Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"Camping Outs": Encampments, Rallies and Circuses

Camping as a vehicle to deliver the tenets of Scouting had its beginnings when Lord S.S. Baden-Powell ran his experimental camp on Brownsea Island in 1907 for the 21 original Scouts. The "camping out" was a success and a movement was born that quickly spread to America and around the world. In America, Boy Scouting was quickly embraced by Sunday school and public school teachers, young ministers like the Rev. Yale Lyon in Unadilla, NY, and by leaders in the Young Men's Christian Association who began planning outings called "camping outs," or "encampments."

YMCA Camping.

Actually, YMCAs had been in the camping "game" since the late 1860s. YMCA records include an early reference to a Vermont Y's boys'-work missionary taking a group of boys to Lake Champlain for a "summer encampment." In 1881, the Brooklyn YMCA reported taking 30 boys on a "camping out" and by a year later, many other YMCAs began recording camping programs in their annual reports under "outings and excursions."

By 1908 and 1909, Y officials began hearing about the new Boy Scout movement gaining popularity in England. A few Ys actually set up Boy Scout troops within their own organizations, and some Y camps began using elements of the Scoutcraft skills Powell wrote about in his 1907 handbook, Scouting for Boys.

Scoutmaster Training at Y Camp at Silver Bay.

As organized a year earlier, the camp wasn't intended to be a Scouting experience. Now largely-forgotten veteran YMCA boys'-work executive Edgar M. Robinson, well aware he lacked the charisma to enthrall boys with the lore of nature and the exploits of Cooper's Deerslayer and Chingatchcook, had arranged for Ernest Thompson Seton to demonstrate Woodcraft Indians campcraft at a special late August session for YMCA boys.

As a result, the encampment became an experimental Scout camp, with an Indian flavor. Scouts lived in homemade tepees made from plans in Seton's Two Little Savages book, and Seton himself directed the program. William D. Murray, another YMCA official who later became a Scouting professional, was the overall camp director.

Subsequent encampments for the training of Scoutmasters of the Boy Scouts of America were held as part of the Silver Bay Summer Institute in 1911 and 1912. In the picture above, Daniel Carter Beard, National Commissioner, here wearing BSA's first army-style uniform, demonstrates the "throwing of the hatchet" in 1912. (Photo courtesy of the Silver Bay Association.)

A woodcraft camp organized by Ernest Thompson Seton was held at Silver Bay in 1910. Numerous boys' organizations were represented among the 125 attendees at the experimental encampment. Ideas formulated at the woodcraft camp led to the organization of the Boy Scouts of America later that year. Silver Bay is recognized as BSA's first training site. Seton, then known as Black Wolf, is the white-shirted figure standing to the right in this photo. (Photo courtesy of the Silver Bay Association.)

Boy Scout Encampment, Cooperstown, NY 1911.

In 1911, the following year after the Silver Bay experimental encampment, a similar encampment was planned at Cooperstown, NY during the week of July 12-18, with a planned attendance of 2,000 to 5,000 Scouts, all fully equipped to spend the week in the open on the shores of Otsego Lake, attending rallies on the Clark estate and going on hiking expeditions over the Leatherstocking territory made famous by J. Fenimore Cooper. It was hoped that Daniel Carter Beard would be the honored guest, and speakers under consideration at the time included ex-President Theodore Roosevelt and Governor Dix. (Teddy Roosevelt did manage to briefly visit the encampment on the Thursday of that week in the company of the YMCA official William D. Murray.) The committee organizing the event hoped they could also entice the Vitagraph Company to come and make a motion picture of the event to be shown in theaters around the country.

The event, though grandly conceived in the excitement of the new Boy Scout movement, went largely unattended--less than 200 Scouts made to Nathaniel Bumpo's literary birthplace that summer.

Boy Scout Rallies and Circuses.

Boy Scout rallies were held frequently during the 1910s and 1920s. At rallies, Boy Scouts would compete against one another for prizes in athletic contests like foot races, or in contests relating to Scout skills, such as signaling or fire making. Rallies that involved a large number of troops eventually came to be called Boy Scout circuses, and were often the troop's biggest event of the year.

While rallies were usually held outdoors, the Boy Scout Circus was an indoor exposition-with-added-midway attractions that featured community parades, presentation of ranks and awards, demonstrations of Scout skills, and often professional circus acts that attracted a more general audience.

One such event staged in the State Armory in Oneonta in 1937 featured a grand entry march of more than 1,000 Scouts and Scouters, a band concert, demonstrations of Scouting skills such as figure marching, flashlight drills using Semiphore and Morse signaling codes, wild animal acts, a rope lasso act by the 'larieteers' of Troop 41 of Roxbury, and a greased pig catching contest conducted by a mob of 'real' trained clowns! Now that was your Father's camporee!

Scout Circus 1938, Walton, NY

No comments:

Post a Comment