Excerpts from Men of Schiff by Winston Davis

Men of Schiff


This isn't meant to be a history of the start of Boy
Scouting in the U.S.A., but we have to talk about it a
little to give the reader a background for the stories of
the men that the book is about. There are lots of books
about the history of Scouting, and some of them are
listed in the Bibliography. Scouting started in Britain
in 1907.

Many in the U.S. were concerned about the moral
and physical state of its youth, just as in Britain.
Some Americans, like author and naturalist Ernest
Thompson Seton and Daniel Carter Beard, an author
and social reformer, had already started organizations
for boys to get them in the outdoors. Scouting in the
U.S. really got started when Chicago businessman
William D. Boyce encountered a young man on a
London street. The story varies as to whether Boyce
was lost in a London fog or just needed help crossing
the street, since traffic was coming from the wrong
direction, but the story is that the boy took Boyce to
his destination and refused a tip, saying he was a
Scout and that a part of his obligation was to do a
“good turn” to someone ever day. Even that story may
not be true. Some Scouting scholars believe that
Boyce, a promoter, just used it to give an added boost
to the legend of the start of Scouting. What is certain
is that Boyce, who could scarcely have been unaware
of British Scouting, visited Scout headquarters in
London and got information and a Scout handbook to
bring home. He also determined that the best way for
Scouting to get a foothold in the U.S. was as a
separate, American, organization.

When Boyce returned and founded a corporation
named the Boy Scouts of America, it attracted
attention. Other civic minded Americans, including
Beard and Seton, also established contact with the
British Scouts. Seton was in contact with Baden-
Powell before the beginning of the formal movement in
Britain. Through amalgamation of various groups and
the backing of civic organizations, described more fully
in the next section, by 1910 the Boy Scouts of America
had been incorporated with headquarters in New York
City. There were just a couple of men in that office. All
over the country, though, men and boys were getting
together and starting Boy Scout troops. Sometimes it
was the men who initiated it and sometimes it was the

The first American Scout handbook, Handbook for

Boys, was in print by 1911. Boys got hold of the
books and wanted to start Scout patrols and troops. In
the beginning, Scoutmasters got their “commissions”
from New York and had to deal with that office to get
badges, uniforms, and other things necessary to run
Scout troops. In 1913, a handbook was written for

The history of the Boy Scouts of America is a huge
American epic.

In the early 20th Century in the U.S., urbanization
was at level never before seen in this country and its
effects were beginning to be seen in American youth.
Juvenile delinquency was on the rise and the youth
were not as physically fit as they had been when most
lived on farms.

Urban American boys had relatively a lot of free
time. Where farm boys had worked from dawn to dusk,
city boys had less work to do. They had been removed
from the outdoors and there was as yet no mass media
to occupy their time. They were ready for an
organization which was theirs alone, to give them
something designed for boys to do.


The idea of Scouting, with its uniforms, badges
and activities along with other boys, was exactly the
16 Men of Schiff: A History Of The Men Who Built…
thing. They soon even had their own magazine, Boys’
Life, which came to them in the mail and was written
for them. The fact that Scouting started from “the
ground up,” with boys starting their own patrols and
troops, shows just how ready they were.

So, the men who began Scouting as an
organization in the U.S. were acting on an idea whose
time had come. A reading of history shows that timing
is everything. If Germany had not gotten what they
perceived as a raw deal in World War I, and then
suffered economic collapse, Hitler might never come to
power, for example.

At any other time in history the idea probably
would not have worked. But, in 1910 everything was
in place for Scouting to take off in the United States.
They were in the right place at the right time and
Baden-Powell, along with Seton and Beard, had given
them the right mechanism.

It was Bill Hillcourt who made the observation to
me and others that Scouting was a game for boys (not
original, B-P always said it was a game), but unlike
other games for boys it was designed for them. When
boys play Little League, he said, or Pop Warner
football, the field is cut down from the size adults play
on. The rules are altered to make the game less
difficult for shorter legs and less powerful arms.
Scouting on the other hand, he said, was designed
from the start to be just for boys and just the right
size. What he didn’t say, but fully intended, was that
we tinker with it at our peril.

In the 1960s, he wrote the biography of his friend
and mentor, Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell, who had
died in 1940, in collaboration with Baden-Powell's
widow, Olave. Because of that relationship, Olave
Baden-Powell donated most of her late husband’s
Scouting memorabilia to the BSA, rather than the
British Scouting organization. Lady Baden-Powell was
also upset with the British Scouts Association because
of program changes they made which were very similar
to many of those the BSA has made in the years
since. She died in 1975. Bill’s wife Grace had died in
1973, but Bill kept on going. He died in 1992, aged 91,
while on a world tour to promote a reprinting of his
book in many languages and to visit the former Iron
Curtain countries where Scouting was now again
taking hold after decades of suppression by the
Communist governments.


When he attended events, he would stop and chat
with groups of boys, and could still entertain them
with little tricks that never got old. One of his favorites
was to show boys that he could tell the exact time with
a toothpick or small stick that he would stand up in
the center of his palm like a sundial. He would observe
the shadow, give the exact time of day and the amazed
boys never realized that he was wearing a watch,
flipped around so that the dial was facing up just like
his palm.