A regular fixture in the Swallows Day Parade, the Portolas represent the city’s Western culture and equestrian lifestyle
By Jan Siegel
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the organization known as El Viaje de Portola. Perhaps the group is best known for riding in the Swallows Day Parade, but without the generous support of the Portola riders, many organizations in San Juan Capistrano would suffer.
Portola Riders did not start out as the large group it is today. In 1963, the owner of the new Saddleback Inn in Santa Ana wanted a Mission Bell to put in front of the building. The builder of the hotel, Bud Curtis, thought that bringing the bell to Santa Ana via San Juan Capistrano should be with some flourish. He had a horse-drawn cart with the bell, followed by eight riders. That core group became known as the “Big 8” and were the start of the Portola Riders. Besides Curtis, the group included Ken Oliphant, Bill Riffle, Fulton Shaw, Bill Shattuck, Bill Votaw, Charley Wheeler and Dud Wright.
It was county historian Don Meadows who told the group about the march of Gaspar de Portola. Portola led the military escort who accompanied Father Serra from Mexico into Alta California. Portola was the first governor of the Californias, both Baja and Alta, from 1768 to 1770. The group was intrigued by the story and they could also see how the landscape of Southern California was quickly disappearing through development. They wanted to preserve both the history and the countryside.
Over the next few months, the group grew to 38 men who wanted to participate in a ride that would allow them to see the early rancheros before the developers came. It was never intended to be an ongoing event, but that first ride was so successful that the men wanted it to continue. But each year, space for riding was becoming more and more difficult. In 1977, Tony Moiso, president of Rancho Mission Viejo, offered space on the 40,000-acre ranch for the ride. Because of his generosity, Moiso joined the Big 8 as “Big 8 1/2.”
The group has now grown to over 200 riders. Membership in the group is by invitation only. On the 25th anniversary of the ride, the Los Angeles Times described the event as “the ultimate boys’ night out, a three-day act of male bonding.” Tony Forster, former mayor of San Juan Capistrano and 17-year president of the Historical Society, also explained in 1988, “We’re a low-profile group.”
Over the years, El Viaje de Portola has donated thousands of dollars to the Mission and the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. In 1995, the Plaza Del Viaje De Portola was dedicated at the Mission with the empty saddle of a horse statue, which honors both Gaspar de Portola and the fallen members of Portola Riders.
On the eve of the 25th anniversary ride, Bill Votaw, one of the original founders, summed up the event which still holds true today:
“It isn’t uncommon to see the men hugging one another as they renew acquaintances at the beginning of each ride. That only sets the stage for the fellowship generated by the ride. When guys get out of the fast lane and get over those hills and go back into the hills, most of them can almost forget about what’s in the fast lane. When you’re sitting out there in the hills, you’re sitting there thinking that right over there, where you’re sitting, or right where you have the campfire, that is where Father Serra and all his people came who built the Missions that went all through California.”
Now, as the Portola Riders celebrate their 50th anniversary, we should all spend a Moment In Time and reflect how this one group has kept the history of Orange County alive for half a century. In tribute to the Portola Riders, the Historical Society has an exhibit of Portola memorabilia at the Leck House on Los Rios Street.
Rusty Richards, a former member of the Sons of the Pioneers singing group wrote a 25-verse poem about the Portolas. One verse sums up the experience of this spring ritual:
“It’s grooming my horse in the cool grey dawn And loading him saddle and all; And then taking him down to where he’ll take me To answer the yearly call To saddle up men and go riding And I answer that call every spring And it rings my heart like the Mission bells That beckon the swallows, Take Wing.
It’s music, friends and horse;
It’s feeling close to God
…It’s living life at its very best.”
A 26-year resident of San Juan Capistrano, Jan Siegel has served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 11 years and has been a volunteer guide for the Historical Society’s Architectural Walking Tour for 15 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.