If you were a Boy Scout, a citizen of the Territory of Hawai'i, an artist or just an American kid in the first half of the Twentieth Century, there's a good chance that you would have heard of “Kimo” Wilder, or “Pine Tree Jim” as he was known in some circles. You might have read one of his books: Jack-Knife Cookery or The Pine Tree Patrol. You could have seen his movie, Knights of the Square Table, about Boy Scouts, starring Wilder, which can still be viewed at the Library of Congress. You could have seen his portrait of Prince Kuhio hanging in the Throne Room of the IolaniPalace. Perhaps you would have witnessed his pageant depicting the arrival of Captain Cook in the Hawaiian Islands. If you were really lucky, you might have been a member of his Boy Scout Troop, “The Queen's Own,” sponsored by deposed Queen Liliuokalani. It was one of the first troops in the U.S. A little later, you could have been part of his Sea Scout Ship. Wilder was one of the most fascinating characters of his time. He was born and died in Hawai'i, but lived in many parts of the world and traveled, literally, around it.
James Austin Wilder was born in 1868, the son of a prominent businessman, Samuel Gardner Wilder. The senior Wilder was a Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Hawai'i, under King David Kalakaua. Wilder himself once played poker with the king. He didn't understand the stakes and the teenager lost a rather large sum of money to the king. He shamefacedly had to ask his father for it. Samuel gave him the money and the king's chamberlain had the good grace to forgive the debt and return the money. Wilder never gambled after that.
As a youth, Kimo went to military school and to Harvard with Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, who later served as a Territorial Delegate to Congress. They remained friends (even though when they were adults Kuhio admitted it was he who had stuffed gum in Wilder's bugle at a parade), until the Prince's death. Wilder was a bearer of a Kahili, the ceremonial black-feathered staff carried at funerals of Hawaiian royalty, one of a very few non-Hawaiians ever to do so.
As a young man, Jamie, as his family called him, went off to Japan, the Ryuku Islands, Borneo, Guam and Ascension Islands in a span of three or four years. He married Sarah Harndon in 1899, and together they traveled the world. The couple traveled to Japan, Southeast Asia, India, Europe and sometime later spent months in Bora Bora and Tunisia. During their travels they managed to have two children, who tagged along on their around-the-world jaunts.
The family always had fascinating adventures. Of course, the world was a very different place then than now. Wilder's personality, gracious and charming, allowed him to, shall we say, “con” his way into and out of many interesting situations. They once smuggled a large quantity of his favorite pipe tobacco into Spain, which was strictly forbidden, by tucking the cans under Sarah's voluminous skirts. On another occasion, Wilder managed to “distract” a customs official to the extent that he was able to get a brand-new automobile into France without paying duty on it. His life was interesting enough that his daughter, Elizabeth Kinau Wilder, wrote a book, Wilders of Waikiki, about their adventures.
Wilder was a portrait painter and a very good one. Most of his art has been lost or disappeared into private hands, but some remains. His portrait of Prince Kuhio is stored away in the dusty vaults of the Hawai'i State Archives. Fortunately, he didn't have to earn his living that way, because he seems to have given much of it away. He had a good income from his share of his late father's shipping company and a very good manager to make the money prosper, so, while he was never a rich man, he always lived comfortably.
It's hard to say exactly when Kimo got the Scouting bug, but it was quite early and it consumed the rest of his life. Lieutenant General Baden-Powell (pronounced Poe - El) had written some books on scouting in England and a movement had started there by 1907 and Wilder was certainly aware of it. He started the Queen's Own in 1911. That same year, Kimo and Harvey Hitchcock started what is now the Aloha Council, Boy Scouts of America in Honolulu. Wilder was the first Scout Commissioner, which meant he was the head of the Council. In 1917, he started Sea Scouting in Hawai'i. He wasn't the first to realize the value of a program just for older boys, but he was the one who made it happen. His connections in Washington and at Scout Headquarters in New York, along with his financial independence, made him the man for the job. He went to James E. West, head of the B.S.A., and suggested they make this an official Scouting program. West objected that they had no funding and nobody available to take on the job full-time. Kimo volunteered to take on the job and fund the department himself. He thus became the first and only Chief Sea Scout of the United States. Out of his efforts came Senior Scouting, Exploring, Venturing and all the other programs that exist in Boy Scouting today for older youth (girls included).
The Wilders had a home in Waikiki, on the spot where the Halekulani Hotel now stands, next to the Royal Hawaiian. They had another up on Tantalus. Whenever the couple was in Hawai'i, their home was always filled a variety of people: the rich and famous of the world, the upper crust of society in Hawai'i and the beach boys who would come and sing for them in the evenings.
In 1929, the Chief Sea Scout was asked to represent the B.S.A. at the second international Scout jamboree in England. Off he went, to be wined and dined all across the U.S. and Europe. When he returned, he was not well. Overweight and hypertensive anyway, the trip had done him in. He suffered a couple of minor strokes on his trip and a big one in 1930 that left him an invalid. According to his daughter, he had just met with a local Scout official, with whom he had a major argument. He continued to enjoy life as much as he could, although he eventually became blind. He was awarded one of the very early Silver Buffalo awards, the highest award in American Scouting, in 1930.
In 1934, James Austin Wilder passed away, leaving a great legacy. His books, his programs, his ideas, but most of all his personality would long be remembered by all who knew him. The number of young men and women who have been touched by his program and those that have resulted from it is impossible to calculate. Wilder was American hero and should be today an icon. Sadly, he is remembered very little. There is no memorial to him in Hawai’i or on the mainland, other than a small Sea Scout emblem at his grave site in OahuCemetery. Ironically, his grave is just a few steps away from the grave of the man who is considered the founder of modern baseball, Alexander Joy Cartwright. There is a large plaque on the road leading to Cartwright's grave, but not even a sign pointing to Wilder's.
© Winston R. Davis, 2012. All rights reserved.