Philmont is a land of starlit skies, aspen-covered hills and wind in whisp’ring pines.
That’s how John Westfall, who wrote “The Philmont Hymn,” described the Scouting paradise in New Mexico.
Westfall was a teenager in 1945 when he wrote the song. He had just finished a Philmont trip, and the beauty of this hiking high-adventure base inspired him.
Seven decades later, everyone who visits Philmont learns Westfall’s tune. It’s sung in those meditative moments as the campfire fades and Scouts reflect on the day that was.
Back in civilization, those who have conquered Philmont find themselves humming “The Philmont Hymn” for weeks and months later. It is the official song of Philmont Scout Ranch.
This is the story of how Westfall wrote “The Philmont Hymn.”
A Jamboree dream
John Benton Westfall was born on Sept. 7, 1927, in Kansas City, Mo.
In 1945, Westfall was a member of the Explorer post in Independence, Kan. — part of what was then the BSA’s SeKan Council and is now the Quivira Council.
Westfall and some of his fellow Explorers wanted to attend the World Scout Jamboree in 1947 in France. There was just one problem: He’d have to come up with the $200 registration fee in less than a year. (That’s more than $2,700 in 2017 dollars.)
In his job working the soda fountain at Utter’s Drug Store, Westfall made just 20 cents an hour ($2.72 an hour in 2017 dollars). Westfall’s parents didn’t have the means to pay, either.
With the Jamboree no longer an option, Westfall’s post shifted its focus from Europe to New Mexico.
This “Plan B” turned into the summer of a lifetime.
To Philmont by train
For Westfall, the summer of 1945 was packed with Scouting fun.
In the first part of the summer, he and some buddies worked at Camp Cauble in Benedict, Kan. Westfall, 17 at the time, was in charge of the nature area. He taught bird study, zoology and more.
When summer camp season ended, Westfall and his Explorer post hopped on the train for Philmont.
They took a train from Independence to Newton, Kan. There they boarded the Santa Fe Chief train, which took them to Raton, N.M.
(These days, the Amtrak Southwest Chief follows that same route, with Scouts still disembarking for Philmont at the station in Raton.)
In Raton, Westfall and his post were taken by bus to Philmont.
‘Purple mountains rise’
These young men from Kansas — where what qualifies for a mountain is just 4,039 feet high — were awestruck. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, part of the Rockies, loomed before them at more than 13,000 feet.
Someone pointed out the Tooth of Time, and the Explorers immediately said “let’s hike that.”
During his time at Philmont, Westfall camped, hiked and rode horses. He visited the same spots frequented by many of today’s Philmont participants — places like Abreu, Fish Camp, Cimarroncito and Rayado.
Through it all, Philmont’s natural beauty formed an indelible impression.
The guys were on a hike to Cypher’s Mine when Westfall dug out a scrap of paper and jotted down a poem.
That night, he read it to a friend. The friend liked it but thought it needed some music. Westfall put the piece of paper into his pocket and forgot about it …
Finding a rhythm
… until he was on the train headed home.
It was from his seat on the Santa Fe Chief that Westfall added a tune to his words.
“The rhythm in ‘The Philmont Hymn’ is not really the clip-clop of the heels of the horses, but rather it is the click-clack of the train wheels as they passed over the breaks in the rails,” Westfall later said.
Wesftall named his song “Silver on the Sage” — the tune’s first four words.
Silver on the sage,
Starlit skies above,
Aspen covered hills,
Country that I love.
Philmont here’s to thee,
Out in God’s country, tonight
Wind in whispering pines,
Eagles soaring high,
Purple mountains rise,
Against an azure sky.
Philmont here’s to thee,
Out in God’s country tonight.
A song in hibernation
Westfall didn’t think much about Philmont — or his song — over the next two years. He enrolled at what is now Pittsburg State University, where he would earn a degree in psychology.
In the spring of 1947, when he began thinking about a summer job, his thoughts returned to Philmont.
He applied for a summer position but was rejected in a devastatingly stark form letter.
“The job you applied for has been filled by a Scout who has more experience in the area of interest listed,” it read.
Westfall was confused. He wasn’t asked to list any experience on his application, so how could that be?
Undeterred, Westfall took a train to Tulsa, Okla., and marched straight to the office of the man who wrote the letter.
He presented himself, unannounced, to Jim Fitch, who worked for Phillips Properties and managed the Philmont staff.
‘You have a job’
Fitch liked Westfall’s persistence. How could he not?
“Young man, you are the first to question that letter,” Fitch told him. “If you want on the Philmont staff that badly, show up on June 9, and you have a job.”
Westfall arrived at Philmont at 7:30 p.m. June 5, 1947.
After a staff meeting, Westfall told Clarence Dunn, who directed the ranger staff, about “Silver on the Sage.”
Dunn asked him to sing it at the staff breakfast the next morning. It was a hit.
Westfall was the lone staffer working at the backcountry camp called Cimarron Bench (now called Visto Grande). He got a tent, some cooking supplies, tools and a burro named Henry.
Around the campfire
For the Philmont crews that stopped at Westfall’s camp, the evening campfire was the highlight of the day.
They sat in a circle as Westfall listened to stories of their treks. He told his own stories, too, like the time a mountain lion entered Cimarron Bench camp, ate some scraps of food and then screamed. Westfall, watching from his tent, was too scared to even move.
As the campfire faded each night, Westfall taught the hikers “Silver on the Sage.”
The Scouts and Explorers loved it, singing and humming it the rest of the trip. The song’s legendary status grew and grew as more Scouts learned it.
An ode to Philmont
Westfall’s song continued to spread and eventually was renamed “The Philmont Hymn,” the ranch’s official song.
The song’s success is about more than its simple elegance. It became popular because of its origin story. Because it was written by a young man who fell in love with Philmont.
After graduating college, Westfall spent 11 years as a Scouting professional in Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma.
He then worked for Phillips Petroleum until he retired in 1985. He continued to serve on his local Scout council’s board and was a member of the Philmont Staff Association.
Westfall died May 8, 2009, in Bartlesville, Okla. He was 81.
His song — and the touching story behind it — live on every time a young person ventures “out in God’s country.”
Philmont Hymn sheet music
Top photo by Skyler Ballard/PhilNews
My source for the above was the 1988 book High Adventure Among the Magic Mountains: Philmont, the First 50 Years, by Minor S. Huffman.
Thanks to Nettie Francis and Matt Rendahl for the story idea.