Why They Coaxed Scout Troops Into Camp

By Keith Monroe

The decision to change summer camps from a mass of individual boys to separate troop campsites marked a fundamental change in BSA operations philosophy.

One by one, all over America in the 1930s or thereabouts, Scout council summer camps permanently revised their style of operation. The big change was triggered by a historic clash among Scouting's assembled professionals, and it marked a turning point in BSA internal history.

The change itself came slowly and quietly. Few campers noticed.

I was a Scout camper when the revolution began. Then I was a camp staffer while daily schedules were torn apart. Later I became a Scoutmaster and realized how the change strengthened troops everywhere. I didn't know until long afterward that my father, who was a Scout executive in Berkeley when the change came, had been one of a small group who first called for it.

Rows of big tents

The camp I attended as a Scout would seem strange today, though it was typical of its time. It was a "mass camp" with rows of big tents, all alike. I was the only Scout from my troop, but if the whole troop had happened to come I might have felt almost as alone, because we would have been scattered at random among the 10-boy tents in the visitors' sector.

A 16-year-old staffer, called a "patrol leader," was in charge of each tent. There were no troops, just makeshift patrols which lined up thrice daily on the parade ground, ate together in the dining hall, but otherwise saw little of one another.

Each day I checked in at merit badge (classes if I chose, joined in the afternoon camp swim, and whiled away hours on handicrafts or stood in line at the archery range or just sat and dreamed. Other Scouts did much the same.

Intermittently I sought out people who could sign off requirements on my Good Camper card. One requirement was "Do an hour's work on camp improvement." For this I went to the camp ranger. He set me to hacking underbrush in a canyon outside camp, for no apparent reason. Mine was not to reason why.

A year later I learned I'd been clearing a troop campsite, unheard-of then. Other sites were likewise cleared, with little said.

Widening camp boundaries

When troops actually came and camped in these sites, several summers later, I was on the waterfront staff. I found myself working more hours. Instead of coaching all nonswimmers at 11 o'clock, I met various troops' nonswimmers at different hours. Other instructors were similarly spread around.

At the start of each week, Scoutmasters worked out schedules. Staff made themselves available as needed. We didn't know the reasons for the shift; but we did enjoy working with a series of small groups because we could help individual Scouts, with suggestions from Scoutmasters.

Each summer the camp boundaries widened as more troop sites opened. We met a flock of Scoutmasters each week. A few at a time, the old 10-boy tents for unattached campers came down. The big all-together campfires, previously a nightly fixture, gave way most evenings to separate fires or night hikes or games for different troops. Our mass camp was becoming a bunch of troop camps.

A report shakes things up

Why did this happen? Mainly because a commentary called the Alverson Report hit like a bomb on Sept. 8, 1928, during a training conference of Scout executives at Cornell University.

Oscar C. Alverson, Sacramento executive, was spokesman for six California executives who had been encouraging Scoutmasters to tackle work usually left to higher-ups, such as planning summer programs.

"Everything seemed to revolve around the Scout executive" Alverson wrote. "He referred to his program, his camp, his boys. In my first job I acted as a glorified Scoutmaster, conducting hikes and camps, giving training and tests. I finally realized that I was on the wrong track, that it was my job to help the Scoutmaster with his program, not his job to help me. Some councils felt if a Scoutmaster wanted to run his own camp, he was disloyal."

Alverson and the others (including my father, Donald Monroe) pressed this novel notion so vigorously that they were appointed part of a 12-man commission on "Making the Local Council Motivate the Troop Program," to report at Cornell.

Hearing rumors of their maverick ideas, Ray O. Wyland (director of the BSA department of education) asked them to submit their findings for advance review by the national staff. The group did so and got a response from George W. Ehler, director of troop service:

"The commission has not only missed the bull's-eye, they have missed the whole target. They don't understand the word motivation." Wyland hinted that others were equally unenthusiastic and suggested watering down the report.

Some drastic proposals

Nevertheless the commission stuck to its proposals, on which all 12 had agreed after much discussion. Alverson arose before 812 executives and assistants (practically the whole professional corps) and jolted them with his first paragraph:

"In our search for council programs aimed at troop motivation...we could find none. We found that council programs have been directed at the individual Scout." Then he advised, "We appreciate that our suggestions are in rather drastic opposition to the general practice."

