Juliette Gordon Low was the founder of the Girl Scout movement, but it was Lou Henry Hoover who created the institutions that remain its foundation today.
As first lady, Mrs. Hoover was the honorary president of the Girl Scouts. But she also served two terms as the elected president of Girl Scouts, one pre-White House and one post-White House.
She worked to streamline administration, professionalize staff, and better democratize relations between councils and the national headquarters. She launched the Little House program, encouraged day camping, and promoted commercial cookie sales.
I spoke on this topic for the Hoover Presidential Foundation’s “Third Thursday” talk for June 2022.
The Foundation taped the presentation, which may be accessed here or below. Enjoy!!
This weekend marks the centennial of Washington DC’s Knickerbocker Theater Disaster of January 28, 1922. Most Washingtonians know that it is connected with the city’s largest snowstorm. But there is also an important Girl Scout connection.
Epic Snow Storm
After a snowstorm dumped 28 inches of snow on the city, cabin fever led some residents to hike to the Knickerbocker Theatre at the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. Not all staff had made it in to work that evening, but the show went on, with patrons ready to watch the silent movie Get Rich Quick, Wallingford!
Above their heads, snow had been accumulating on the building’s flat, steel-and-concrete roof for days. The combined weight was more than the roof could bear. Suddenly, the audience heard a hissing sound. A faint cloud of white plaster dust beginning to swirl above the orchestra—or was it snow? It seemed to glimmer in the dark theater.
With a thunderous crack, the roof collapsed under the weight of the snow, falling in one giant slab. The roof had caught the front edge of the balcony and pulled it down on top of the orchestra and the patrons seated below. People sitting in the front rows of the balcony were catapulted from their seats into the rows below. The rear of the balcony remained attached to the wall, dangling ominously over the enormous pile of twisted iron and steel, concrete slabs, plaster dust, and audience. The downward force created a huge blast of air that blew open the auditorium doors and propelled some late arrivals into the lobby. The collapse lasted less than a minute.
It would take hours for rescuers to clear the debris, soldiers came from nearby bases to help. But they soon heard a clear voice calling out. It was a woman’s voice, it belonged to 26-year old Helen Hopkins, leader of Girl Scout Troop 8.
Trapped under four steel girders, a stunned Helen could hear the agonized cries of the wounded and dying around her and realized that she, too was seriously injured. Blinking in the darkness and struggling to breathe through the thick plaster dust caked on her face and trying to remain calm, Helen began to evaluate her injuries. One arm was pinned under the rubble and useless, and the other one badly swollen, but she reached out to her friend Freddie, and found his hand. She held Freddie’s hand until it grew cold as he succumbed to his injuries. The man who had been seated on her other side lay dead, as well. She saw other people lying around her, but all appeared motionless and silent.
Helen tried to remember her first aid training. All of her girls had earned their First Aide proficiency badges. Their handbooks spelled out what to do in an emergency, starting with “Keep cool. The only way to do this effectually is to learn beforehand what to do and how to do it. Then you are not frightened and can do readily and with coolness whatever is necessary to be done.” Helen took the deepest breath should could and struggled to focus her thoughts.
Helen believed she was in shock. She knew had to get her blood to circulate throughout her body, so she began pinching her body using her thumb and forefinger, although the two could hardly meet, her hand was so enlarged. If nothing else, the sheer pain that resulted gave her something to focus on and helped her to remain conscious. She could hardly move her head, as her long hair was caught on some piece of debris, but she was determined to live.
Rescuers worked slowly, but Helen could hear them inside the dark theater. Gathering her remaining strength, using the loud, strong voice she’d honed on troop hikes and in the church choir, she called out to the rescuers.
But help did not arrive immediately, so Helen continued to shout.
Finally someone answered Helen’s calls. Realizing that she had their attention, Helen began directing the rescuers to her location and that of people hidden under debris around her. She also sang song after song, trying to cheer other survivors, urging them to hang on just a little bit longer.
Finally, a patch of daylight shone onto Helen. After hours in the dark, she had been found. It took soldiers nearly four hours to dig her out of the rubble. Rescuers had to cut off some of her long blond hair that was tangled into the debris.
Helen was the first trapped victim to be removed from the theater alive. Soldiers carried her out of the theater on a stretcher and across the street to the Christian Science church. Weak and confused, she called out, “Mother, it was the everlasting arms that saved me!” She was loaded into an ambulance, which sped away, rocking from side to side over snow drifts, and taken to Garfield Hospital on Florida Avenue NW. Thanks to her clear instructions, ten other survivors were located and removed to safety.
The soldiers “could not find words in which to praise her courage and when they attempted to tell her of their admiration, she said that she was a Girl Scout and could do no less.”
Praise for Helen
Helen’s story quickly spread throughout Washington, as newspaper readers were eager to have a happy ending to balance the sadness of the 98 lives lost and some 133 people injured. She became a celebrity, with newspapers across the country providing updates on her condition and mentioning that she was a Girl Scout leader. First Lady Florence Harding sent Helen a large, autographed photograph of herself in her own Girl Scout uniform, with her dog Laddie Boy nearby. Mrs. Harding regularly sent bouquets to Helen while she recuperated at home.
Girl Scouts of the USA awarded Helen the Bronze Cross, a recognitions reserved for persons displaying gallantry, resourcefulness, and personal peril while saving the lives of others. She would be the first Girl Scout from Washington to receive the honor.
