Journal Opinion, Feb. 22, 2023
The history of American youth organizations spans more than 200 years. This column describes that history in New Hampshire and Vermont. These organizations were led by adults, but aimed at young people. Often the main targets were youngsters who might be at risk when outside the control of families and schools. Most organizations were started locally by concerned parents, educators, and pastors.
Not all youth groups are covered here. Athletic youth groups and school clubs will not be covered in this column as they have been the subject of both previous and future articles. Small informal youth clubs are important, but will not be included as they usually come and go as interests waxed and wanes and kids outgrow them. That being said, secret club houses and handshakes create fond memories for many.
Religious themes and church affiliations were significant for most of these early youth-oriented organizations. During most of the last two centuries, Sunday schools have been attended by a large number of local youths. For that reason, few other youth activities were held on Sunday morning.
The Sunday or Sabbath school movement was established in Vermont in the early 19th century, with meetings in West Newbury as early as 1801. While Sunday school provided religious instruction to individuals of all ages, a significant goal was to reach children.
After 1850, the Juvenile Mission Society movement established several chapters in Vermont and involved youth in mission work. Centered in Baptist and Methodist churches it was recognized as America’s first national youth group.
Local newspapers regularly reported on these church-based youth groups. In the 1880s, Woodsville churches were said to have “flourishing” Sabbath schools, a feature replicated throughout the valley.
In the 1920s, vacation Bible school programs were held locally during the summer. In Orford in the late 1940s, this program was held in the Orfordville Grange Hall.
In the late 1940s, I attended Sunday School at the Orford Congregational Church. I recall Grammy Sanborn leading us in the rousing Christian anthem “Life Is Like A Mountain Railroad.” We learned Bible passages and completed arts and crafts projects.
In the early 20th century, there was a movement to reach older youth who didn’t fit into existing church youth programs. Known as the Christian Endeavor Movement, there was a group in Bradford in 1887 and soon after in Piermont and Wells River. It appeared to be non-denominational and included both religious and social activities.
By the 1940s, these groups had been replaced locally by Congregational Pilgrim Youth Fellowship and the Methodist Youth Fellowship. A similar youth group was formed in nearby Presbyterian churches. Until their decline in the later 1960s, these groups filled an essential religious and social function for older youth.
There was also the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) which was active at Catholic Churches in Bradford, Wells River, and Woodsville from the late 1950s until the mid-1960s.
Newspaper articles in the United Opinion and the Twin State News regularly reported on local CYO events. Youth participated in church events and socials, took trips to religious shrines, and met with other church youth groups.
One 1960 newspaper article mentioned young CYO member Ronnie Bonneau of Bradford. After graduating from Bradford Academy, he attended seminary. . Father Bonneau passed away in 2021, having served as a long-time missionary in Paraguay and as pastor in several domestic parishes.
Originally founded in England, the first Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) unit was formed in Boston in 1851 as a “home away from home” for seamen and merchants.
The first YMCA locals were established in Manchester in 1854 and in Burlington in 1866. Over the following decades facilities were established in various larger communities in both states. The organizations sponsored various social and recreational programs for youngsters.
Also founded in England, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) affiliates formed in Vermont in 1919 and in New Hampshire the following year. The focus was described as “a voice for change.” Over the years, its members have worked to empower women, fight discrimination and “promote peace, justice, and freedom.”
Both organizations encouraged physical activities. This was especially significant at a time when young women were thought too fragile to exercise. They sponsored boys and girls summer camps at Vermont and New Hampshire lakes. Locally, Camp Billings on Lake Fairlee was established in 1907.
There were no other local YMCA facilities, but both local newspapers had many items about local youngsters attending YMCA regional and state functions. This included camps, athletic tournaments, and conferences. Local students participated in the organization’s NH Youth and Government Model Legislature.
Beyond religious affiliated youth groups, the now-popular 4-H youth development program originated in the Midwest in 1902. By 1912, the group had expanded and adopted the4-H title and familiar 4-leaf pin. Initially established in schools for after school activities, it soon became a wide-spread community organization.
In 1914, as part of the new Vermont Extension Service, new 4-H clubs began to form. By 1916, there were 80 clubs in 65 towns throughout the state with a membership of more than 5,000 girls and boys.
It began in Grafton County in 1916 as the “Boys’ and Girls’ Agricultural Club Work.” Blaisdell’s history of Haverhill mentions dozens of 4-H clubs in that community. Prior to 1926, East Haverhill had one of the first in the county. By 1927, there were 4-H clubs in Pike, North Haverhill and Woodsville.
The units were generally divided by sex, with boys learning crops and animal production, while girls were encouraged to learn domestic skills. Often a unit concentrated on a single skill such as canning, sewing, animal care or outdoor experiences.
As 4-H became the largest youth development organization, similar clubs were found in all towns from Piermont to East Thetford.
As with other communities, Newbury “had its full share of 4-H groups.” If displays at the North Haverhill Fair are any indication, many vibrant groups still exist today. For over 40 years, the Rocking Horse 4-H Club met in Piermont under the leadership of Joan Osgood. Two Bradford women recall their 4-H experiences. Nancy Jones recalls raising and marketing chickens as a 4-H project in 1957. “It was a great experience,” Jones said. Bobette Scribner added “Stories for the lifetime came out of 4-H.”
A similar rural youth program was established by the Grange. The Grange was founded in 1867 as a national farmers’ advocacy group. The Adelphi Grange was established in Newbury Center in 1874. The Oliverian Grange was organized in 1876 in East Haverhill. Grange units have played an active role in communities from Haverhill, Piermont, and Orfordville to Bradford, Thetford, West Newbury, and West Topsham.
