The Way It Was
Scouting's Founder Meets Friends and Foes on His First Visit to the United States
By Michael Rutland
In 1912, Lord Robert Baden-Powell crossed the Atlantic to inspect and encourage the fledgling Boy Scouts of America while defending it against charges of militarism.
A chilly winter wind traced the waters of New York City’s harbor Jan. 31, 1912, and slipped inside the olive-green khaki uniforms of the 40 boys who stood dockside looking out over the bay. The boys’ leader, Lorillard Spencer Jr., told his shivering charges to stand ready. Lt. Gen. Sir Robert Baden-Powell would be arriving by ship soon, and Spencer didn’t want the program’s founder to have a poor impression of the first American Boy Scouts he would meet on his world tour.
Baden-Powell walked down the gangplank of the Arcadian a few minutes later and returned the salute offered by the Scouts of Troop 1. Then, Boy Scout William Waller stepped forward. Handing B-P a letter, Waller said: “I have the honor to present to you this letter of welcome from the President of the United States. I also welcome you in the name of the Boy Scouts of America.”
Waller stood for a moment in silence as the presidential greeting was considered, then added sheepishly: “And I am mighty glad to see you myself.” The older man broke into a deep smile at the youthful addition to the official welcome, and he clapped the young man on the shoulder as he walked forward to meet the rest of the small group.
Brownsea crosses the Atlantic
That the man who founded what would become the world’s largest youth organization should be moved by a single boy’s remark is not surprising, considering the program’s origins. Less than five years earlier B-P had held what he called “the experiment” on Brownsea Island, where 20 boys from privileged and working-class backgrounds came together to carry out the kinds of activities that later became the basis for Scouting’s merit badges.
The Brownsea boys had fire-building contests and games of strength and woodcraft. B-P was so impressed by the boys’ enthusiasm that he worked to spread the message of camaraderie and service beyond England’s borders. He would find that excitement returned many times over during the course of his tour, with U.S. Scouts leaving a strong impression.
B-P met with thousands of Scouts and leaders over the following five weeks after sailing into New York Harbor, and he was impressed by the same diversity and dedication of boys as he had seen on Brownsea. About Buffalo, his journal noted:
“Among other things, they showed some very good work with a portable wireless telegraph mounted on a handcart. About 90 percent of the apparatus was made by the boys themselves. It worked perfectly, and carried messages five miles.”
Large turnouts greet the founder
In Minneapolis, 1,500 Scouts flipped sourdough pancakes and tossed them into the hands of the gathered crowd. Chicago Scouts “gave exhibitions of first-aid work, saving life from drowning, wireless telegraphy, signaling, and fire-lighting without matches.” It was a display of skill and fellowship repeated in every city that B-P visited as he crossed the country, from Boston to San Francisco.
The largest celebration of his visit took place in Manhattan, as more than 5,000 Scouts from 110 troops in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey assembled to put on a spirited show of their training in the fields of the 71st Regiment Armory. There were demonstrations of woodcraft and signaling, archery and fire-starting. Two of the most impressive feats involved sending a wireless message to the White House for President Taft and the erection of a large wooden bridge in 15 minutes.
A touching compliment
B-P was impressed by the skill and character on display, and he wanted everyone to take part in the events. So when he noticed that a small group of boys behind the podium were not participating, he asked his assistant why. When informed that the boys were all from the Lighthouse troop of the New York Association for the Blind, there came perhaps the greatest display of character of the day.
The founder turned away from the demonstrations and went to talk with each member of the Lighthouse troop. Before bringing them up to the front with him, he told them: “I am glad to meet you, brother Scouts. We have a great number of Scouts in Great Britain as well, you know, but you are as good a group of Scouts as any I have ever seen. I am proud of you indeed.”
But though the response to his visit was overwhelmingly positive, not all welcomed the new program into their cities. From the first day he set foot in America, B-P was defending Scouting from accusations that it was merely an excuse to train young men for the military. During a dinner given in his honor at New York’s Astor Hotel, B-P set the record straight:
“Above all I want to impress the fact that this movement, although it pictures military uniforms, is not one of war. As far as I am concerned, I hope that the world will never have any more war.” This misconception led to a direct confrontation in one of the last cities he visited, Portland, Ore., where a contingent of socialists disrupted his presentation.
“Baden-Powell Hooted” read the headline of the March 10, 1912, New York Times article, and went on to say that the British Consul and James E. West, executive director of the Boy Scouts of America, were given similar treatment.
But it was obvious that the program’s true motives came through in B-P’s address to the crowd, as the boys in the audience “crowded round me after the meeting, more than they had done anywhere before, asking how they could become Scouts.”
B-P would pass through Seattle after that and then make his way into Canada, continuing his tour of the world with a heart lightened by what he had seen in the United States.
What began as a desire to give youth moral direction and an appreciation of the deep lessons imparted by wood smoke and camaraderie, has since developed into a program that has helped millions of people the world over. It may have started out humbly, but as William Waller demonstrated, sometimes the most meaningful moments are the simplest.
Michael Rutland is a freelance writer who lives in Austin, Tex.