From Scout Camp to University

April 01, 2021

By Frank Perry

Over the years I have had the pleasure of recording and sharing through these pages the memories of several people with a first hand or family link to the history of the UCSC campus lands. John Law Smith is unusual in that he has multiple connections — two from when it was the Cowell Ranch and two from after it became UCSC.

John grew up on 9th Avenue in Twin Lakes just east of Santa Cruz. His mother was raised in Capitola, and it was in Capitola that his parents met while his father was painting the old fire station. They married in 1935.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s his father worked for the Pacific Limestone Products Company. The company quarried limestone at the north end of Spring Street, adjacent to the Cowell Ranch. The company made poultry grit and other products under brand name “Kal Kar.”

Just before the war, when John was four or five years old, his father would let him ride in the company’s eighteen-wheel truck and trailer. They would head down to the Southern Pacific’s Eblis Siding (aka Potrero Siding) that ran parallel to the South Pacific main line and Quintana Street. His father would pull up next to an empty boxcar and use a special pallet to make a bridge between the bed of the truck and floor of the boxcar. “Soon the really hard work would begin. I can’t remember how long it took my father to unload the truck and trailer. It must have been a good half day’s work.” His father used a small hand truck to transfer the 100-pound sacks of chicken grit to the boxcar, three or four at a time. John watched his dad make trip after trip from a vantage point on top of the pile of sacks, “so he could keep and eye on me.”

When he was a little older, John joined the Boy Scouts, eventually achieving the rank of Eagle Scout. He still has vivid memories of the grand “Camporees” held by the local troops on what is now the upper UCSC campus.

“That was a weekend event done once a year, basically to bring all the scouts in the community together. It included Sea Scouts, Explorer Scouts, and Boy Scouts. The 450-500 Boy Scouts formed up at the head of Spring Street.” From there they hiked up the hill to Chinquapin trail and along that to Marshall Field.

“We’d set up our campsite, then show off our outdoor skills.” These included everything from lashing poles together to make a lookout tower or signal tower, to demonstrations of semaphore and knot-tying.

“We had the basic Boy Scout mess kit, which included an aluminum frying pan with a top that served as a plate, a fork, knife, and spoon, and various small pots.” Each group was responsible for their meals. Sometimes they would dig two trenches, pile up the dirt between them, and put canvas over the dirt to make a table. To eat at the table, the boys would sit on the ground with their legs down in the trench.

“First aid was a big part of scouting, and there were demonstrations on how to use first aid items. There would be opportunities to do things at the Camporee that counted towards a particular merit badge. There was hiking, forestry, woodworking, and so forth.”

In the 1950s, his dad always had a couple of horses and would volunteer to help Les Strong (see LKC, Spring/Summer 2015) harvest hay at various farms in exchange for some of the hay. “He’d load up his horse trailer a couple of times, bring it back to his barn, and be in good shape for the winter.” Somewhere around that time is when Les started working on the Cowell Ranch (now UCSC). “I guess he worked for George Cardiff. The Cowell Ranch had a big D7 Caterpillar there, and I loved tractors! Somehow or another I convinced Les that I could do some disking for him, in fact I’d love to do some disking. Lo and behold, one year he says, ‘John, you still want to do that tractor work?’ Yea! ‘Well, see this field out here, we’re gonna plant some winter oats. How would you like to disk that whole area up?’ I didn’t know how big it was, but he gave me a little instruction on the D7 and I disked up that whole area.” This was where the faculty housing is today at the base of the campus (bordering West Lake School) and also up toward the lower quarry. “It was a three-day job, as I remember. The first afternoon I got off the tractor, all I could see in the rearview mirror of my truck was two white eyeballs and a red tongue. I was covered with reddish dirt from head to foot. What a kidney-jarring experience that was.”

The Cowell Ranch also ran cattle. “In the spring, they’d have a roundup. So I’d get one of my college buddies who loved to ride horses. He and I, dad, Les, and a couple of others would go out hunting for cows, round them up, and bring them back. That was quite an experience. Not many kids get a chance to do that. We were strictly volunteers, but we didn’t hesitate at all. It was a heck of a lot of fun.”

John got to meet Old Joe, who was mentioned in the last LKC and several other issues. “He was pretty bent over by then, but he told some stories. Probably the most interesting one—and I shared this many times with my cohorts up at the University—was about sinkholes. They used to throw the renderings from butchered cattle in the sinkholes. He told a story about going into one with a couple of other fellows. It was cavernous and so large that one could ride a horse down to the ocean in this cavern. I had no reason to doubt him, you know? Then I’d get remarks from someone and I’d begin to wonder if Joe was pulling my leg.”

While Joe’s story was surely exaggerated, there are no shortages of voids in the campus limestone, as the University would later discover during the planning and construction of some of the buildings.

