Ojai is famous for a lot of things--its healthy New Age vibes, a thriving art colony. But few people know that it was once home to a boxing camp that trained legends such as Jack Dempsey.
Clarence (Pop) Soper ran the camp in Matilija Canyon for about 30 years, until his death in 1957. The camp is long gone, but it has been revived in an exhibit by the Ojai Valley Historical Society and Museum.
The exhibit, located in the former St. Thomas Aquinas Church in downtown Ojai, is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through October.
Soper's boxing camp was a landmark during its heyday. Over the years more than 550 boxers trained there, sometimes as many as 30 at a time. Soper was a legend himself.
"He ran a tight ship--he didn't allow women or liquor there," said Mary K. Porter, curator of the museum. Everyone seemed to like him, though. He was a familiar figure, driving to town almost every day in his 1929 Packard, which was sometimes crammed with local children.
When you walk into the exhibit, the first thing you see is that rusted, beat-up Packard, loaned to the museum by its current owner. Soper's life and the camp are captured in photos, memorabilia like the old "speed bag" with which boxers would practice jabbing, and oral histories provided by locals who remembered Soper.
In a corner, a miniature boxing ring has been set up and the backdrop is a 6-by-8-foot charcoal drawing by local artist Ken Butler. It's a fight scene--Dempsey defending his heavyweight title against Tom Gibbons in 1923.
It was Dempsey who gave the camp its start. In 1925, the fighter visited the guest cottages Soper ran at the mouth of Matilija Canyon. The canyon had long been known for its curative hot springs and several resorts had sprung up. Stagecoaches, and later an "auto stage," hauled visitors up from Ventura.
Dempsey, by then a seven-time heavyweight champion, took to Soper, who had boxed a little himself. Dempsey thought the rugged, mountainous spot was an ideal place to train.
For exercise, he would jog the four miles back down the canyon to Ojai or clear boulders by hand to help Soper build what would become the camp. Locals remember seeing the boxer running along the highway, pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks.
Dempsey apparently swore by the mineral water. When he left for a rematch with Gene Tunney in 1927, he took 50 bottles of Matilija water with him. He lost to Tunney in the controversial bout and retired from the ring in 1928.
But other boxers followed. Among them was Santa Paula rancher Bud Sloan, now 79. In the 1930s his nickname was "Haystack" and he was known for his "ice tongs punch," a killer punch on both sides of the head.
Sloan, featured on the cover of Knockout magazine in 1940, trained at Soper's camp three times during the 1930s and 1940s.
"I was a young buck from a ranch," Sloan said. "Pop took me under his wing, took to me like he was my dad."
The boxers all trained hard, running up and down the canyon. "They had good chow," he said. After dinner, Soper would often take him for a spin in the Packard or he and the boys would play cards.
The indoor ring and other buildings at the camp were loaded with photos of boxing greats, movie stars, newspaper clippings and letters from Dempsey. Soper collected nickelodeons, other musical contraptions and stuffed animals like a boa constrictor lounging on a branch. He was rarely without his gray hat and sweater, both now on display.
Disaster courted the camp a few times. A flood in 1938 swept away five cabins. A devastating fire in 1948 burned 15,360 acres around Ojai, coming within feet of the camp, which became a command post for firefighters.
Soper knew the area well. He had grown up in Matilija Canyon, where his father ranched. He went to Ventura High School and then took a job riding the rails for the Wells Fargo Co.
But after a dozen or more years, he became ill and a doctor told him he didn't have long to live. So he returned to Matilija Canyon to die.
But he didn't die. He packed up his gear and spent a year of solitude in the backcountry. When he came out, he felt better than ever.
He died in 1957. His brother, Lennie Soper, ran the camp and its adjoining cafe for a few years, but it never thrived again. The facility was condemned by the county in 1963 and the remaining buildings were razed.
If you drive up Maricopa Highway into Matilija Canyon, you won't see anything of the camp that once flourished there, just past Friend's Ranches Inc. But the drive is a spectacular one and it takes you past camping and hiking spots and Wheeler Hot Springs, the only resort from those early days that still operates.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
* WHAT: Exhibit by the Ojai Valley Historical Society and Museum about Pop Soper and his boxing camp.
* WHERE: The former Thomas Aquinas Church, 130 W. Ojai Ave., Ojai.
* WHEN: Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., through October.
* HOW MUCH: $2 per person; members and children under 12 free.
* FYI: The Ojai Valley Historical Society and Museum is renovating the church building, which will become its new headquarters.
* PHONE: 646-0445.