Scouting is an important part of many young peoples’ lives. The Northwoods is a natural setting for learning the ethical and environmental lessons scouting teaches, but there is a nautical branch of scouting that had early roots in the Northwoods. Historian Gary Entz has the story.
Few people are unfamiliar with The Boy Scouts of America, and many of us who live in the Northwoods took part in one of its various branches in our youth. In addition to the Boy Scouts, there are Cub Scouts, Explorer Scouts, Rover Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Senior Scouts, which became the Venture Scouts in 1998. There is one other important branch of scouting, the Sea Scouts, and the very first Sea Scout troop to organize in the Northwoods was in the town of Mercer.
William D. Boyce founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910 and modeled it on Robert Baden-Powell’s Boy Scout Association in Great Britain. Scouting took off rather quickly in the United States and within a few years there were Boy Scout troops in cities and towns across the nation. The primary mission of the Boy Scouts is to mold young people into ethical and moral citizens as embodied in the Scout Oath. Most often such character development is achieved by means of outdoor programs where scouts can be close to nature. But there are ways of learning conservation and leadership skills in an outdoor setting that do not involve camping, and that is where the Sea Scouts come in.
In 1910 Lord Baden-Powell’s brother Warrington published a book in Britain about Sea Scouting. By 1912 Arthur Carey of Massachusetts used the book to establish the Sea Scouting program in the U.S. Despite an endorsement from the Secretary of the Navy, Sea Scouting in America started off slowly and for its first years was largely confined to the Atlantic coast.
The Great Lakes, however, are a natural setting for Sea Scouting, and by 1918 Sea Scout units were being established in Wisconsin. The entire national organization was restructured in 1922 under the leadership of Thomas Keane of New York, and consequently during the 1920s membership in Sea Scouting exploded.
Sea Scouting reached the Northwoods in the spring of 1929 when a Sea Scout unit was established in the town of Mercer. A. H. Rice, the Scoutmaster for the local Boy Scout Troop became the unit Skipper. Richard Roberts became First Mate of the Mercer “Ship.” The choice of Mercer as the first in the Northwoods was a direct result of Thomas Keane’s aggressive recruitment program. Keane had instructed scouting’s regional headquarters in Chicago to look to towns and villages not large enough to support a full Sea Scout program but still active enough to recruit teenage boys for a separate Sea Scout “patrol unit.” With an active Boy Scout organization, Mercer was perfect for this.
Originally, seven older boys planned to move from the local Boy Scouts to the Sea Scouts, but three dropped out before the organization took off. Therefore, when the Mercer Sea Scout Patrol became active, there were four members. Scout Howard Johnston became the Senior Patrol Leader and the very first Sea Scout in the Northwoods. He was joined by Fenton Ritter, Wilson Schooley, and Clarence Berry.
Other units soon followed, but Mercer has the distinction of being the first.