Scouting’s start
Orgelman was a pioneer for Boy Scouts in Danbury
By George Orgelman
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS-TIMES
2001-02-04

 
The News-Times/Douglas Healey
The author, George Orgelman, wears the Boy Scout uniform of his father, Hamilton Orgelman. The elder Orgelman was involved in scouting for 59 years until his death in 1974. Orgelman is carrying two backpacks made of wicker used by his father.
 

The News-Times/Douglas Healey The author, George Orgelman, wears the Boy Scout uniform of his father, Hamilton Orgelman. The elder Orgelman was involved in scouting for 59 years until his death in 1974. Orgelman is carrying two backpacks made of wicker used by his father.

Bob Hambidge attempts to start a fire with a hickory bow in this 1920 photo. The boys in Troop 2 used native materials to start fires, not the yucca wood kits issued by National Headquarters used by “Parlor Scouts.”

 

Bob Hambidge attempts to start a fire with a hickory bow in this 1920 photo. The boys in Troop 2 used native materials to start fires, not the yucca wood kits issued by National Headquarters used by “Parlor Scouts.”

Two scouts stand in front of a tent at Peach Lake in 1920.

 

Two scouts stand in front of a tent at Peach Lake in 1920.

Hamilton Orgelman stands with the cart he and his troop used for hikes in this photo taken in 1964 on his 75th birthday, which was declared Hamilton Orgelman Day in Danbury.

 

Hamilton Orgelman stands with the cart he and his troop used for hikes in this photo taken in 1964 on his 75th birthday, which was declared Hamilton Orgelman Day in Danbury.

Editor’s note: The Boy Scouts of America was founded on Feb. 8, 1910. Here, George Orgelman reflects on the first decade of scouting in Danbury. An Eagle Scout, Orgelman has special knowledge of events then because his father, Hamilton Orgelman, was instrumental in the development of the Boy Scout movement in Danbury.

In 1912, two years after the national founding of the Boy Scouts, Danbury had nine troops, all sponsored by local churches. Among these troops was Troop 2, sponsored by the large congregation of the Disciples of Christ, then located on Liberty Street.

In the next decade Troop 2 went on to become one of the most popular and successful Boy Scout troops in western Connecticut.

One of the major reasons for its success was its emphasis on outdoor activity in what it called the "pioneering style” of scouting. Members of the troop learned how to survive in the fields and woodlands.

The pioneering style of scouting in Troop 2 in Danbury came about because of its scoutmaster, Hamilton Orgelman. Accidentally coming in contact with a regular meeting of Troop 2 in 1915, he was soon invited to become assistant scoutmaster. Partner with his uncle, Eleazer Hart, in a mason-contracting business, he had great freedom for scouting activities.

Twenty-five years old, he was an avid freshwater fisherman, accomplished woodsman/camper and outdoor sports enthusiast. He found the scouting movement appealing in its emphasis on activities involving woodcraft, skills and survival training, leadership and personal development, patriotism, civic service and athletics. He decided to devote his time and energy in bringing these values to the attention of the younger generation.

A native of Danbury, Hamilton as a teen-ager had lived in the village of Carmel, N.Y., from 1899 to 1907. There he had come under the influence of his great uncle, Fred Wilson and his grandfather, Eli Hart.

Both men had given him extensive training in wilderness living, camping and fishing with only minimum equipment. Both had served three years with the Union Army during the Civil War with extensive field experience, ending up in the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia before Lee’s surrender.

Three weeks after Lee’s surrender, Eli had been called out on his military company street in Petersburg, Va., and told his uniform, knapsack, bed roll and rifle were his to keep. He was paid off and discharged from the Army then and there, leaving him to find his way home to Carmel in whatever manner he chose.

Hamilton Orgelman became a registered Scout in 1915, a membership he was to maintain for the next 59 years until his death in 1974. He took over as scoutmaster of Troop 2 in 1916. It was then that Orgelman began in earnest to introduce the program of "pioneering scouting.” It started with each Scout having the proper equipment: a Boy Scout knife, a hatchet and a Scout rope.

The standard uniform in the first decade of scouting included these three things. All were worn on the belt.

The Scout rope was a 25-foot length of extra-strength clothes line and had multiple uses. If a very strong rope was needed, the individual ropes could be braided together to make a strong cable, as for example, to be used in rappelling down cliffs.

Also in the early days, each Scout carried a standard 6-foot oak staff obtained from approved sources. The staff had multiple uses such as in hiking, as one of the rails for a temporary first-aid stretcher, or for crowd control.

