Trek Into History

By Lori Murray
Photographs By John C. Hillery

The Henry Ford serves as the ideal vehicle for a weekend of learning and fun for Detroit-area Scouts.

Scouters Harry Price and Eric Behrmann say the idea was inspired by a Scouting magazine article that featured a Railroading merit badge camporee with a visit to a real train.

Scouts use old-fashioned muscle power as they attempt to move a locomotive on the Railroad Junction turntable.

For years they'd lived within a few miles of what seemed the perfect place for a Railroading merit badge experience, The Henry Ford. That's the streamlined name for a Dearborn, Mich., complex of history attractions, the most well known of which are the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.

The museum, a historic repository founded by the famous automaker (see sidebar), features a historic steam locomotive, an authentic roundhouse, a plethora of railroading artifacts, and an extensive collection of engines and train cars.

The idea ultimately evolved into a weekend event, encompassing three merit badges, a patch walk, a camp-out, and a host of other historical attractions.

Titled "A Trek Into History" and sponsored by the Detroit Area Council's Sunset District, the event took place in October 2003 on the grounds of Greenfield Village, a 90-acre site filled with historic structures and presented as a town from America's past. More than 600 Boy Scouts camped overnight, and an additional 500 Cub Scouts and their families took part in the Saturday daytime activities.

"Because we wanted to showcase Scouting, we made sure to include Tiger Cubs and Cub Scouts as well as Boy Scouts," said Behrmann.

Boy Scouts had not camped on the grounds of The Henry Ford for more than 40 years, and the idea for a weekend camporee was enthusiastically welcomed by John Neilson, Greenfield Village's manager of public and school programs. The timing was also right, because following an extensive nine-month renovation, Greenfield Village's newest attractions included a trail system, camping area, and program area.

Because Scouts were in uniform during the entire event, other weekend visitors to The Henry Ford spoke about the number of Scouts in attendance.

In addition to the Railroading merit badge, Scouts could also choose to work on requirements for the American Heritage and Soil and Water Conservation badges.

Soil and Water Conservation

About 20 Scouts working on the Soil and Water Conservation merit badge began their day with a four-hour hike from Greenfield Village to the University of Michigan's Dearborn Campus Environmental Interpretive Center.

Their route took them through a pocket of tranquil wilderness surrounded by urban development. Working in small groups along the way, the Scouts made water and soil observations, conducted experiments, and gathered samples.

Katharine Evans, University of Michigan student and intern at the interpretive center, helped one group conduct an experiment on impermeability.

A vintage Model T Ford provides one way for Scouts to view the historical treasures of Greenfield Village.

"Which is more permeable — the path we walk on or the area away from the path?" she asked. Within seconds, the boys were loosening the dirt and leaves and pouring water through a gauze filter on a coffee can, timing the process with a stopwatch.

Tired from their hike but still eager to learn, the Scouts arrived at a science lab within the interpretive center. For the next hour, they performed small experiments with their water samples, in the process learning about basic chemistry principles, such as the difference between acid and base.

"If you are a fish, would you like to swim in something really acidic or really base?" asked the instructor. From there, the discussion moved to topics like how acid rain affects wildlife, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of coal as a fuel.

"I learned what scientists do to help stop erosion," said 12-year-old Justin Sandelin of Troop 2001, Redford, Mich.

"I learned how we get clean water," added another Troop 2001 Scout, 11-year-old Andrius Nemanis, who especially enjoyed the experience because, "I didn't know we would get to do experiments."

The Scouts also learned about map reading, animal tracks, and various safety features of hiking.

American Heritage

Back in Greenfield Village, a trombone could be heard. Carl Nelson, 14, of Troop 126 in Redford, Mich., was playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" as he worked to complete one of the requirements (4e) toward the American Heritage merit badge.

Carl had already finished a timeline of the Revolutionary War and early America, including significant battles and key events such as the signing of the Constitution and the presentation of the Bill of Rights.

"I'm having fun working on the requirements," he observed. "And when I leave here today, I will have everything I need for the American Heritage badge."

Research for his timeline was done mostly at home, but Carl planned to complete the patch walk to meet the requirement for visiting a historical place.

Greenfield Village details much of America's past in seven themed districts. Its famous buildings range from Edison's laboratory (brought by Henry Ford from Menlo Park, N.J.) to a one-room cabin (built around 1640 and brought from New England) to the Wright Brothers' cycle shop and family home (from Dayton, Ohio).

As Scouts filed from the room after a morning of group discussion and project completion, instructor Gordon Draper could finally relax.

"I made the boys promise that they would finish the badge before they left today," he said. "[At the Henry Ford]'s possible for two different boys to earn this badge and not do any of the same things."

The stack of projects on Draper's table confirmed that not only was each research subject different but that the Scouts had invested time and effort into their timelines, reports, maps, and drawings.


"I've been working on the railroad...Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah...Fee, fie, fiddle-e-i-o-o-o-o! Strummin' on the old banjo."

In the afternoon, Scouts working on the Railroading merit badge sang as they returned from several hours in the village's railroading facilities.

In the classroom, they divided into groups and, with Lionel train sets as centerpieces on the tables, launched into lively discussions about everything from different train signals to the inner workings of a steam locomotive.

Members of Troop 2001 from Redford, Mich., had enthusiastically prepared for the day by first building a troop model train track.

"I never knew that Henry Ford was interested in trains," observed Kevin Bennett, 13. "Today we learned how trains have developed from their beginnings to the present day," added Eric Ciupek, 12.

The boys toured the roundhouse and back shop, saw a turntable demonstration, and visited the locomotives in the yard. From there, they toured even more trains in the Henry Ford Museum.

Railroading badge participants were divided into two groups of 25; while one was in a half-day session, members of the other section participated in the patch walk or rode the steam locomotive as it rambled through Greenfield Village.

A unique location

Harry Price, Eric Behrmann, and the other event organizers spent two years planning "A Trek Into History." They worked closely with John Neilson and others at Greenfield Village to put the merit badge programs into place.

An activities committee of about a dozen members met regularly with Neilson, covering topics ranging from program content to publicity and security.

"We have tried to structure the weekend on a rotating basis so different Scout districts can host the event for their Scouts," said Price.

"It was fantastic that the Sunset District, the University of Michigan Dearborn's Interpretive Center, and The Henry Ford were able to work together to provide such a great experience for so many Scouts," observed Neilson.

"I hope other districts will offer the event to their Scouts [because] we welcome the opportunity to provide this unique experience," he said.

The location was obviously a key for the weekend's success. And the event's positive outcome pleased the director of Greenfield Village, Christian Overland.

"I envision Greenfield Village being a place where Scouts can camp, earn merit badges, and receive a unique Scouting experience, " he said.

Freelance writer Lori Murray lives in Columbus, Ohio.

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