayward children, the Boys Club focused “on recreation, interesting sports and competent guidance for boys,” the Kansas City Star wrote in 1960. Central to this new mission were powerful Kansas Citians J.R. Battenfield, H. Roe Bartle and Joyce Hall. Shortly after rebranding themselves, the Boys Club had 997 boys from Kansas City between the ages of 7-18 join their club.
In 1960, the Boys Club moved out of the building at 1601 Admiral Blvd. and the building became the headquarters of the City Union Mission. The building was utilized by the City Union Mission until 1977. The building that once housed thousands of youngsters as the Boys’ Hotel was demolished in 1989.
In 1976, the Boys Club began admitting girls and their name was changed to the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Kansas City. It survives today as an incredible organization devoted to children.
From Bo-Ho-Ca to Camp White
Started in 1927, Bo-Ho-Ca still had more life to give to young boys in Kansas City. Even though the Juvenile Improvement Club had restructured their mission, they still maintained the campsite near Martin City on the Blue River.
By the late 1930s, the name “Bo-Ho-Ca” faded out and the location became known as “Camp White.” The Juvenile Improvement Club began leasing out the camp to the Boy Scout Council for one dollar per year.
The location was used for overnight and weekend camping and also functioned as an adult leadership training ground. H. Roe Bartle would visit the campsite as he further developed the Boy Scout camp at Osceola. The Boy Scouts continued to rent the land until about 1965 when their focus moved completely to the renamed H. Roe Bartle Camp Reservation at Osceola.
In 1966, the land was acquired by Jackson County Parks and Recreation.
The Remnants of the Past Today
Today, the Blue River Parkway Trail System, maintained by Jackson County Parks and Recreation, stretches from Bannister Rd. south past Blue Ridge Blvd.
The 10-acre field once utilized by Camp Bo-Ho-Ca as a playground for sports is now a soccer field on Blue River Rd.
Nestled near the center of this network of dozens of trails directly across from the soccer field is a small clearing of brush that is likely missed by the cars that pass by. Once past the small clearing, the trail opens up the hill and exposes a peaceful canopy of trees.
I recently visited the site in order to recall what I had seen several years earlier, knowing I was going to write about this old campsite known as Bo-Ho-Ca. Although so much of the past involving the Juvenile Improvement Club has been bulldozed, some fragments of the scenic location of Bo-Ho-Ca miraculously remain.
As I headed up the slight incline, I noted the original stone gate of Bo-Ho-Ca resting in the overgrowth of the forest. And, as I took the trail slightly southwest, I met an intersection where trails named Basement and Bo-Ho-Ca intersect. There, I spotted what I remembered seeing years prior.
The stone foundation of one of the buildings from Bo-Ho-Ca, complete with a staircase that now seems to lead into more overgrowth, sits silently in midst of nature. Portions of the curved walls, architecture built to support the boys, stands. Jackson County Parks and Recreation made the decision years ago to demolish the buildings, but here some portions have endured.
Here, thousands of boys starting in 1927 were given the chance to explore nature outside of a crowded city. Here, the evolving mission of Judge Porterfield and Heinie blossomed and grew into a philanthropic operation past the walls of the Boys’ Hotel. And here, H. Roe Bartle and the Boy Scouts utilized the site with some of the same mission – to prepare the next generation with ethics, morals and values.
It is true that much of this site hidden on Blue River Rd. is a shell of its former glory. There are no more swimming holes and boats for boys to board – but the natural beauty of Bo-Ho-Ca remains and is open for all of us to explore and admire.
Diane writes a blog of the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.