Scouting and Grandpa Ragnvald

When I was a boy, I was both a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout, carrying on the traditions that my grandfather had started and my father continued. I didn’t rise to the levels of achievement and recognition that they did, but I gave it a go and enjoyed my time as a Scout. I was recently reminded of some of those memories when a friend and former fellow Scout, David Bly, shared a tribute to his father, Haldor (Hal) Bly, in a Father’s Day remembrance. Hal Bly was the Scoutmaster of Troop 313 here in Northfield. He led us on many adventures and taught us skills I still use today, including the concept of pacing. I thought the 12-minute mile, also known as “Scout’s Pace” (run 50 paces/walk 50 paces), was a really clever way to make sure you could cover a long distance if you had to, yet not wear yourself out in the process. You can read David’s tribute here.

I was in scouting for five years, two years as a Cub Scout (ages 8-9) and three years as a Boy Scout (ages 10-12). When I was 13, my family moved from Minnesota to California and I didn’t continue my scouting there. I didn’t make a deliberate choice to give it up, I just didn’t have a ready opportunity nor did I go looking for one. I don’t regret my early exit from scouting, but I treasure the experiences that I had during those five years. I still have a couple of bandannas and my Boy Scout Handbook!

My grandfather, Ragnvald Duesund Bergeson, had many interests in his life, but few were as engrossing as his involvement in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). He was the Scoutmaster for Troop 155 sponsored by Bethel Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois. All three of his sons were scouts under his leadership and two of them, my father Robert and my uncle Norman, attained the highest honor in scouting, becoming Eagle Scouts when they were in high school. Dad earned his Eagle in 1941 and Norm was awarded his in 1947.

Ragnvald was very involved with Boy Scout camps, both locally in and near Chicago (Camp Kiwanis and Camp Fort Dearborn) and regionally in Michigan (Owasippe Scout Reservation). Camp Kiwanis was 25 miles northwest of the city center and was situated on the banks of the Des Plaines River. It was right across the road from the location that eventually became O’Hare International Airport! It was a place to go for short field trips and weekend camping.

Owasippe Scout Reservation was (and still is) about 200 miles north of Chicago close to the eastern shore of Lake Michigan near the city of Whitehall. On its website are the words “We are the Oldest Continually Operating Scout Camp in America”. The property contains two lakes, Big Blue Lake and Wolverine Lake and in its heyday it had a total of seven different camps. I don’t know if Ragnvald and his boys went every year, but I have photographs of visits they made in 1935, 1941 and 1942.

Grandpa was an accomplished fisherman and hunter. He went fishing on Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota lakes on multiple occasions and pheasant hunting in South Dakota as well. He was so invested in outdoor experiences that he took his three boys on two canoe trips to the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. This was completely outside of the scouting opportunities that they all had.

My grandfather, Ragnvald Bergeson, is the gentleman on the left. I regret that I don’t know who the other two men were.

Ragnvald’s post-retirement plans involved moving to Florida and building a house in the city of Dunedin. Before he and Gladys did that, he was honored by the Frontier District of the Boy Scouts of America in Chicago for his work as a Scoutmaster and district leader. I don’t know the exact year when this took place, but I’m guessing it was either 1958 or 1959, just before they left Chicago for Florida in 1960.  The following is the commendation that accompanied the above photograph in Grandpa’s album.

Ragnvald Bergeson – Committeeman at Large – Frontier District – In scouting since 1938

“Mr. Bergeson has served as Assistant Scoutmaster, Scoutmaster, Council Member, Troop Committeeman, Merit Badge Counselor, Member at Large of the District Committee. He has been a member of Camp Chaplaincy Service Committee, which arranges for ministers to conduct services at Camp Fort Dearborn and Camp Kiwanis. He has served for seven years as Chairman of the Boys’ Work Committee to promote Scouting in the Lutheran Churches. In his church he is Sunday School Superintendent, member of the Board of Deacons and Board of Trustees. He was responsible for the complete refinishing of an old cabin into a beautiful House of Worship at Fort Dearborn Camp, seating 100 persons, available for all boys.”

There have been many changes to scouting since Ragnvald’s days, both regionally and nationally. Leadership scandals and many novel competing activities have resulted in dramatic drops in participation levels. Estimates are that current registrations are half of what they were during peak years.

Two places where this can be seen in the Chicago area are the consolidation of local BSA council organizations and the disappearance of camping opportunities. Earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune published a couple of articles detailing the camping changes. In a piece titled “Only Memories Left of Getaway Camps,” writer John Husar describes the fate of two camps that were on Tuma Lake, Camp Kiwanis (Boy Scouts) and Camp Sokol, an ethnic hideaway for the Czech and Slovak immigrant families of Chicago).

“Time, of course, took its toll. As the city and suburbs expanded and the population became increasingly mobile, there was less demand for getaway camps in the woods. . . . Kiwanis Council had no money to maintain its Scout camp, and the the gymnastics-based Sokol organization declined as its population diffused through various neighborhoods. Both camps were abandoned in the mid-1970s, and the buildings eventually were torn down.”

Owasippe Scout Reservation in Michigan is still in operation, as I mentioned earlier. However, in an article titled “Camp Caught Between Memories, Red Ink,” reporter Joseph Sjostrom writes,

“Owasippe Scout Reservation–a serene 4,800 acres of woods and lakes near Whitehall, Mich., and a summer draw for Chicago-area Boy Scouts for nine decades–has become a battleground. The Chicago Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America is considering selling parts of the camp in order to offset the council’s $1.4 million annual operating deficit. . . . The council envisions selling some of the Big Blue Lake property and consolidating its camp facilities on Lake Wolverine, a smaller man-made lake that works well for aquatic activities such as swimming and canoeing . . . Meanwhile, the camp still offers the same experience as it did years ago, say leaders and campers. ‘This year, I was a counselor in training and I went through all five of the activity areas: scoutcrafts, nature, shooting, aquatics and handicrafts,’ said Jack Schmidt, 14, of Skokie. ‘The eagles are an awesome sight. The quaking bog is so cool. You jump on the ground and see the waves go and go.’ “

I’m sure that Grandpa Ragnvald would have been saddened by the changes in scouting over the years, but I am positive that he was proud of what he accomplished and I know that his boys were grateful for all of his efforts. I know that his grandchildren are as well!

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