ONE LITTLE PATCH started a revolution.
Spencer Haberman (right) was a bright-eyed Cub Scout when a leader gave him a patch, a three-dollar shoulder strip from the Sam Houston Area Council in Texas. That Scouter couldn’t have known that 10 years later, Spencer’s passion for patches would turn into a peaceful protest designed to preserve roadside trading at the 2013 National Scout Jamboree. Never mind that the entire protest was based on a misunderstanding—more on that later.
Scouts welcome any excuse to swap patches. Which is why Spencer, a 17-year-old Eagle Scout, and his friends trudged from campsite to campsite advertising the protest and personally inviting everyone at the Summit Shakedown to bring their cots and set up their patches on the road leading to the headquarters tent.
These Scouts will trade patches whether they’re told to or not—all in clear view of the jamboree decision-makers. This was trading with a purpose. “A lot of people wanted to hear what it was for, and so I told them,” Spencer said. When it comes to standing up for what you believe in, “it doesn’t hurt to try.”
It didn’t take long for the news to spread, and the event grew from three to 300 Scouts in less than an hour. At the protest’s peak, with the sun sinking behind the mountains, at least two-dozen green cots lined the road—each blanketed with patches.
On one side, Scouts sat on paint buckets, camp stools, and yellow wagons in front of their collections. On the other side, Scouts with zip-top bags stuffed with patches made offers. “I’ll give you all of these for that,” one Scout said, handing over his bag and pointing at a Marvel Comics patch popular at the 2010 jamboree. No deal.
In some respects, Spencer’s demonstration worked. It got Scouts interested in swapping patches and in learning more about the policies for next year’s jamboree. But as Russell Smart points out, Spencer’s information was a little off. Smart, chairman of the jamboree program group, said roadside patch trading—the impromptu swaps that have been a part of jamborees since the beginning—isn’t forbidden. Nobody will come by, roll up a Scout’s blanket, and tell him to leave, Smart said.
Smart cites several benefits to trading in the designated area: enhanced security to prevent theft, opportunities to learn from International Scouting Collectors Association representatives, and an easier time finding must-have patches. “Once the popular patches bubble up to the surface, kids spend an inordinate amount of time walking to try to find those patches,” Smart said.
He mentions the Yoda patch from California’s Marin Council as a recent example. The Star Wars-themed patch was like gold at the 1997 and 2001 jamborees, meaning some Scouts walked miles and miles to the Western Region campsites to trade for one instead of spending that time doing program activities. “The hope is that if we can congregate them in the stadium, every patch is going to be there,” Smart said. “If he really wants to find a Yoda patch, there’s one place where he can definitely find one.”
Jim Bancroft, a Scouter with the Connecticut Rivers Council, approves of the “everything in moderation” approach to patch trading. “I’ve been to a lot of jamborees and [National Order of the Arrow Conferences], and patch trading is just part of the Scouting culture,” Bancroft said. “The designs are just incredible, beautiful. I can see the attraction. But patch trading shouldn’t take up an entire Scout’s jamboree. You can’t stop it, but certain times of the day it’s appropriate.”
Spencer, who admits he spent the whole 2010 jamboree trading patches, is unconvinced. He’s hooked. “For me it’s fun. You get to meet people. I feel I almost talked to every person in the camp. I met people from all over the country,” he said. “I don’t know that I’d trade that for anything. And it’s all because of patches.”
Over the years, most of Spencer’s patches have come and gone, but there’s one he’ll never trade: the Sam Houston council patch, the first one in his collection. It has a permanent place at the front of his patch book—a reminder of what started it all.
Spencer said he hopes to inspire the next generation of patch traders the way he was motivated as a Cub Scout. That’s why he gives away more than half of his patch fortune to younger Scouts—sort of the Warren Buffett of the patch world.
“Earlier I saw little Scouts that came up to us upset,” Spencer recalled. “‘I don’t have any patches to trade. Can I buy one from you?’ I told them, ‘I can’t sell you a patch, but here’s a patch. Go start.’ You gotta help ’em out and give them a chance to start somewhere, and I hope it sparks the patch trading in them.”
Sometimes one patch is all it takes.