Saturday, March 14, 2009

On The Banks of The Susquehanna: Camping By The Book

Few men (and even fewer boys) had ever camped out when the Boy Scouts of America and Troop 1 BSA Unadilla, NY were born in 1910. There were no training manuals for Scoutmasters, so new adult leaders like the Rev. Yale Lyon relied on the same manual for campcraft that the boys used--the hastily-drawn official BSA Handbook for Boys, authored by two of BSA's founders, Daniel Carter Beard and Ernest Thompson Seton.

In the new handbook, for example, it was suggested that the best camp shelter was a leanto of poles over which was laid a thatch of freshly cut balsam or hemlock boughs. Boughs were also useful to make a soft, fragrant mattress for sleeping on the ground. H.W. Gibson, the YMCA Boys' Work Secretary who wrote the section on campcraft, included a few lines of poetry to emphasize the serene joy of sleeping on a bed of balsam:

Then the pine boughs
croon me a lullaby,
And trickle the white moonbeams
To my face on the balsam

where I lie.
While the owl hoots at my dreams.
---J. George Frederick

Sleeping bags were available at the time, but Chief Scout Seton frowned on them, saying "They are too difficult to air or to adjust to different temperatures." Instead Scouts were told to lay their waterproof ponchos over the boughs and then make an "envelope" of two woolen blankets pinned together with large blanket pins. On very cold nights, heated rocks placed near the head, back and feet made good "bedwarmers," he said. A relay team of two night watchers could replace the cooled off rocks with hot ones from the fire every two hours. Boys unlucky enough to draw night watcher duty ferrying bed warmers back and forth while shivering in the dark, would have the dubious compensation of having their "imaginations stirred by the resistless attraction of the campfire and the sound of the creatures that creep at night." The unpoetical reality of hypothermia and frostbite apparently escaped Seton's attention.

The "Comfort Sleeping Pocket"

One example of the store-bought sleeping gear Seton objected to was the Comfort Sleeping Pocket, a portable pneumatic bed that appeared in the 1910 New York Sporting Goods Co. catalog. The Sleeping Pocket was touted as made for the camper who feared discomfort in the woods yet still liked to "rough it." The elaborate 22-lb contraption came with a rubberized air mattress fitted with a waterproof canvas cover, a felt liner, pillow and air pump. The Sleeping Pocket was guaranteed, at least with the addition of a couple wool blankets, to keep you warm and dry in the severest weather!

In the Handbook for Boys, Seton also provided directions for making several styles of tents, either of canvas duck or heavy cotton cloth waterproofed with what would be considered today a potentially lethal solution of alum and lead acetate. Another waterproofing method suggested dissolving paraffin into turpentine on a double boiler and saturating the canvas with the hot brew. "You must work outdoors," said Seton, "in a breeze if possible," as the fumes of the turpentine will surely make you sick if you try it indoors."

Scoutmaster Rev. Yale Lyon and the boys of Troop 1 BSA Unadilla, NY
at the first New York State Encampment,Cooperstown, NY, July 12, 1911.
The tentage included two Army-style wall tents and a wigwam made from a large tarpaulin
arranged similar to a plan published in the new Handbook for Boys.
The camp furniture included barrels and tables made of scrap wood.

Teepees were as popular with early Scouts as they are today. Seton included in the Handbook a plan for a small conical or wigwam tent utilizing a single center pole, and Daniel Carter Beard later published plans for making a large Souix-style tepee in his book Shelters, Shacks and Shanties. A four or five-pole tepee was among the tents Rev. Yale Lyon outfitted his troop with at the 1911 New York State Boy Scout Encampment at Cooperstown, NY.

Hearty, not Heart-Friendly, Camp Food.

Camp cooking utensils usually came from home. So did much of the larder because store-bought convenience foods like today's granola bars, instant rice and pancake mixes were far in the future, and most of today's dietary concerns also were unheard of.

The Handbook recommended menus heavy in fat and high in cholesterol. Scouts would start the day with a breakfast of fried bacon, fried eggs, fried potatoes, griddle-cakes with butter, and boiled coffee. Lunch (called Dinner in the handbook) called for creamed salmon on toast, baked potatoes buried directly in a bed of hot coals, bread, pickles and some fruit. Supper included fried eggs, creamed or chipped beef, cheeze, bread and cocoa. Foil dinners (including the foil itself), freeze-dried entrees, flavored oatmeals and noodle packets, instant coffee were not yet invented.

Tried and Tested Recipes from the Handbook.

The Handbook offered a number of tried and tested cooking recipes for long hikes or overnight camps, larded with plenty of sage advice. Biscuits and breadmaking in camp was discouraged; "amateur" biscuits, the handbook said, are not conducive to good digestion or happiness. Frog's legs should be soaked in water and vinegar before frying; watercress, presumably collected at the same time as the frogs, made a good relish to serve with them. Small fish should be fried whole with the backbone severed to prevent them from curling up. Roast potatoes should be poked with a sharpened sliver of wood to let the steam escape and used immediately. A roast potato soon becomes soggy and bitter, the book said.

Summer Camp on the Susquehanna.

Throughout BSA's first decade, most summer camps were run by individual troops; Unadilla's Troop 1 was no exception. Each summer until the start of WW1 Scoutmaster Yale Lyon conducted a "fine camp on the Susquehanna River--a full scout camp program."

The Susquehanna Camp was the highlight of the summer for Lyon's boys. In 1915, in spite of almost continual rains during the week's outing, their butter and milk larder floating down river with the morning tide and soggy tents, they did not desert camp. The Unadilla Times reported they would remain until the tents were dried out if it took until Christmas! But in 1916, Lyon reported to National Headquarters in New York that "...our Scout Camp [has been] given up as all the boys were at work." After the war was concluded in 1918, Scoutmaster Lyon quickly reestablished the summer camp tradition on the banks of the river for his troop, sometimes including boys from Unadilla's Protestant Troop 2 and nearby Sidney, NY troop with his own. "We have had a camp there since 1911, and we will again next year," he reported in 1919, "and we also go for 2 day trips to some interesting place where boys see museums, meet interesting people, camp overnight on water, etc." He also reported in 1919 that his summer camp was outfitted with its own tents, cots, and a canoe.

Local councils, however, soon began to establish their own camps. Yale Lyon himself served on the executive board of the fledgling Otsego-Schoharie Council in 1924 that operated a short-lived Camp Awenaga on Gilbert Lake near Laurens, NY. When the council expanded to include Delaware County two years later, he helped establish a new Camp Deerslayer on Otsego Lake at Cooperstown, NY. Thereafter, Lyon discontinued his Camp Susquehanna operations.

The Handbook advised that no group of boys should go camping by themselves--they should insist the Scoutmaster accompany them to prevent accidental drownings, settle disputes, or provide a man's help where needed to stave off the hundred and one things that will "surely break up your camp and drive you home to town or city."

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