Montana volunteer uncovers fascinating history of woman Scouting pioneer

Beth Groeneveld Blake
Beth Blake, right, with James E. West

It was the headline that first caught her eye.

“Here she is again that woman writer.”

Like any good headline, it made her want to read more.

Barbara Oxford had time to kill while her Scouts were taking a merit badge class. She had always been interested in genealogy. She decided to do some research on the early figures of Scouting in her area.

Then she found the story from the May 22, 1911, issue of The Anaconda Standard newspaper, and it led her down an internet rabbit hole that would eventually inspire her Wood Badge ticket … and much, much more.

“I stumbled across this article, ‘Here she is again that woman writer,’ ” Oxford says. “And I was fascinated by the story. So, I started digging and digging and digging.”

What she discovered was the story of Beth Groeneveld, later referred to in the newspapers as Mrs. Charles W. Blake.

Groeneveld/Blake, it turns out, was not “that woman writer,” but was instead one of the founders of the fledgling Boy Scouts of America movement in Butte, Montana, 78 years before women were allowed to be Scoutmasters.

“Need Scout Master”

Oxford is the advancement chair for Troop 1933 in Kalispell, Montana. She’s also the district vice chair, organizer of monthly councilwide merit badge classes, business manager during the summer season at the Montana Council’s Camp Melita Island, and mother of two Scouts BSA boys.

“I like Scouting,” she admits.

Blake’s story spoke to her.

Blake first appeared in The Anaconda Standard 1910 Christmas Day edition, just months after the BSA was incorporated. The story notes that a “branch of the Boy Scouts of America was organized in Butte” and describes the unit as being “one troop among these boy scouts in which there is one patrol.”

The troop met at a church but was open to kids of any religious faith. It had the support of “a local council of prominent business men.”

Just a few paragraphs in, there’s this subhead: “Need Scout Master.”

All that the troop now needs is an active scout master. This place has been filled by Miss Beth Groeneveld, who is in reality responsible for the organization of the boy scouts … As a woman is not permitted to be a scout master, Miss Groeneveld has but nominally been filling the place and has kept up with the boys in the study of scoutcraft.

The story goes on to note that Blake’s father agreed to take out a “certificate of organization” in his name so the troop could remain in compliance with the BSA’s rules for leadership.

Need Scout Master line from The Anaconda Standard
From the Dec. 25, 1910, edition of The Anaconda Standard

“Here she is again”

The next May, an unknown woman wrote a letter to the editor that earned the headline, “Here she is again that woman writer.”

In her letter, the woman had some strong criticisms of the men of her community for what she saw as a failure to adequately support the Scouting movement. She wanted to make sure that the credit for starting the troop went to the right person.

The women knew all about Boy Scouts long ago. They got all the literature they could; sent for facts regarding the plan of organization and even did a few scout stunts themselves, just to see if it were a job they could handle. …

They found it gives scope for the growing boy’s energy; that it teaches boys self reliance and manliness; that he acquires business acumen, because he is taught to save his pennies. He grows a healthy body and a healthy mind by his out-of-door exercises; he learns to know and love all the living things of the plains and forests; he watches the little things that make up the rounds of human nature and he becomes more rounded himself.

Clearly, the writer of the letter was talking about Blake.

“I love her story,” says Oxford. “Her, in her skirt, out there hiking and going on camping trips with these boys. Women weren’t even voting in 1910 and she’s out there starting her own troop in Montana.”

Here she is again that woman writer
From the May 22, 1911, edition of The Anaconda Standard

Finally, some recognition

A decade later, BSA troops were everywhere, and Blake was being recognized by one of its most prominent national leaders.

A photo in the Feb. 5, 1922, edition of The Butte Miner newspaper shows James E. West shaking the hand of one Mrs. Charles W. Blake, as Rev. Groeneveld and Butte’s local Scout executive look on.

Credit for the founding of the boy scout movement in Montana goes to a woman in the person of Mrs. Charles W. Blake. … In a recent visit of national officials of the Boy Scouts of America, Mrs. Blake was personally congratulated and thanked by James E. West, national chief scout executive. … The sincere congratulations of every scout and official in the state are due Mrs. Charles W. Blake for her courage and foresight in organizing the first unit of the largest boys club in the world the Boy Scouts of America, and in doing so building to her memory as Beth Groeneveld a monument of lively service in ranks of citizenship inestimable in its worth and merit.

Blake’s story, however, was largely forgotten, until Oxford had some time to kill during a merit badge class nearly a century later.

“She inspired my whole Wood Badge experience,” Oxford says. “And one of my tickets was to try to get some national attention for her, to try to get her story known again.”

Oxford says she’s in the process of writing a book about the history of Scouting in Montana, and she has a whole section about Blake.

“It’s such a fantastic thing,” says Oxford, “that I think should be celebrated right now.”

The Butte Miner, Feb. 5, 1922

About Aaron Derr 455 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.