John attended Monterey Peninsula College and San Jose State in the 1950s and served in the Army from 1960 to 1962. Upon returning to Santa Cruz, he went to work for his father and developer Howard Dysle on the Rolling Woods subdivision. There, he worked part time outdoors as a carpenter and part time in the office as an estimator.

After gaining experience at that job, he was recruited by UCSC personnel manager John Mortenson to work as a building inspector for the Office of Architects and Engineers, or A&E. This later became Physical Planning and Construction.

During his four years with Physical Planning, he witnessed first hand the construction of many of the campus’s early buildings. “Jack Wagstaff was the Campus Architect. Louis Fackler was a mechanical engineer, basically number two in the department. At any given time there were four to seven architects in the office and an electrical engineer. Harry Tsugawa was the campus landscape architect. Then there were the field guys, who were basically construction inspectors. That’s where I landed.”

“Physical Planning was the liaison between the executive architectural firms out of San Francisco, Chicago, New York, or wherever, and the contractors that were doing the building. Our mission was to enforce the California building regulations.” John had to study up on the regulations for schools, which were more stringent than for private residences.

Their main office was in the historic Carriage House near the base of the campus. Planning’s current home (nearby Barn G) was “still pretty darned rustic.” Buildings and Grounds, as it was then called, was just starting to move in. “I was very much interested in that barn because dad and Les Strong kept some of their equipment there before the University. I had been in that barn in the 1950s. They were taking out some of those sleepers that were 14-14 or 16x16.” These were made of milled redwood and had rested on the ground as the

foundation around the perimeter of the building. “Just the most beautiful clear heart redwood that you could ever imagine. They were structurally pretty sound, BUT, don’t let anyone ever tell you that termites don’t eat redwood!”

“My first charge were the mobile homes that came in clusters. From there I went to Cowell College. My mentor on that project was another inspector, named Wesley Graham. I got to see the happenings there through the stages of construction to the arrival of the professors and first students. It was an exciting time.”

“Cowell College is my favorite because it is going to be there forever. It’s concrete and it’s bedded on the limestone.” John then related how one of the dormitories was misplaced by the survey crew that laid it out. “They just finished pouring the foundation when somehow it was discovered. They had a hard time understanding why the architect and University wouldn’t bend a little and leave it as it is. But to the architect it was a very important matter. The builder had to bring in explosive experts with dynamite to totally demolish the foundation structure.” Then they poured a new one.

“When I first came on board, my assigned vehicle was a Korean War-era Army Jeep emblazoned with the white star and all the military markings.” Many of the roads were still not paved, so the Jeeps worked well. “I remember driving one home few times during lunch hour just to give the kids a ride around the block.”

From Cowell College, John moved on to Crown College. He inspected the landscaping, paths, parking, etc. Kenneth V. Thimann was the first provost there. “I was also charged with doing the library building at Crown College for Dr. Thimann. That was a nice little project.” John especially remembers when an antique fireplace arrived from San Simeon. It was one of the European treasures not yet installed in Hearst Castle by the time Hearst died. “It was a beautiful stone structure, probably out of a [real] castle.” The fireplace is in what is now called the Senior Commons Room. According to retired UCSC Campus Architect Frank Zwart, Catherine Hearst was on the Board of Regents when Crown College was built, which may be how the college came to acquire the fireplace.

From Crown College he went to the Central Heating Plant and from there to the University House. The latter was built by Cacace and Pickney, well-known Santa Cruz home builders. “I got to know [Chancellor] Dean McHenry—a very gracious man, really likable and easy to talk to.” When the home was completed, John was invited to the grand opening dinner. “There were all kinds of luminaries there. When I went to work for the University, I was 27 years old, and my colleagues told me that I was the youngest person put into a position like that. Through the whole thing I was quite enthralled with what was going on around me. I thought, wow, these people are kind of famous.” John appreciated being invited to the opening. “That tells you something about the McHenrys. That was really nice of them.”

After working at UCSC, he left to return to San Jose State for additional studies. John later got involved with the campus as the contractor for a construction project near Thimann Labs. “After I went back into construction, I built that steel arched [pedestrian] bridge over the canyon there. The layout for that was quite intricate. Cascade Metals out of Santa Clara did the iron work. It had to be just right to meet in the center. Cascade Metals set up a highline to get the stuff back in there from the road. They tied a cable between the trees. It was quite ingenious. I went to great pains to make sure I had the best local surveyor in town. They did the layout and the staking, and we built the foundations. Anyway, the arches didn’t meet right. Got into a lawsuit between us and Cascade Metals. We won, but it was quite an interesting court case.”

John’s memories of the campus lands begin after lime-making had ceased, but they span the important transition period from humble ranch to great university. We thank John for sharing these fascinating memories.


This is the cover story that was featured in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of our Lime Kiln Chronicles newsletter. To see the entire issue, please go here.