In 1916 the unspoiled countryside of woodland, field and stream was close at hand at the edge of the city where the pavement ended. Beyond the cities were open fields and woods, unpolluted streams and dwelling-free ponds and lakes with abundant animal life, birds and fish.

Pioneering meant going out into the woods and fields with minimum equipment and knowing not merely how to live under primitive conditions but also how to do so with as much comfort as possible utilizing the resources at hand.

This contrasted with programs of the other troops in Danbury, most of which conducted their meetings in a school-room atmosphere with much attention devoted to passing tests and advancing in rank to First Class as soon as possible. One of the questions asked of a boy taking the test to become a First Class Scout was: How do you stop a runaway horse?

Meanwhile, the objective of pioneering was know-how in living outdoors rather than advancement in rank. The boys of Troop 2 looked down on the members of the other troops as "Parlor Scouts.”

In 1916 Troop 2 began to take more frequent one-day hikes to places such as Pine Mountain, Salt Pond, Sugar Hollow, Beaver Brook and Neversink pond (a prime source of Lake Candlewood) in Brookfield.

In the warmer weather the hikes sometimes were two days, with an overnight to such places as Squantz Pond or to the Housatonic River at Sandy Hook, where Hamilton Orgelman’s father had been born in 1862. Stevenson Dam and Lake Zoar had not yet been built, nor were there any dams upstream to New Milford.

As the Scouts of Troop 2 hiked and camped throughout this greater Danbury area, they explored its natural wonders. Occasionally along the riverbeds and on the shores of the ponds, the Scouts found arrowheads and stone artifacts left by Indians or the inhabitants of long ago.

At times they were quiet observers of the wild life of many ground animals. They came to know a variety of snakes such as the garter, the racer, the 6-foot black snake that kept the farmer’s well house free of rodents, the copperheads that lived along the shoreline of ponds and the eastern timber rattlers that inhabited the rocky ledges of the upper Housatonic.

They knew the habitat of more than 40 varieties of birds. They observed the nightly heavens and shot the North Star optically and with a compass determined the magnetic deviation from true north. And they had fun too, foot racing, swimming, laughing, kidding, and being boisterous at times.

Troop 2 decided in 1917 to have a summer camp for one week The members themselves had to make all the plans and get funds to pay for it. There was no Boy Scout Camp in the nearby area.

The troop had to buy tents and camp gear. The weekly dues of Scouts (Families lived then on less than $15 a week.) was supplemented by selling Jell-O, Larkin’s soap and candy bars for earned commissions to pay for pup tents, one wall tent and one large shelter half. A few pots and pans were also bought for a troop mess rather than having each Scout cook his own meals.

Arrangements were made to camp in a remote section of Vail’s campgrounds at Peach Lake just over the line in New York State. The question was how would the troop get its camping gear there? Automotive trucks were expensive and unreliable, a horse and wagon also was expensive and involved animal care.

A lightweight, four-wheel farm wagon was rented and was loaded with all of the camping equipment, personal gear, and other supplies. The Scout staffs were lashed to a center rope that ran out from the wagon tongue. With two boys positioned on each staff on either side of the center line, the boys were yoked in a team of twenty Scouts that pulled the wagon along gravel-surfaced Route 6 to New York State and up the hill to Peach Lake.

The only traffic along the way was an occasional horse and wagon. One boy walked alongside the wagon to jump aboard and act as brakeman whenever necessary. It was a seven-mile trip. This effort, without horses or livestock, was similar to that made by many pioneers who went westward across the Plains from Kansas to the West Coast and the Pacific Ocean.

Yes! This was pioneering scouting! It could not help but enhance the reputation of Troop 2.

The schedule of activities at the camp was arranged by the Senior Patrol Leaders. Two of the older boys were designated cooks. Younger boys assisted in the mess. Four boys were detailed to go to the nearby farmer with a large milk can for raw milk.

They would also buy eggs and whatever vegetables might be available. It was a rule that all must be paid for. The understanding farmer accepted the money but usually gave overwhelming amounts of product for the little money he received.

There was a full schedule of activity at camp from sunrise to after sunset. Over the course of the week subjects such as knot-tying, first aid, semaphore flag signaling, woodcraft and mapping. were taught. Nature walks were taken around the lake. There were two periods of swimming each day after life-saving instruction.

