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Pioneers in national conservation, scouting crafted Culver Woodcraft program

June 24, 2012

Boy Scout and conservation pioneer and artist Daniel Carter Beard, alongside Woodcraft campers, circa 1912.

Culver Academies has, of course, graduated famous names like Hal Holbrook, George Steinbrenner, Jonathan Winters, and numerous others of renown. Unbeknownst to many, though, Culver's pride of place has every right to swell at the mention of Daniel Carter Beard, Ernest Thompson Seton, and Robert Baden-Powell.

If there were ever a "holy trinity" of international scouting, conservation, and naturalism, the title worthily belongs to those three, whose pioneering efforts not only helped lay the groundwork for today's ecological "green" movement and National Parks system, but along the way brought into being a summer camp for boys on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee, 100 years ago this summer.

Various factors apparently contributed to the creation of the Woodcraft camp prior to 1912, including requests from youngesters and parents for a summer experience to include younger boys than the already existant, more rugged Naval School and Summer Cavalry program could accommodate.

However, the specific direction for the camp was almost certainly inspired by Culver commandant and then-Col. L.R. Gignilliat's interactions in London with Robert Baden-Powell, in 1911.

Baden-Powell (1857 – 1941) boasted an impressive background in military service and authorship, having served for more than 20 yeas in the British Army, distinguishing himself in battle in the second Boer War in South Africa. His early military and scout training books had already been influential on young, male readers, but his 1908 "Scouting for Boys" would become the fourth bestselling book in history, some of its themes having been tested in 1907 during a camping trip often seen as the launch-point for the Boy Scout movement which would overtake the British empire in the years following.

Baden-Powell's efforts, soon internationally known, intersected smartly with those of Gignilliat, even if the latter took a more specifically military direction as exempliCulver Academies has, of course, graduated famous names like Hal Holbrook, George Steinbrenner, Jonathan Winters, and numerous others of renown. Unbeknownst to many, though, Culver's pride of place has every right to swell at the mention of Daniel Carter Beard, Ernest Thompson Seton, and Robert Baden-Powell.

If there were ever a "holy trinity" of international scouting, conservation, and naturalism, the title worthily belongs to those three, whose pioneering efforts not only helped lay the groundwork for today's ecological "green" movement and National Parks system, but along the way brought into being a summer camp for boys on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee, 100 years ago this summer.

Various factors apparently contributed to the creation of the Woodcraft camp prior to 1912, including requests from youngesters and parents for a summer experience to include younger boys than the already existant, more rugged Naval School and Summer Cavalry program could accommodate.

However, the specific direction for the camp was almost certainly inspired by Culver commandant and then-Col. L.R. Gignilliat's interactions in London with Robert Baden-Powell, in 1911.

Baden-Powell (1857 – 1941) boasted an impressive background in military service and authorship, having served for more than 20 yeas in the British Army, distinguishing himself in battle in the second Boer War in South Africa. His early military and scout training books had already been influential on young, male readers, but his 1908 "Scouting for Boys" would become the fourth bestselling book in history, some of its themes having been tested in 1907 during a camping trip often seen as the launch-point for the Boy Scout movement which would overtake the British empire in the years following.

Baden-Powell's efforts, soon internationally known, intersected smartly with those of Gignilliat, even if the latter took a more specifically military direction as exemplified at Culver. Gignilliat was clearly impressed by what he saw of Baden-Powell in 1911, and it seems likely the genesis of the Woodcraft camp grew out of the two men's interactions.

By November of that year, Gignilliat had drafted a letter to American scouting co-founder Beard, outlining his plans for the camp, and in February, 1912, Baden-Powell had made Culver one of the few schools he visited in the course of his tenure in the United States (West Point was the only other).

While here, Baden-Powell reviewed Culver's batallion and took in an exhibition of rough riding, then addressing the cadet corps on "Scouting in Peace and War."

“I have seen the cadets of all nationalities at their work and I must say that you beat the lot,” the General said of Culver's boys. The Vedette of March, 1912 reported he "was escorted past the lines while the cannon boomed the salute of 15 guns.

