Monday, December 29, 2008

Troop 1 BSA Unadilla, NY Not The First Boy Scout Troop?

Claims by several communities to have had the first Boy Scout troop in the USA are shrouded in undocumented history, but it is known that after the publication of Robert Baden-Powell's Scouting for Boys handbook in 1907, dozens of troops were started in England and in a few places in America. A lady named Myra Greeno Bass used the book to start an "Eagle Troop" in Kentucky in 1908, and John Romanes, who had trained with Baden-Powell in Scotland, formed a troop that same year in Salinas, Kansas. In the next few months, the YMCA embraced Scouting as a part of their boys' work and camping program, and started troops in Chicago, Boston and Springfield, Mass., in Utica, New York and on Staten Island, Columbus, Ohio and St. Lewis, Mo.

Some of the early troops grew out of Sunday School classes or Protestant youth groups, or the Boys' Brigade, a paramilitary organization with liberal doses of religious training. For boys with an outdoor bent, there was Daniel Carter Beard's Sons of Daniel Boone (later called the Boy Pioneers) or Ernest Thompson Seton's Woodcraft Indians, two organizations that later merged with the new Boy Scouts of America. Most took their program and camping cues from Baden-Powell's book or Seton's manual The Birch Bark Roll or the writings of Beard in various boys' magazines.

In the first decade of the Scouting movement in America, there was no semblance of a national organization. That all changed in 1909 when Chicago newspaperman William D. Boyce, intrigued by his encounter with a young British Scout in a London pea-soup fog, came home determined to use Boy Scouting as a vehicle to train and educate his army of newsboys who delivered his papers. On February 8, 1910, Boyce filed incorporation papers in Washington, D.C. for the Boy Scouts of America.

While it seems impossible today to confirm the story of young seminarian Yale Lyon actually meeting Robert Baden-Powell at an Oxford garden party while he was in England studying for the ministry*, the Scouting program he saw developing throughout England must have sparked his interest in starting "a little community project for boys" as soon as he arrived in Unadilla as the new Rector of the St. Matthew's Episcopal Church. National records show Yale Lyon was warranted as Scoutmaster #166 in April 1910 but in the fevered rush to register over 4,000 men in the new Boy Scouts of America, officials at BSA's New York headquarters didn't get around to issuing a charter for the troop until September 7th.

Soon after BSA's incorporation, troops began to appear in every town and city and hamlet where the first troop of that community would be designated Troop One. If a second troop was formed, it would be given the number Two; the third, Troop Three, and so on. This early numbering system soon led to much confusion and makes it impossible today to pinpoint the first troop by its numerical designation. In the central New York area, several other Troop Ones were started in Oneonta, Cooperstown and Cobleskill as early as 1911, but they have long since been disbanded or merged with other troops. A Troop Two organized in 1911 in Middleburgh, New York with a Judge Don Beekman as Scoutmaster still meets.

By 1990, only two troops in America were able to celebrate 80 years of service to boys and their community. In 2000, while Troop One was celebrating its 90th Anniversary, it was learned the other veteran troop had disbanded, making Unadilla's surviving claim, not as the first boy scout troop in America, but as the Oldest Continually Chartered Boy Scout Troop in America completely valid.

*While in England to attend the 27th World Jamboree in 2007, the author and Troop 1's current Scoutmaster Brian Danforth met with the British Scouting Association's Baden-Powell Archivist to determine if Yale Lyon's personal timeline while studying in England in 1909 could have actually put him in hand-shake's distance with the founder of British Boy Scouting, Sir Robert Baden-Powell. We'll relate the story of giving credence to a fanciful tale in another article on this blog site soon.

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