For a century, the Grange has sponsored a program for children aged 5 to 14. Its focus was to provide leadership training and life skills. Members of the Junior Grange held social functions and participated in skills contests and seminars. Local members attended special camping activities at Camp Ingalls, the 4-H camp in North Hero, Vermont. At 14, youth could attain full adult membership in the Grange.
Another fraternal society with youth-focused groups within its “family” was the Masonic organization. In 1919, the DeMolay organization was established for boys 12 to 20. It was dedicated to teaching citizenship, leadership, and public service. Locally, there were chapters in Wells River, North Haverhill, and Wentworth. Efforts to establish units in Bradford and Haverhill around 1967 never materialized.
Rainbow Girls was established in 1922 and created opportunities for community service and leadership for girls 10-20. Newspaper notices mention this organization in Fairlee (1927), Bradford (1946), North Haverhill (1952), and Wells River (1960).
Two of today’s most recognized youth organizations are the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA. The Scouting movement has been a significant offering for local youth for over a century.
Troop #1 of the Boy Scouts was formed in Barre VT in October 1909. William Foster Milne Of Barre had been active in the early scouting movement in Scotland. He reorganized a group of boys at the First Baptist Church in Barre into a scouting troop. In 1910, Camp Abnaki in North Hero, VT opened as the first official BSA/YMCA camp.
A boys’ group, much like the Boy Scouts, formed in Woodsville in 1910 and received an official BSA charter in 1916. In 1912, a meeting for interested boys was held in Piermont and in Lyme the following year. Pike had a very active troop chartered in 1915. Haverhill followed in 1928 and North Haverhill in 1945.
In Vermont, a BSA troop met in East Corinth about 1921. In 1925, this troop shared their enthusiasm with 28 boys in Bradford and that group was granted a charter. From the earliest days of the troops, the boys were taking hikes, working on merit badges, and performing community service.
The Orford-Fairlee troop was established before 1947. That year, they sponsored a winter carnival with contests on the Fairlee common and skiing on the Ridge in Orford. A Carnival Ball topped it off.
A troop was chartered in West Topsham in 1969. After it was discontinued, the remaining boys joined the East Corinth troop and later the one in Bradford.
Vermont Governor Deane Davis was a junior member of Barre Troop #1. He later described the movement as “dedicated to teaching boys of immature years the basic principles of good conduct, good citizenship, crafts, the skills of outdoor life and self-discipline.”
In 1962, Bradford’s Gary Moore achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, the first in his troop. Recently, I asked Moore to respond to Governor Davis’ comment. Agreeing with the Governor, Moore said his “Scouting years have had a major impact on my life…, I learned about teamwork and leadership…and community service.”
Founded on the belief that girls deserved the outdoor living experience that boys had, the Campfire Girls was established in 1910 as a sister organization to the Boy Scouts. It was established in Thetford and Sebago Lake, Maine by Luther and Charlotte Gulick and Charlotte Farnsworth of Thetford. They believed that girls deserved the outdoor living experiences that boys had. As the Rutland Daily Herald wrote in 1911, the organization would “lead young femininity afield in a healthy, womanly way, and give the girls a chance to become acquainted with nature.”
Within two years, there were 60,000 members, with many attending associated summer camps. The first of those was Thetford’s Camp Hanoum. There was a campfire unit in Groton (1920), West Topsham (1924), and Piermont (1940).
The other sister organization was the Girl Scouts. The first troop in America was in Savanna Georgia in 1912. It began a movement “where every girl could unlock her full potential, find lifelong friends, and make the world a better place.”
Perhaps the first local Girl Scouts l troop was established in Pike in 1918 and immediately began an aggressive program of “camping, badge-blasts and crafts.” Troops were established in other communities in the area including Newbury and Woodsville (1922), Bradford (1925), and North Haverhill (1943).
As with the Boys’ troops, local Girl Scouts groups sometimes waned only to be reestablished. The Fairlee troop renewed about 1950 and the Newbury troop about 1955. In 1959, Thetford’s Camp Hanoum was acquired by the Girl Scouts and renamed Camp Farnsworth.
Reading the many newspaper notices of the Girl Scouts and Brownies, there is certainly more to the organization than cookies.
Throughout history, American youth organizations have provided opportunities for co-ed activities. It was not uncommon for local scouting groups to hold such events. As locals often participated in district events, members met youth from neighboring towns or even from throughout the state.
There were other youth groups. Some were locals ranging from a Young Farmers group in Piermont to teen center groups in Bradford.
Since they first appeared in America, youth organizations have not been without their controversies. Exclusions from membership based on sex, age, race, or religious affiliation and controversies over subjects covered or activities undertaken. Funding shortages and adult misbehavior have weakened organizations effectiveness. In some cases, the controversies led to the demise of the organizations while others were strengthened by their resolve to survive.
In 2014, the Vermont Legislature recognized Newbury’s Marilyn Fuller’s 64-year 4-H leadership in both Vermont and New Hampshire, “helping both youth and adults to learn, grow and work together.” Fuller’s dedication is just one example of the many adults who made youth organizations work. Some were paid while many were not.
Adults who grew up in these organizations recall their experiences and the life lessons learned, and the adults who made those memories possible. Despite the scandals that sully some, most of those who worked with youth were heroes. They were, and continue to be, the adult personifications of their organizations’ goal. America’s youth are better off for them.
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