The Highlander Boys is a group long forgotten in our minds, but from 1916-1976 it was the gold standard for youth organizations here in Denver.
“The very foundation of the organization was to give young men a chance to build character and prepare for the future,” said Highlander Boys alum Kurt Davis.
The group was started as a baseball team by George W. Olinger. He found that young children needed guidance to discover worthwhile ventures. Eventually, after WWI, baseball bats turned into rifles, and Olinger began to shape boys into young soldiers.
“We had a couple really fun things we did and one of them was marching in the parade downtown,” Davis explains. “We got to carry the big balloons and wear the clown clothes.”
The requirements to join the Highlanders were simple: be nine years old, have good physical health and attend a church of your parents’ choosing every week. These boys would attend “speak well classes” for at least a year and were given the option to join numerous other sub-groups that mainly focused on sports, music and business.
“My late brother and I were in the Highlander Boys when I was a child. We rode our bicycles from our house near City Park to their former location at 4th Ave. and Grant St. We both played cornet in the band,” wrote former member Chuck Abernathy on Facebook.
In 1930, the Highlanders aimed for something bigger by creating the Temple of Youth, a home base that could house all of the Highlander boys’ needs, including a rifle range, hobby and crafts rooms, meeting rooms, a kitchen, a library, and parade grounds. This building stood at 300 Logan St. until 1933, when it was sold back to the state.
Olinger struggled to keep the program running through the Great Depression and eventually suspended operations on Sept. 1, 1933.
The organization was far from dead, however. If anything, it became even bigger than it had been. In 1936, a minister named David C. Bayless took over operations and reorganized the Highlanders following Olinger’s principles of conduct. This reignited the organization and pushed more young children to join. The uniform and symbols of the Highlander Boys became the face of respect and honor for young children. I
“Judge Gilliam, who was a juvenile judge in Denver, said he’d never had any Highlander Boys come in front of him,” said Printed Page Bookshop owner and Denver historian Dan Danbom.”[That] is kind of misleading because once you got in trouble they kicked you out of the Highlander Boys.”
In the mid-to-late 1950s, the organization acquired 300 acres of land and began running a summer camp for the Highlanders. The Carter Lake camp property was a central point for the group, and boys were required to attend the camp for at least one week every summer.
“Probably more fun was summer camp,” Davis explained. “A lot of times you would wake up in the middle of the night to a face full of shaving cream or someone messing with your bed. One time I came out of the shower to my clothes at the top of the flagpole.”
By the 1970s fewer members were joining the Highlanders because of a growing anti-war movement. In 1976, the organization closed operations for good. The memory of the organization lives on through relics like the Highlander Mothers Cookbook at Printed Page and memories from a reunion of the Highlander Boys in 2011.