Book goes ‘Back to Gilwell’ to uncover ‘The History of Wood Badge in the United States’

A new book published by the Boy Scouts of America tracks the fascinating history of Wood Badge, from its founding by Lord Baden-Powell in 1919 to its current role as the BSA’s essential training program for adult leaders.

The book, A History of Wood Badge in the United States by Kenneth P. Davis, is available through the Seattle Book Company for $19.95, plus shipping.

“Wood Badge has long been a powerful force for learning, inspiration and motivation for hundreds of thousands of Scout leaders throughout the world,” BSA Chief Scout Executive Mike Surbaugh says in the book’s introduction. “Wherever you go in Scouting, you find top leaders wearing Wood Badge beads.”

Starting at the start

The book traces the origins of Wood Badge by going all the way back to the beginning. In a section written by Nelson R. Block, readers travel back to Scouting’s infancy.

Soon after he founded the Scouting movement, Baden-Powell saw the need to train Scoutmasters so they could be more effective leaders.

In 1913, he devised a training program that would “give Scoutmasters practical instruction as to how a camp should be run.”

To help adult leaders understand what their Scouts experience, the Scoutmasters “should of course be in patrols for the course, under their own patrol leaders and so learn patrol discipline.”

World War I put Baden-Powell’s progress on hold until 1919, when planning began for the first Wood Badge course. It was held Sept. 8 to 19 at Gilwell Park in England.

Twenty men, paying £5 (about $6) apiece, were organized into three patrols. They learned about:

  • Troop organization (troop formation and camp hygiene)
  • Campcraft (campsite selection and building fires)
  • Pioneering (axemanship and construction)
  • Woodcraft (bird, animal and tree identification)
  • Signcraft (signaling and tracking)
  • Games
  • Fieldwork (measuring distances and mapping)
  • Study Circle Work (understanding the aims of Scouting)
  • Pathfinding

Coming to America

We know Scouting came to America when the BSA was founded on Feb. 8, 1910. But when did Wood Badge arrive on our shores?

Initially, Americans were hesitant to adopt the British model for training adult leaders. Would busy Americans really give up eight days (Wood Badge is six days today) for training in the out-of-doors?

It took a Baden-Powell visit to Schiff Scout Reservation in New Jersey in 1935 to sow the seeds for American Wood Badge. Baden-Powell remarked that the 470-acre Scout camp — more than eight times larger than Gilwell Park — would make a great location for an American version of the course.

“Here, pick up the spirit of Scouting,” he said. “From here let that spirit permeate the land.”

After a failed attempt in 1936, the first U.S. Wood Badge course was held at Schiff in July and August 1948. The course director and Scoutmaster was William “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt, a Boys’ Life writer who was known as the “Scoutmaster to the World.”

The course had 29 participants split into four patrols: Beaver, Bobwhite, Fox and Eagle. (Today’s Wood Badge courses add the Owl, Bear, Antelope and Buffalo patrols.)

The second Wood Badge course, also led by Hillcourt, was held two months later. This time, it was at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. (Which is so cool to me, because it’s where I took Wood Badge.)

Growth and change

The rest of A History of Wood Badge in the United States is devoted to the evolution of Wood Badge.

As the Scouting movement has changed, the course has been adapted to meet the needs of leaders.

Beginning in 1974, for example, the BSA authorized weekend Wood Badge courses. That appealed to working parents who couldn’t miss a full week of work but could manage two weekends.

Later variations included Wood Badge courses delivered in Spanish and Vietnamese.

Further proof that Wood Badge is constantly changing comes in the book’s epilogue, which mentions that a new Wood Badge syllabus will roll out in the fall of 2019.

As Wood Badge adapts to meet Scouters’ needs, its importance in Scouting hasn’t changed.

“Throughout Scouting’s second century in America,” Surbaugh writes in the introduction, “Wood Badge will remain an important component of our efforts to help every young person be Prepared. For Life.”

Order your copy

You can purchase the book here. If you buy 30 copies or more, perhaps to give out to participants at a Wood Badge course, you’ll get a 10 percent discount.

About Bryan Wendell 2817 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is senior editor of Boys’ Life, Scouting and Eagles’ Call magazines.