"When the entire body wigwagged the Boy Scout motto, 'Be Prepared,'" continued the Vedette, "an appreciative smile broke on the grizzled face of the veteran Scout and he led the enthusiastic applause."
Baden-Powell returned the favor eight years later: in 1920, Col. Gignilliat was designated Chairman of the delegation of 300 Americans attending the International Scouting Jamboree in London.

Of the three architects of Scouting, Baden-Powell had the least interaction with the Woodcraft camp proper; there's no evidence he ever actually laid eyes on the camp, or returned to Culver at all post-1912. His influence, however, had been enormous.

So too was that of his American counterpart, "Uncle Dan" Beard.
It's not surprising that Beard, and in a somewhat different vein, Ernest Thompson Seton, should find themselves in positions of great influence in the Scouting movement simultaneous to Baden-Powell. To a large extent, the movement was a response to increased urbanization in America, and a growing fear that youth would become too "soft" and lose sight of important lessons taught in nature, should the tide not be stemmed. Former President Teddy Roosevelt was already established as a major advocate of conservation -- another central ethos pervading Scout leaders' work -- and espoused parallel views on the value of disciplined training, outdoor skills, and patriotism in the lives of boys in particular.

A Feb., 1912 Vedette article -- likely inspired by Baden-Powell's visit -- by Culver cadet Marcus Goldman sums up some of the thinking: "We have begun to realize the deteriorating effect...of nervous hurry and excitement in every phase of the world’s life...modern man has grown almost deaf to the call of the forest and the streams and the 'warm brown earth.'

"Almost simultaneously Sir Robert Baden-Powell in England and Dan Beard, Ernest Thompson Seton and others in this country, perceiving the great need of outdoor exercise and knowledge of nature among boys, established clubs to promote interest in life outdoors...we scarcely realize the magnitude of this movement."

Beard (1850 – 1941) was already an established author and illustrator prior to his Scouting involvement, having decorated several of Mark Twain's books and countless others. He founded the Scouts-like Sons of Daniel Boone in 1905. When W.D. Boyce founded the Boys Scouts of America five years later, he enlisted Beard (as well as Seton), who would become one of the BSA's first National Scout Commissioners (a post he held for the next 30 years), besides assisting in the founding of the Camp Fire Girls and editing Boys' Life magazine.

Beard received a letter at his Flushing, Long Island home dated Nov. 6, 1911, from Col. L.R. Gignilliat, CMA Superintendent.

"...For several years," wrote Gignilliat, "we have thought of adding to our summer schools a department for younger boys to constitute a separate organization from our naval and cavalry schools, the youngsters to be instructed in woodcraft and other things, which would appeal strongly to their age and would be appropriate to the season.

"Through the generosity of the Culver family the institution here is splendidly equipped. It is located on one of the most beautiful of our middle western lakes. The school grounds include some three hundred acres with abundant opportunity for interesting outdoor life.

"If the proposition (to spend the summer at Culver heading the camp) appeals to you, I would like to suggest that you come to the Academy at our expense and look over the ground. At the same time we will be glad to have you talk to the cadets of our winter school."
Beard, of course, did visit Culver and was evidently impressed enough to make it his summer home the following year, as he helped launch the Woodcraft camp as its first director.

The Library of Congress, as it turns out, holds an extensive collection from Beard's estate, including hundreds of pages of Culver-related correspondence, which make fascinating reading portraying the genesis of the camp as we know it. As early as the very first summer, for example, Beard -- who seems to be given a great degree of leeway in most aspects of the camp, from curriculum to locations -- had already instituted the first Woodcraft council fires, which by 1913 were a Saturday night tradition, even if early manifestations focused more on Scouting competitions and games, than today's Indian lore-centered performances.

Beard interestingly notes, in an Oct. 5, 1912 letter, that Culver is the first school in the world to add woodcraft to its curriculum.
By Dec., 1914, Beard was discussing with the Superintendent the importance of a suitable place for the council ring, and in two letters that month he details the type of wood and manner of construction to give the site a fittingly "picturesque" feel, emphasizing the importance of "the woodsy atmosphere" so important psychologically for the boys.

"Some attention paid to the primitive effect in the furniture," Beard concludes, "will add immensely to the picturesqueness and romance of the effect."

