by Hank Boerner
February 8, 2014
Happy Anniversary, BSA! Boy Scouts of America – it’s 104 years old now. Were you a scout?
Here in the library I am looking at my old Boy Scout Handbook, which in my case was the fifth printing (c.1948) with 840,000 imprints to that date just after WW II — and almost 11 million since the first handbook went on sale in 1910. Lots of changes in that time, and up to today, and the BSA changed with the times and then again, it did not.
The origins of the Scout movement are interesting. At the turn of the 20th Century, there was lots new in America. Automobiles, airplanes, radio, chemicals, medicines, farm tractors, to begin with. In 1900 more than half of the American population lived on farms and in rural settings. Immigration from Europe was at a peak. Great “empires” were ruling many parts of the planet (The Ottomans and Hapsburgs families; as well as countries – Austria-Hungary, Germany, Belgium, Great Britain. A few years later, the Great War would tear the modern world apart, consume great wealth and destroy great empires while weakening the rest..
The USA would be standing tall with the largest economy in the world in the years following the disaster of WW I (August 1914-November 1918). But in the heady empire days of 1909, London was the center of the world for many.
And one day in 1909 in a dense London fog — streetlamps were lit — an American visitor named William D. Boyce (he was a publisher)was searching for an address in the old town. Boyce was surprised when a boy approached and asked if he could be of service. Given the address, the boy saluted and said “come with me.” When they reached the American’s destination, a tip was offered. No thank you, sir — I am a scout and we do not accept tips for good turns.
Curious, the American asked many questions and was taken to the offices of the scout movement founder, Lt General Sir Robert S.S. Baden Powell — and so he learned about “boy scouts.” scouting. Shortly after, on February 8, 1910 the BSA was incorporated in the USA – so this week is celebrated as the official birthday of the American BSA.
Who was the boy in London? We don’t know — but a statue of the unknown scout stands in London — the Daily Good Turn is so celebrated.
It turns out that General Baden Powell was skilled in tracking, trailing, wilderness living. And he had studied the work of outdoorsmen– Dan Beard and Ernest Thompson Seton. In 1907 he tried his idea out with a small group and in 1908 published “Scouting for Boys.” And history was made:
The BSA national council was set up NYC at 200 Fifth Avenue. Beard was named National Scout Commissioner. Prominent men served on the board.
President William Howard Taft was the Honorary BSA President and Col Teddy Roosevelt was Honorary VP.
Chief Scout was Ernest Thompson Seaton; He would write of the new American youth movement — whether you be farm boy, shoe clerk, newsboy, or a millionaire’s son, your place is in our ranks. You will do better work with your pigs, your shoes, your papers or your dollars.
[Former] President Theodore Roosevelt loved the movement. He had just left the White House when the BSA was established. “Teddy” was a rugged outdoorsman, hunter, explorer, colonel of the US Army Cavalry. And, contributor to the Outlook magazine, at the time, one of the leading writers of the day. From his office at 287 Fourth Avenue in NYC (now Park Ave South – we are #215) he wrote a commentary on July 20, 1911 — “Practical Citizenship”
“Let the boy remember in addition to courage, unselfishness, and fair dealing, he must have knowledge, he must cultivate a sound body, and a good mind, and train himself so that he can act with quick decision in any crisis that might arise. Mind, eye, muscle, all must be trained so that the boy can master himself, and thereby learn to master his fate. ”
About the Movement and Impact on Boys
The scout motto was and is: “Be Prepared” The slogan: “Do a Good Turn Daily.” I can recall in a second the Scout Oath: On my honor I will do my best to my duty to God and my country, and to obey the scout law. To help other people at all times. To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.. Millions of boys have said these words over the century of the movement in America. And many have carried these embedded thoughts forward into their adult lives. (Would be great if many more did!)
Oh yes, three fingers raised, I can say the Scout Law: A scout is Trustworthy-Loyal-Helpful-Friendly-Courteous-Kind-Obedient-Cheerful-Thrifty-Brave-Clean-Reverent!
I said those words so many times as a proud member of Troop 165, Hempstead, New York that they reverberate in my head even today! (I am proud to say I was also scoutmaster of Troop 52, a fine group of lads who I took on “survival” camping trips in dead of winter).
Looking through my original scout manual from 100 years ago, the focus reflects the America of late19th and early 20th Century. There were lessons to be learned an applied in winning “merit badges” in such subjects as: Agriculture, Art, Archery, Athletics, Automobiling, Aviation, Blacksmithing, Bee Farming, Bugling, Business, Camping Carpentry, Chemistry, Civics, Conservation, Cooking, Dairying, Firemanship, First Aid, Forestry, Gardening, Invention, Marksmanship, Mining (know 50 minerals), Music, Ornithology (100 birds personally seen in the wild), Photography, Pioneering, Public Health, Personal health, Scholarship, Sculpture, Seamanship, Signaling, Stalking, Surveying Swimming, Taxidermy,
These merit badges – yesterday and today — were/are needed to advance in rank. (Scouts start as Tenderfoot, move on to Second and First Class, then Star, Life, and then the highest honor, Eagle.) Prominent “Eagles” include President Gerald Ford, US Senator Bill Bradley, Governor Michael Dukakis, Secretary Robert Gates (DoD and CIA), astronaut James Lovell (Apollo 8 and 13), filmmaker Michael Moore (Roger & Me), Governor Rick Perry (Texas), and Sam Walton (Wal-Mart founder). Not every scout makes eagle but we can point to their early foundational years in the BSA: Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; President John F. Kennedy, home run king Hank Aaron, great songster Jimmy Buffett, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, singer George Strait, and actor Jimmy Stewart.
The list of distinguished scouts is long; check it out at: http://usscouts.org/eagle/bsfamous.asp
I’m a much lesser light than these greats, but I do have my Order of the Arrow medal hanging here in the library, and some patches and badges, and wonderful memories of being a scout, cub scout advisor, scoutmaster, adult troop leader, and merit badge counselor. (The latter shows my interests and I hope that I kindled some interest in my work with young scouts — Journalism, Photography, Canoeing, Camping, Hiking, Pioneering, Emergency Preparedness, Citizenship [in the community, nation world], Wilderness Survival, and First Aid.)
And so, happy birthday Boy Scouts of America. If you know a young man who could use great guidance — point him to the BSA troop in your neighborhood. And if you are an accomplished adult, volunteer – help a troop out – help with fund-raising — lend a hand. Go do a good deed today! And help build one of tomorrow’s leaders through scouting.