Scouting History on Display
By Bill Sloan
From the BSA National Scouting Museum in Irving, Tex., to museums in council camps, to small collections in private homes, exhibits of historic Scouting memorabilia are available to the public from coast to coast.
A solid-brass Scoutmaster's whistle, first blown in 1910, the year the Boys Scouts of America was born...An 85-year-old Scout plow used to promote the cultivation of "victory gardens" during World War I...19th-century souvenirs of the Boer War, once owned by Lord Baden-Powell himself...Faded photos, news clippings, and artifacts that tell the story of a forgotten American hero of World War II...
All these items have one particular thing in common: Each is among the hundreds of thousands of pieces of Scouting memorabilia quietly amassed over the decades by dedicated private collectors across the country.
Maybe you'd like to see a flag that traveled to the moon with Scout and U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard. Or browse through the personal effects of Otis Chidester, who served Scouting actively and continuously for almost 85 yearslonger than probably any other man in BSA history. Or view a formation of mannequins dressed in authentic Boy Scout uniforms dating back to 1910.
Some of these collections are housed in local Scouting museums. Others are unusual and extensive enough to merit display spacesometimes entire roomsin general-interest museums.
A few are featured attractions with permanent quarters at various council Scout camps. Still others are kept at the homes of the collectors, where they are usually available for viewing by Scouts, Scouters, and other interested parties.
Their existence often isn't widely known, since little or no funds are available to promote and advertise them. But wherever you find these collections, they represent a true labor of love for the people who assemble, organize, and oversee them.
Here are five examples of the variety of collections. (Below, you'll find a short listing of more locations.)
Contributing editor Bill Sloan lives in Dallas, Tex.
For Scouts and Scouters in the upper Midwest, a treasure trove of BSA memorabilia is conveniently located at the Ottawa Scouting Museum in Ottawa, Ill.
You'll enjoy visiting a realistic re-creation of the home of William D. Boyce, the Chicago publisher who was instrumental in organizing the BSA 93 years ago after encountering a helpful Boy Scout on a trip to England.
"We attract about 3,000 visitors a year from Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and other states," says Mollie Perrot, a veteran Scouter who serves as executive director of the museum.
"Thanks to our all-volunteer staff, we're able to be open five days a week the year round."
The museum, which also houses Girl Scout and Camp Fire exhibits, sponsors several special annual events including a June pilgrimage to Boyce's gravesite, Perrot points out.
At the Clifton Steamboat Museum in Beaumont, Tex., visitors learn about an almost-forgotten Eagle Scout and highly decorated World War II Naval aviator named Harry Brinkley Bass. Glenn Cummings says a major section of the museum's Scouting display celebrates Bass's life and accomplishments.
Actually, Cummings explains, Bass was pretty famous around Beaumont long before he fought the Germans and Japanese from the Pacific to the Mediterranean, won all those medals, and gave his life for his country.
"Brinkley was only 13 when he came home from the world jamboree in England in 1929," recalls Cummings, chairman of the Old Timers Association of the Three Rivers Council, headquartered in Beaumont.
"He was among the first Scouts off the ship when it docked in New York, and he had his picture made with Mayor Jimmy Walker. The photo, along with Brinkley's comments about the mayor, the Prince of Wales's baggy shorts, and other topics, was on the front page of all the New York papers."
Fifteen years later, after fighting in the Battle of the Coral Sea; escaping the sinking of his ship, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lexington; and seeing action in the three major theatres of operation of United States troops in World War II, Lieutenant Commander Bass was shot down over France in August 1944. He was awarded the Navy Cross, Gold Star, and other decorations offered by America and her allies. A U.S. Navy destroyer was named in his honor.
Yet, if not for the tireless efforts of Cummings and other memorabilia-conscious veteran Scouters, Bass's amazing story could very well have been lost forever.
Ever wonder what the first edition of The Boy Scout Handbook looked like and what kind of information it offered to American youngsters back in 1911, the year it was published?
Dick Lange can tell you. Better yet, he can show you.
Lange has two well-preserved copies of the rare old volumeplus every edition of the handbook published sinceamong the 1,500 Scouting-related books he has accumulated during 25 years of active collecting. He displays them and hundreds of other bits of Scouting history in a small museum behind his home in Mount Shasta, Calif.
A former Scoutmaster, unit commissioner, and merit badge counselor, Lange traces his Scouting career back to Cub Scouts in 1939, but items in his collection go back much further than that. One of his most treasured items is that brass Scoutmaster's whistle mentioned earlier in the story. It was made in England in 1910, the year the BSA was formed; it still blows just as "loud and shrill as ever," Lange says.
"As people heard about my collection, I started getting stuff that belonged to other longtime Scouts," he says. "Among them were five guys from our council, all of whom made Eagle in 1932 and all of whom are still living. Lots of times, I'd see valuable items being thrown out when somebody died, and I just couldn't stand to let that happen."
Interest in Scouting memorabilia runs equally deep in Sidna Small of Neodesha, Kan. A member of the executive board of the Quivira Council and the mother of two Eagle Scouts, Small began collecting in the early 1980's.
"At first the collection was for my sons," she says, "but they thought it would be better to share it with others, and they were right. Then, as other people heard about it, things just started coming from all directions."
Since early 1999, Small's ever-growing collection has occupied a room of its own in the general interest Independence Museum in Independence, Kan., where she used her college training in art to design attractive displays for it.
Today, the room contains more items than Small can count. "You could go crazy trying to list each piece," she says.
While the new National Scouting Museum in Irving, Tex., is by far the largest facility of its kind and boasts the most elaborate and extensive exhibits on the Scouting experience, other fascinating displays from Scouting's history can be found in every corner of the country. In fact, the national museum has drawn more than a few of its rare items from private collections.
"We're particularly interested in memorabilia that dates back prior to 1930," says Susan Hardin, the museum's director. "It's a little difficult for us to handle such items on a temporary loan basis, but we're always eager to talk to collectors who would be willing to donate the items for permanent display in the museum."
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