Did you ever really wonder about the beginning of the Scouting Program? The information provided below comes from Keith Monroe and appeared in the June 1996 issue of ‘Scouting Magazine’.
February 14, 1911 proved to be a memorable date in the history of the Boy Scouts of America. It was the BSA’s first birthday celebration and the day of a momentous organizational meeting. The event could have turned into a fiasco that would have crippled the young organization; but thanks to the quick thinking of four men, potential disaster turned into triumph and Scouting in America was set on a smooth course for decades – more than a century and going strong!
Following the birth of Scouting in Britain in 1908, Scout groups in the United States sprang up in an unplanned and haphazard manner. There were no official handbooks, no places to get badges or equipment, no central offices. In February 1910, Chicago publisher William D. Boyce had incorporated the name Boy Scouts of America. The organization began operating out of a one-room office in New York City that was soon flooded with requests for information and help. A larger, more structured organization was needed, and an organizing committee of 25 leaders in youth and social work was formed. Meeting periodically, they raised money, printed half a million information pamphlets, and recruited influential people to form a permanent Executive Board.
On January 2, 1911, the organizing committee opened a two-room office at 200 Fifth Avenue under the management of a newly hired ‘executive secretary’ James E. West. At 34 years old, West was a rising lawyer and well-known in youth work. A man of big dreams, he knew how to make things happen. One of is first moves was to carry out plans for a national conclave of Scouting enthusiasts from February 14 to 15. Members of this first “Annual Meeting of the National Council” would elect the BSA Executive Board and national offices. To add prestige to the event, West proposed that President William Howard Taft invite the Council to meet in the White House.
Taft, who had agreed to accept the honorary presidency of the BSA National Council, not only invited the council to the White House but also planned to deliver a welcoming speech. Buoyed by Taft’s patronage, the BSA organizers recruited 75 notable National Council members. Aware of the national publicity the President’s opening speech would generate, West put together an impressive anecdotal report of Scouting’s progress for Taft to use in preparing his commendatory remarks. On the day of the meeting, West learned from Taft’s secretary, Mr. Norton, that the President had not yet read the material. If the President’s remarks revealed that he did now know what Scouting was all about, many prominent supporters who had come to Washington might lose interest and not stay for the crucial two-day organizing meeting.
West quickly met with his executive committee and with Norton’s approval, they hammered out an emergency plan. Presidential protocol required that the President speak first when meeting a group in the White house. But as soon as the BSA delegation was seated in the East Room, Lee F. Hanmer of the Russell Sage Foundation promptly stepped forward, thanked President Taft for his invitation, and shifted smoothly into a concise explanation and survey of Scouting. The President, taking his cues with the ease of long practice as a public official, responded by gracefully embroidering Hanmer’s summary. The crowd was charmed and the speech was reported widely.
National Council members now settled down to organizing the BSA. Should Scoutmasters be paid? Who should be ‘boss’ in a local scout office? The council president? A paid office manager? Or an unpaid council commissioner? In those early days the council commissioner was often a former military man with an appetite for detail, who was often more active in council operation than the executive board. But the BSA national founders did not want a community’s Scouting run from all all-powerful headquarters – even with an ‘elected’ official in charge. Most didn’t think a paid staff should give orders either, as was the case in voluntary organizations like the Red Cross and YMCA. The majority agreed with British Scouters that unpaid volunteers were the key to success, if they got coaching from experts.
Committees were formed and kept meeting in later weeks until a decision was reached. Each council’s function would be mainly to hand out advice and information. Local institutions would run troops under leaders they themselves chose. (This special relationship between the BSA and its ‘chartered partners’ has continued to this day.) Within a month, 60 new councils were organized. From their ‘council service centers’ they encouraged institutions to start troops qualified for chartering. Each chartered institution was represented in the local council, and each council was represented in the National Council. The meeting had greatly strengthened the BSA, Lee Hanmer reported, and “prepared the way for most satisfactory developments of this work throughout the country.” Hanmer’s optimism was confirmed in the decades that followed.