The Boy Scout movement began 110 years ago on a small island just off the south coast of England, where Robert Baden-Powell, a legendary cavalry officer with eyes “as sharp as a hawk” like said one historian, took 22 curious boys for a run through the woods he had explored as a child.
For the boys, Baden-Powell was like the Steve Jobs of the outdoors. While he was at war, boys in England obsessively read and rolled over his book “Aids to Scouting”, a handbook for soldiers on tracking, concealment and reconnaissance.
“Scouts can go unnoticed where parties would attract attention,” Baden-Powell wrote. “A pair of trained eyes is as good as a dozen untrained pairs. Scouts have the most important duties that can befall men in wartime, and they have the best chance of distinguishing themselves in the field.
Baden-Powell became the father of the Scouting movement, a global phenomenon that took an unexpected turn this week in the United States. With girls being welcomed into the fold for the first time, the Boy Scouts of America announced a new gender-neutral name for the program: BSA Scouts.
Baden-Powell, of course, wouldn’t know what to make of it. In fact, he had no idea how popular his book was with boys until he returned from the Second Boer War, in which a garrison he led drove back thousands of enemy soldiers in South Africa. South for 217 days. He rewrote “Aids to Scouting” for a younger audience, calling it “Scouting for Boys”.
And he decided to test his ideas on budding scouts, taking them to Brownsea Island where, according to the US Scouting Service Project, he divided them into four patrol groups: wolves, bulls, curlews and the Crows. The days were long. Breakfast was at 6am – milk and biscuits – followed by hours of scouting. Dinner was at 8 p.m., then campfire threads, then prayers, and finally lights out in the tents.
They couldn’t have had a better teacher.
Harold Begbie, in his biography of Baden-Powell, described his sixth, seventh, and possibly eighth senses:
“Once he was riding through the night with dispatches for headquarters camp, guiding himself by the stars,” Begbie wrote. “Arrived at the place where he thought the camp should be, he was surprised to find no trace of it. Descending from his saddle, he was thinking of lying down for the night (rather than passing the mark) when a distant spark, for a split second, caught his attention. Climbing back into his saddle, he rode to where the spark had flickered his brief moment, and there he found a sentry smoking a pipe. The red glow of the tank in the basin had guided B.-P. with his dispatches safely to camp.
News of the Baden-Powell experiment, along with the release of the new manual, turned scouting into a craze in its own right – like fidget spinners, but with a purpose.
The government and citizens believed it was a perfect antidote to “physical deterioration, moral degeneration, juvenile delinquency”, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Also: “‘wasters’ and ‘lazy people'”.
Suddenly, the scout troops started appearing on their own. Baden-Powell opened an office for field investigations. The Boy Scouts were now officially a thing, soon exported to the United States.
It happened in 1909. An Illinois reporter named William Boyce was in London on business and when he tried to tip a waiter for giving him directions, the waiter refused saying “I am a boy scout”, according to the story of Alvin Townley. Scout Eagles.
Boyce was like, what?
So the scout took him to headquarters, where he met Baden-Powell.
“During a long conversation,” Townley wrote, “Baden-Powell’s ideas for building the character of British youth captivated Boyce and set history in motion: Scouting was coming to America.”
Boyce was hooked.
“When Boyce boarded the transatlantic steamer to return home, he had a suitcase full of information and ideas,” the Boy Scouts of America states in their official history.
He incorporated the group on February 8, 1910. Two years later, on March 12, 1912, the first Girl Scouts of America troop was organized in Savannah, Georgia, by Juliette Gordon Low. (By the way, modern-day Girl Scouts are furious about wanting to steal their daughters.)
“To help others at all times”, is part of the scout oath. Their slogan: “Do a Good Turn Daily!”
That’s exactly what the Scout did in England that day, getting Boyce where he needed to go and connecting him to Baden-Powell.
But no one had a chance to give the Scout any credit.
He disappeared in the London fog.