The Way It Was
By Robin Suerig Holleran
Green Bar Bill's Own Troop
Seventy years ago, a special unit of Boy Scouts was organized in central New Jersey for Scouting legend William (Green Bar Bill) Hillcourt to test his ideas about leadership and Scoutcraft.
William (Green Bar Bill) Hillcourt had a major influence on the development of the Boy Scouts of America program. His achievements have been well documented, including his writing of the first patrol leader's handbook, two editions of The Scoutmaster Handbook, two editions of The Boy Scout Handbook, and countless articles for Boys' Life and Scouting magazines.
What is less known is that many of his ideas were field-tested on a special troop organized in central New Jersey specifically for that purpose.
A native of Denmark, Hillcourt was visiting the United States in the mid-1920's when his ideas about the patrol system so impressed BSA Chief Scout Executive James E. West that the young Dane was asked to write the BSA's first handbook for patrol leaders.
A new troop
Following the success of that manual, Hillcourt began producing a monthly column for patrol leaders under the name "Green Bar Bill." The first column appeared in the October 1932 issue of Boys' Life, the BSA magazine for young readers.
As the BSA's leading expert on Scoutcraft and troop leadership, he was next given the task of developing a new Scoutmaster's handbook. In 1934, determined to write a manual that promoted the patrol method of Scouting, he and his wife, Grace, moved to a remodeled stone sheep barn on the grounds of the BSA national training center in rural Mendham Township, N.J.
To improve his ability to write an effective manual, Hillcourt decided to organize a troop from the local population to test out his ideas.
With a flare for the dramatic, Hillcourt founded Troop 1 in Mendham Township in February 1935čthe 25th anniversary of the founding of the BSA. The troop was the first nationally chartered unit, which gave Hillcourt the freedom to experiment with different Scouting concepts and techniques without involvement from a local council.
Just a few years before the Hillcourts moved to New Jersey, 500 acres in Mendham had been donated as a national Boy Scout training center in honor of Mortimer L. Schiff, a longtime international commissioner and briefly president of the BSA before his untimely death.
The Schiff Scout Reservation became the home for Troop 1, as well as for Hillcourt. Many of the ideas developed in those New Jersey woods were subsequently used in various Boy Scout manuals.
The activity at Schiff gained attention from other prominent people. A movie studio for producing BSA films at the site was a gift from the family of Thomas J. Watson, who founded IBM. Artist Norman Rockwell used Schiff as the backdrop for some of his famous paintings, including covers of numerous Scouting manuals.
For nearly 20 years, Hillcourt served as Scoutmaster of Mendham's Troop 1. In addition to being a writer of Scouting manuals, Hillcourt is remembered by many original Troop 1 Scouts as a leader who knew how to have fun.
According to Ernie Maw, who joined at age 10 and continued through his Eagle Scout rank, the Mendham Scouts were the only ones in the nation to attend the first national jamboree in 1937 together as a troop, rather than have a few select representatives go as members of a council jamboree troop. In 1939, Troop 1 again gained attention by staffing major exhibits at the World's Fair in New York City.
"We had it made," said Maw. "It was a wonderful experience to know Bill Hillcourt. We had the run of the Schiff Reservation. He was an unbelievable leader."
From 1935 to 1950, Maw and other Troop 1 Scouts were pictured in many articles in Boys' Life and Scouting magazines and manuals like the first edition of the Scout Field Book. They also appeared in training films and manuals produced while Hillcourt resided in Mendham.
In 1979, after almost 50 years as a Boy Scouts of America training facility, the Schiff Reservation was sold to AT&T. Eventually, about 150 acres were sold for residential development, with the remaining 350 acres set aside as a nature preserve.
The Schiff Natural Lands Trust Inc., the nonprofit entity that manages the nature preserve, continues today as Troop 1's official chartered organization in the spirit of its special place in Scouting history. Some of Troop 1's weekly meetings are held at the reservation, as well as a winter Klondike derby and other special troop activities.
Remembering the past
In the late 1950's, Troop 1 lost its national charter, was incorporated into the local Scout council, and given the unit number 30. Twenty years later, the men who were then the troop's leaders met some of the original Scouts and learned more about the troop's history.
According to Sam Fairchild, Troop 1's historian and a friend of Hillcourt, the leaders were so impressed with the stories of Mendham's Boy Scout history that they petitioned the council for the reinstatement of Number 1, a request that was eventually granted.
Today, the troop is thriving with 64 Scouts, including two grandsons of one of Hillcourt's first Scouts, George McKinnell.
McKinnell, of Mendham and Sanibel, Fla., joined Troop 1 at the age of 12 and continued his membership for a dozen years until he returned from World War II duty. Over the years, McKinnell organized several Troop 1 reunions at his Mendham home, many of which Hillcourt attended.
Green Bar Bill retired from the BSA as national director for Scoutcraft in 1965. However, he returned for a year in the late 1970's to write the 9th edition of The Official Boy Scout Handbook. In November 1992, on a tour to visit Scout groups in many countries, Hillcourt died in Sweden at age 92.
Hillcourt is buried, with his wife, at St. Joseph's Church on Main Street, Mendham, where many of Troop 1's Scouts attend religious services.
The Scouts continue to proudly wear the Number 1 on their uniforms, in honor of Green Bar Bill.
Writer Robin Suerig Holleran is a resident of Mendham, N.J. For more about William (Green Bar Bill) Hillcourt, see "America's Best-Known Scouter," in the January-February 2001 issue.
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