Interestingly, of all the famous names associated with the camp's early years, Ernest Thompson Seton has the earliest connection to Culver proper. In August, 1910, the Culver Citizen reported Seton was on the south side of Lake Maxinkuckee, talking with 40 Scouts camping there. He was also the latest of the three to return here, visiting the camp as late as 1930, 16 years before his death.

Seton (1860 – 1946), a Scots-Canadian later naturalized as a U.S. citizen, is credited among other things with pioneering modern animal fiction writing, starting in the late 1800s. Also a noted wildlife artist, he incorporated an array of Native American lore into his Boy Scouts-esque Woodcraft Indians organization, which launched in 1902.

His book, "The Birch Bark Role of the Woodcraft Indians" impressed Baden-Powell, and Seton would have a major role in the formation of the Boy Scouts of America, whose Chief Scout he became from 1910 to 1915. To a large extent, the BSA combined Seton's and Beard's prior boys' organizations, and Seton is credited with much of the early Native American influence on the BSA.

Seton's name has remained more prominent than the other Culver Woodcraft pioneers. A late 1970s Japanese anime television series, "Seton's Wild Animals," based loosely on his books, anthropomorphized woodland creatures for children, and Walt Disney immortalized his works through the movies "The Legend of Lobo" in 1962, and "King of the Grizzlies" in 1970. A fascinating 2008 documentary on PBS' "Nature" series, "The Wolf that Changed America," chronicled Seton's earlier hunt for a cattle-killing wolf, arguing it was Seton's sympathy for the nobility of the animal he killed which led directly to his involvement in the conservation and National Parks movements, laying the groundwork for ecological trends of today (his 1898 book, "Wild Animals I Have Known," chronicles the wolf hunt).

This spring, in fact, the Seton Institute of the New Mexico History Museum is chronicling his impact on that movement through an exhibit dubbed "Wild at Heart."

“Seton is a godfather to today's environmental movement," wrote New Mexico art historian David L. Witt of the Academy for the Love of Learning, "as important to the early development of wildlife conservation as John Muir is to wilderness preservation.”

"Seton Week" was declared in July, 1921, as Culver's Woodcraft camp played host to the by-then legendary naturalist. Seton demonstrated Indian dance, wild animal calls, and generally held court, much to the delight of the campers, many of whom had long read his stories. In July, 1930, much buzz again was generated when Seton returned for another week, this time even bringing about a decorative overhaul of the headquarters building to incorporate much more of an "Indian" motif.

Baden-Powell, Beard, and Seton weren't the only nationally renowned naturalists to take leadership roles in the Woodcraft Camp. A list of "required reading" for Woodcrafters in the 1930 Woodcrafter newspaper lists their books, but also those by Culver "Woodcraft chief, with his immortal true stories" Dillon Wallace, whose works included "The Lure of the Labrador Wild," "The Labrador Trail," "and many books for boys, chiefly tales of the Northland."

Popular adventure novelist Kirk Monroe ("another Woodcraft chief") was recommended for his "many books for boys about Indians, midshipmen...pirates, gold rush, the North." Camp Indian lore instructor Ralph Hubbard's "American Indian Craft" also made the list.

Internationally known ecologist, orinthologist, and angler William Vogt (1903 - 1968) was a huge hit with campers during a 1930 summertime visit. He returned to Culver that September to begin his initial design of the bird sanctuary, which he completed in 1931. At the time, "Smiling Bill" was a renowned nature lecturer and author-artist, though he would gain international fame for his 1948 book, "The Road to Survival" and what would prove to be rather alarmist activities pertinent to population control and the future of civilization.

To be sure, differences exist between those who helped shape the culture, design, and content of Culver's Woodcraft camp, and those carrying on what is largely their legacy in this age of all things "green" and increasingly eco-friendly. Today's Scouting and National Parks movements may also look a bit different than those rugged days of Beard, Seton, and the rest. But Woodcrafters past and present may be inspired knowing they have some worthy shoes to fill.

"Uncle Dan" would doubtless approve.

**A slightly altered form of this article appeared in the spring, 2012 edition of the Culver Alumni magazine.

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