This year, the Greenwich Boy Scouts, formed in 1912, are celebrating 100 years of scouting on July 12, the group's Charter Day. The national organization, The Boy Scouts of America, was incorporated in 1910 in Washington, D.C.
But Greenwich Scouting and Scouting itself actually can trace its origins back even further than that -- to Cos Cob and a man named Ernest Thompson Seton, some time shortly after the turn of the 20th century.
The story begins with Seton, a naturalist, writer and artist, who owned a home and private park on more than 100 acres of pristine woodland on Orchard Street. The land was a perfect place for wood walks, fishing and exploring.
Seton called his property Wyndygoul, after the home of a Scottish ancestor, and brought to it as much wildlife as he could muster -- squirrels, deer and more -- and built a high, wire fence around the property to keep out dogs and trespassers.
The fence, the story goes, angered a group of young Cos Cob boys who could no longer play and explore on the property. So, they painted graffiti on Seton's entry gate.
Seton's efforts to stop the boys' vandalizing went nowhere. He could have gone to the authorities, but he had another idea. It was just before Easter in 1902 when he visited the Cos Cob School (where the mischievous youth were students) and received permission to address a few boys 10 and older. He would invite in this group of suspected vandals for a weekend of camping in tepees and canoeing on his newly built lake.
He asked the boys to arrive after school on the Friday before Easter.
Seton thought that perhaps a group of 20 or so would arrive. Still, he was prepared with provisions for a few more, and he hired a cook and general helper. Some say that 42 boys showed, although one boy who was there, Leonard Clark, who was 10 years old at the time, remembered about 17 showing up.
"We were told to bring along a blanket, so that we could sleep in a tent that night," said Clark in his oral history taken down at Greenwich Library in 1975, when he was 83.
The young Clark slept in an Indian tepee set on a 40-foot clearing with a great bonfire in the center. And he and the other boys saw that Seton had built a dam and a small lake, where there was once only a flowing brook.
"He told us wonderful stories about the Indians," said Clark, "We were just entranced by his talking . . . He spoke of the Indians as outstanding individuals; people who . . . just devoted their life to outdoors . . . to one another."
"And then the outstanding thing that he told us," said Clark, "was about fair play, about never lying. He looked down on an individual if you told a falsehood, even if it was just a minor falsehood. We were taught always to tell the truth."
Seton was onto something, and the seeds of Scouting had been planted.
He turned his property into a summer camp of sorts, holding swimming races where winners were awarded an (Indian) coup. "A coup was a feather we could put in our hair," said Clark. Those who swam particularly well, he added, could tie a white thread on their feather.
By the next summer, campers 8- to 14-years-old came from all over Greenwich to attend and then join the "tribes" that made up what Seton would call The League of Woodcraft Indians.
Clark had become a member of the Sinawoy Tribe. He and the other campers were given Indian names -- his was Broken Arm, and Seton was called Black Wolf.
Clark learned the deer hunting game, where a boy playing the deer would don an old pair of shoes affixed with iron plates shaped so they would leave deer tracks on the ground. He would get a 10-minute head start on the "hunters," carrying a dummy deer -- a burlap bag of straw with a heart drawn on it that he would hide. He then hid, too, at a safe distance.
The hunter who first spotted the "deer" would cry "Deer!" And with bows and arrows provided by Seton they would shoot the "deer," aiming at the heart. Only if the heart was hit would the deer "die." Otherwise the hunt would begin again.
"Everything that he taught us was on the highest ground of principle," said Clark. "He was teaching us to be a team, to play together; he was teaching us of manhood that was to come, and he was teaching us the worth of outdoor life."
Seton created a field guide for outdoor living, which he called "The Birch Bark Roll of Woodcraft."
Clark goes on in his oral history to say he remembers a visit by an Englishman, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who came to see Seton's camp in action, to see Seton's Indians. Baden-Powell was a hero of the Second Boer War who was organizing the Boy Scouts in England based on what he had learned of scouting during his service with the British Army.
Whether or not Baden-Powell actually visited the camp is uncertain, one thing is for sure. Seton did meet with Baden-Powell in 1906 in England and had earlier sent to Baden-Powell an edition of his "Birch Bark Roll of Woodcraft."
Indeed, when Baden-Powell published his bestselling "Scouting for Boys" in 1908, which led to the launching of the Boy Scouts in England, much of the book is said to reflect the teachings found in the "Birch Bark Roll of Woodcraft," mixed with Baden-Powell's military slant. "So," said Clark, "The Boy Scout movement that's over the world today . . . came from England back to us."
The contributions of Ernest Thompson Seton is apparent today throughout the Boy Scout Handbook. "To those who have never met Mr. Seton," said Clark, "they can't understand what a dynamic man he was . . . What we kids did under the leadership of Mr. Seton in Cos Cob, beginning in 1902, is in reality the basis for the Boy Scout movement that is now all over the world."
On July 12, the Greenwich Council BSA will host a 100-year anniversary party at the Ernest Thompson Seton Scout Reservation. On October 13, a celebratory gala, "Camp Centennial," will be held at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich, featuring actor Tim Beasle as emcee "Ernest Thompson Seton;" keynote speaker Jack Furst, president of Project Broken Arrow that is developing the BSA's 10,600-acre Summit Bechtel Reserve; and illusionist Bill Herz, who will look to the future of Scouting. For more information, visit the Greenwich Scout Council website at www.greenwichscouting.org .