He was confronting pioneer Scout executives who were boys' men to the core. They had been Scoutmasters, Sunday school teachers, YMCA secretaries, playground directors. Most of them ran their own mass camps with flair and fun, occasionally tap-dancing on a table or roaming camp in tailcoat and top hat. They had struggled through Scouting's early years when the only summer camps were those arranged by Scoutmasters on friendly farmers' lands.

Sometimes results had been disastrous because troops knew little of safety or sanitation. To save the movement, Scout executives had set up permanent camps with trained staffs and hired cooks and handy medical help.

This led Scoutmasters to take summers off from troop duties. How could Alverson think of throwing the load back on them?

But he went on: "The percent of Scouts taking part in the council camp is relatively small. Because only a few Scouts attend from each troop, (usually) without a single troop leader, we are running a private camp for boys with no connection with the troop program. We have relieved troop leaders of so much responsibility that we have unconsciously weakened our entire structure.

Designed to serve the troop

"The council's camping program should be designed to serve the troop, not the individual boy," Alverson continued. "Of course it would be dangerous to turn untrained Scoutmasters out with the responsibility of running their camps. The council's training program should prepare troop leaders for that work, as for every other part.

"With the Scoutmaster carrying responsibility, the planning and preparation for camping will stimulate the troop program for the entire year."

The report went on to urge dismembering other council or district activities dear to the hearts of professionals: big courts of honor to bestow hundreds of awards; field days during which troops vied in fire-making, signalling, wall-scaling, and other specialities; camporees at which patrols were scored on perfection of packs, tents, and uniforms.

As Alverson talked, the audience grew restless. Listeners braced themselves to protest that his proposals would prevent Scouts in weak troops from going to camp; and that if troops did camp under any bungling leaders, chaos would come again.

But the storm was stilled before it started.

The top professional of them all, Chief Scout Executive James E. West, rose as Alverson sat down, and announced: "I rejoice in many of the proposals made by the last speaker. They are getting right down to the fundamental weaknesses in Scouting...

"The Scout executive is not intended to carry on the activity of the Scout movement. The executive's job is to build up troop organization and troop leadership."

None would dispute the Chief. Instead the next speaker (scheduled by West) surprised the audience. He was C. L. Nichols, assistant executive in Philadelphia--and director of a huge camp that had run for 16 years on the supposedly visionary troop system.

A report from Treasure Island

Treasure Island, in the Delaware River, welcomed more than 500 Scouts each week into 40 troop sites.

Nichols said: "Troops are under their own leadership. Their Scoutmaster is as responsible as though he were 100 miles away in a camp of his own. We provide equipment and specialized service, including a central dining hall, but the Scoutmasters formulate the program that they want. They live with the troop. They are so interested that they pay their own way. Often troop committees come, too."

Nichols parried questions. He said: "An argument always comes up--'It works in Philadelphia because it started that way.' Mr. Urner Goodman, our executive in Philadelphia, moved to Chicago and got 175 troops in camp under their own leadership during his first year."

Wyland and Ehler sat silent. Executives went home knowing that getting Scoutmasters to take troops to camp would count heavily toward their own career advancement. West hammered the point again later, in his introduction to the printed transcript of the proceedings: "This conference will be remembered for reemphasizing volunteer leadership."

A 'hearty response'

Not everyone on staff was enthused. The BSA's annual report for 1929 voiced only reserved praise for the new idea: "The item in the Five-Year Program, 'Further emphasis upon camping on a troop basis/ certainly has received a hearty response on the part of many councils."

The 1931 report noted, "There is now a distinct effort toward making each Scout camp consist of actual troop and patrol units" and mentioned that training programs were adding instruction in troop camping. (This was before the dawn of Wood Badge training.)

A few councils put off the change for a decade. But most executives found it easy to persuade Scoutmasters to camp with their troops. Statistics show what happened. In 1928 only 99,132 Scouts went to summer camp. By 1945 there were 323,000, almost all in troop sites. In the 1960s at least 800,000 Scouts went to camp each summer under trained troop leaders.

Now in the 1990s, as Scouting reaches out to schoolrooms, most councils offer a few "provisional troop" plans for mixed groups undei leaders provided by the council. But these groups are a small part of camp Troop camping has been standard practice for decades now.

The troops like it that way. So do the Scout executives. And the Alverson Report stands vindicated.

Keith Monroe is a frequent contributor to The Way It Was column.

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