After the campfire and stories at night all were ready to sleep on the ground in the hump holes they had made. Sleeping bags were unknown, but a warm bed could be made by inter-leafing wool blankets and tying the whole sack with horse blanket pins. Also, temporary emergency lean-tos of pine boughs were constructed.

After final policing and clean-up of the campsite, the most difficult task was pulling the loaded wagon back to Danbury.

Eventually the four-wheeled wagon was discarded for a two-wheeled trek cart, hand-built by Scoutmaster Orgelman from plans designed by Dan Beard, National Commissioner of the Boy Scouts. Beard had seen similar trek carts during his boyhood in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in the 1860s. Orgelman’s trek cart was pulled in many parades in Danbury in later years.

Training continued throughout the year. Boys learned to make fire, not with store-bought flint and steel, but by striking an iron file against quartz rock native to Connecticut. The spark was caught in a tinder nest of milkweed and fine grasses.

Boys also started fire by friction using native materials rather than the yucca-wood kits available from national headquarters. The native materials were a hickory bow with leather strap, a well-seasoned elm wood fire board and elm drill topped by a discarded porcelain door knob. The smoldering nub of powdered wood was caught in tinder nests.

In the next few years word about the scouting style of Troop 2 spread through out the area Permission was usually readily given when farmers and landowners were approached to cross or bivouac on their land.

Members of the troop were permitted to cut saplings in a woodland to build a signal tower with elevated platform for the use of semaphore flags. The whole structure was built without nails, the wooden components being lashed together with rope. The landowners knew that when the tower was dismantled the saplings would be cut to fireplace length and left behind in a convenient spot.

At Salt Pond the troop built a short corduroy road like those once built and used by loggers in that vicinity. Farmers, landowners and developers could count on the Scouts for assistance should a brush fire or grass fire break out when they were nearby. All areas where the troop had been were left well-policed and usually cleaner than they were before the Scouts arrived.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Troop 2 supported such activities as the collection of scrap metal and the sale of War Bonds. During the Third Liberty Bond Drive the Troop 2 Boy Scout network team sold a greater dollar value of Liberty Bonds to residents of Danbury than all the other residential solicitations combined.

Troop 2 continued its popular program from its base in the Disciples Of Christ Church until late 1919. Then a new minister in the Disciples Church found the Boy Scout troop too boisterous and rowdy and told Orgelman that it could no longer meet in the church parlors.

At first the Scouts were downcast. Without a meeting place they would have to break up. They wanted to go on and asked Orgelman to find a meeting place they could rent.

He went first to the ministers of the Baptist, Episcopal and Methodist churches in town, all of whom said they would have to ask their official boards. Next he went to the Reverend Deyo of the First Congregational Church. Although the First Church already had Troop 1, Deyo without hesitation told Orgelman that Troop 2 could use the church gymnasium and they could start meeting there on the coming Thursday night. And there would be no charges of any kind.

Orgelman told Deyo that Troop 2 was no longer affiliated with any religious group and asked that membership in the troop henceforth be open to any boy regardless of race, color, creed or ethnic background, subject only to a limitation on the workable size of the troop. Deyo agreed, and thus Troop 2 became the first nondiscriminatory troop in Danbury.

In time the troop’s membership was made up of the sons of longtime Yankees and boys whose parents had emigrated from the British Isles, Scandinavia, Central and Western Europe, and the Mediterranean countries of Italy, Greece, Lebanon, Syria and Armenia. It included Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mohammedans and at times troubled youths from the city courts. The troop represented the "melting pot” that was Danbury.

In 1920 Troop 2 made its last hiking trip pulling a four-wheeled wagon. The boys pulled the loaded wagon to Ridgefield to enter a Boy Scout competition. To the amazement of Troop 1, Troop 2 won the meet, for which it received a silver loving cup.

In the 1920s the United States exploded with automobiles. Gone were the open woodlands, fields, lakes and ponds. Property was fenced and posted with "No Trespassing” signs. Land was "developed” with houses and streets. Junk and litter were scattered by the roadside.

Gone was the horse and carriage, gone the horse and wagon. Paved roads with speeding automobiles connected the cities. It was not safe for trek carts on the highways. Hiking became restricted to public lands and narrow trails. Wildlife retreated into the deep woods. The time of Boy Scout pioneering in the Danbury area was over.

  • In 1928 with a family of two young children and increased demands from his business, Orgelman resigned from Troop 2, although he remained registered with the national organization. Three years later, he returned as scoutmaster of Troop 2 and remained its scoutmaster until 1937.
     

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