Daniel Carter Beard's childhood home in Covington featured a three-story tower. (Photo from Daniel Beard Council of Boy Scouts of America, www.danbeard.org)
When Daniel Carter Beard climbed up to the top of the three-story tower in his boyhood home at 322 E. Third St. in downtown Covington, the world must have looked like a very civilized place.
Across the Ohio River, he saw the busy docks of Cincinnati’s riverfront, and when he turned the other direction, he saw the banks, churches, schools and fine homes of Covington. He could hear the steam whistles of the riverboats and of the locomotives chugging along the tracks that lined the river. One of the first suspension bridges in America, the Roebling Bridge, completed in 1866, spanned the Ohio River for foot and horse drawn traffic a few blocks away. The frontier must have seemed long gone.
But it wasn’t civilization that fascinated Beard, one of the future founders of the Boy Scouts of America, it was nature. Born across the river in Cincinnati in 1850, Beard and his family moved to Covington when he was a child. Beard grew up in that comfortable home on East Third Street on stories of Daniel Boone and the pioneers who had settled Kentucky. Born into a family of artists and illustrators, he developed his own artistic ability and became a fine illustrator and painter, particularly of animals and nature subjects before his studies led him to become one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America.
A lifesize bronze statue of Daniel Carter Beard with a Boy Scout stands in front of Beard's childhood home in Covington. (Photo from Dan Beard Council of Boy Scouts of America, www.danbeard.org)
Today, a life-size bronze statue of Beard, with a Boy Scout, stands near his home, now a National Historic Landmark. Built in 1821, the large two-story home – with that famous three-story tower – is one of the two oldest buildings in Kenton County. Today, the home is a private residence, and no public tours are available. One can only stroll past it, look at the statue and imagine the world when Beard lived there.
The wars of the 19th century had convinced many in society that youth were not physically tough enough. The philosophical solution was a “muscular Christianity,” a gospel of a healthy soul residing in a healthy and athletic body. This idea took hold in the Victorian world in a way we have forgotten, leading to the type of physical education and school athletic teams that we find routine today but that were revolutionary in the 1800s.
The first manifestation was the rise of the Episcopal boarding schools of the East, particularly Groton, with its great rector, Endicott Peabody, so brilliantly portrayed in Louis Auchincloss’ novel The Rector of Justin. Sunday afternoon quarterbacks would be shocked to learn that football was invented not by drunken Irishmen in South Bend but by effete intellectuals at Harvard and Dartmouth, who thought it a suitable athletic challenge for their muscular Christians. Auchincloss’ rector adopts football, not scholarship, as his model for reforming the morals of his generation.
Theodore Roosevelt, whose sons (and his younger cousin Franklin and his sons) would attend Groton, was the model muscular Christian; we have forgotten that he almost singlehandedly saved football by reforming its rules when athletes began to be killed in football games to a degree that Congress was asked to step in. When William James, himself an outdoorsman, wrote in his 1903 master work Varieties of Religious Experience of the spiritual renewal of nature, he took Roosevelt as his example:
“The President of the United States when, with paddle, gun, and fishing-rod, he goes camping in the wilderness for a vacation, changes his system of ideas from top to bottom. The presidential anxieties have lapsed into the background entirely; the official habits are replaced by the habits of a son of nature, and those who knew the man only as the strenuous magistrate would not ‘know him for the same person’ if they saw him as the camper.”
Beard’s talents as a writer and an outdoorsman, along with his skills as an illustrator, led him to write for young people. Beard had a surprise bestseller in 1882, when he published The American Boys’ Handy Book, an outdoor guide, which became the informal handbook for the many local groups that would later band together as the future Boy Scouts of America. Beard followed up on his success with such works as The Outdoor Handy Book (1900), Field and Forest Handy Book (1906), Boat Building and Boating (1911), The American Boys’ Book of Bugs, Butterflies and Beetles (1915), The American Boys’ Book of Wild Animals (1921), Wisdom of the Woods (1927), and Buckskin Book For Men and Boys (1927).
In a 1992 review of a reprinted edition, author Lloyd Kahn uses Beard’s 1914 book, Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties, which served as a guide to building rough outdoor shelters, to discuss Beard’s attributes as a writer and leader of youth. Beard was not afraid to let a young man be a woodsman:
“A recurring theme in many of Beard’s books was the notion of self-sufficiency, and he was absolutely confident in his readers’ abilities. Parental supervision not required. In fact, in 1985, Esquire magazine referred to one of Beard’s boys’ books as a ‘fat catalog of misbehavior.’ Here, in the chapter on tree-top houses, he criticizes New York City police for ‘interfering’ with a boy’s treehouse on 169th street and goes on to describe another on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn ‘so commodious’ as to be able to accommodate 15 people. He has no qualms about telling readers how to use hatchet and axe (his information on using an axe to fell trees, split logs and make shakes is excellent) and he gives plans for building sod-roofed houses (that could collapse) or overwater camps (that could wash away) with inherent trust in his readers’ intelligence and craftsmanship.”
By 1905, Beard had formed The Sons of Daniel Boone, one of the precursors of the Boy Scouts of America. Beard and Ernest Thompson Seton, who had founded the Woodcraft Indians in 1902, were the two great lights of early scouting. The two joined forces when the Boy Scouts of America, a U.S. offshoot of the Boy Scouts organization founded in England by Lord Robert Baden Powell, was chartered by the U.S. Congress in 1910, and both merged their organizations into the BSA.
Beard, by then known as “Uncle Dan,” personally founded Troop No. 1, of Flushing, N.Y., often recognized as the oldest continuously chartered Boy Scout Troop in America, and became one of the original commissioners of the BSA. Beard put his magazine writing experience to good use as he became editor of Boys’ Life Magazine, then as now the official magazine of Scouting. Beard continued to write books and articles on the outdoor life until his death at the age of 91 in 1941; by the time of his death, he had spent over 30 years as a national commissioner of the BSA. Today, Southern Ohio is served by the Dan Beard Council of the BSA, in recognition of Beard’s founding role in the organization.
Writer, illustrator, and outdoorsman, Daniel Carter Beard proved by his long life and public service that the principles of outdoorsmanship, conservation, and respect for nature are timeless virtues as needed in our day as in his.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.