Lou Henry Hoover, then national president of the Girl Scouts, hosted the medal ceremony at her home in Georgetown. Each local troop was allowed to send one member, and all of Helen’s troop was invited. Troop 8 assembled in the Hoover’s garden for the ceremony, dressed in freshly washed and ironed uniforms. In addition to their leaders outstanding honor, the girls were allowed to hold their own Court of Awards ceremony at this time. Helen had recently married and was moving to Philadelphia, but the girls had a replacement– Mrs. Hoover.
Another Girl Scout Connection
Among the people following Helen’s story was her mother’s close friend, Carolyn Gangwer Caughey. Carolyn had amassed a considerable sum of money by buildings and managing apartment buildings. Impressed by the Girl Scout program, she decided to leave her entire estate to the Girl Scouts of the USA. The centerpiece of this gift was Carolyn’s country home–Rockwood.
But that’s another story, to be continued in the spring ….
For more about the Knickerbocker disaster, see the two books written by my pal, Kevin Ambrose.
When the White House wanted a nice, fresh turkey for Thanksgiving dinner in 1925, they opted for delivery.
But instead of Door Dash or another nearby delivery service, President and Mrs. Coolidge turned to their home state, Vermont, and one of their favorite civic groups.
First Lady Grace Coolidge had been an enthusiastic Girl Scout since her husband was vice president. Now Honorary President of the Girl Scouts, Mrs. Coolidge tried to incorporate Girl Scouts into White House events whenever possible. The Washington organization was in the midst of a $20,000 fund drive, and a Thanksgiving-related photo call would be great for publicity.
She ordered a Vermont turkey, from a family friend in East Montpelier, and the First Lady wanted it delivered—-and cooked—-by a Girl Scout.
Thirteen-year-old Leona Baldwin was chosen for this mission, as the 20-lb turkey hailed from her family farm. Leona had never travelled beyond her hometown, so her leader, Laura Gould, accompanied her on the long train ride. They departed on November 6.
After their adventure in Washington, they planned to make a stop in New York City on the way home. (The turkey did not have a round-trip ticket.)
No account of the trip clarifies whether the turkey traveled with a ticket, in a crate, or in a roasting pan.
Upon arrival, Leona and Mrs. Gould were whisked away from Union Station and taken to the Girl Scout Little House at 1750 New York Avenue NW.
The Little House was a recent gift from the Better Homes of America and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. It was modeled after the house that inspired the “Home Sweet Home” song and contained a working kitchen, furnished dining room, living rooms, bedrooms, and bathroom.
Leona inspected the kitchen and was no doubt relieved to learn that a team of 19 local girls would be there to assist. Newspaper reports of the time do not mention where Leona, Mrs. Gould, or the turkey spent the evening.
The next morning, Leona and Mrs. Gould went to the Tivioli Theater, which was holding a benefit performance of the comedy “Cold Turkey” for the Girl Scouts. Leona met Mrs. Coolidge, for the first time.
After the film ended, the dignitaries moved on for dinner. In addition to the Coolidges, the guest list included Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Hoover, who had secured the building for the Girl Scouts; May Flather, head of Girl Scouts in Washington, DC; J.S. Storrow, national president of the Boy Scouts; and Dean Sarah Arnold, national president of the Girl Scouts.
The girls gathered in the dining room and, once everyone was seated, began to serve.
Leona’s glistening turkey rested on a sideboard. When she passed the platter to the President, “Silent Cal” commented, “Thank you. It looks very good.”
Aside from Leona, the other girls were local. Lucille Weber and Margaret Strong, for example, were hostesses. Marian Bates, of Troop 42, was in charge of circulating the cream and sugar, while Phyllis Adelman, also from Troop 42, had celery and carrot duty. Everyone was nervous.
Marian and I bumped each other, spilling cream on the President’s coat. We cleaned it off as best we could and Grace Coolidge was so kind. … Cal ignored the whole thing!
Recollections of Phyllis Adelman Larson, GSCNC Archives.
Newspaper accounts of this most memorable dinner focus exclusively on Leona, using extremely outdated language that makes the dinner seem like an installment of the “Perils of Pauline.”
Leona collapsed after the luncheon was over. The honor and excitement had been too great. A little heart had beaten too wildly and had signaled to a set of taut nerves that it was time for reaction. Hysteria, the price of Leona’s glory, ensued.
Solicitous Scout leaders gathered around the little Vermont girl, and after much nursing and petting and drying of tears, brought her back to emotional stability.
Washington Post (November 8, 1925): 1.
And what of the other 19 girls?
They hardly were standing by taking selfies. In fact, given the limited capacity of the Little House, THEY were probably the ones giving aid.
Girl Scouts of the USA strives to create conscientious future voters who appreciate the unique qualities of the American political system.
From the founding of Girl Scouts in 1912, girls could earn badges that involved learning about their government, laws, and elections.
After women received the right to vote 100 years ago, Girl Scouts stepped in to help anyway they could. Sometimes an act as simple as holding a baby while mother goes into the voting booth can make a difference in turnout.
There are clear limits on political involvement. The Blue Book–GSUSA’s collection of bylaws, policies, and the corporate constitution–states the following:
Individual Girl Scouts may engage in partisan political activities, but only as civilians. They cannot appear in uniform, as that would suggest the organization has endorsed a particular candidate or expressed an opinion on a public issue.
A Little Too Active
Sometimes good intentions may get out of hand, as happened during the 1960 Presidential Election.
It seems that Intermediate* Troops 670 and 702 from Bethesda, Maryland, loved to do community service projects. When their leader, Mrs. Smith heard that the Volunteers for Nixon-Lodge headquarters needed help, she immediately signed the girls up. The field trip to 1000 16th Street NW in Washington did not raise any red flags among parents, as most were Republicans themselves.
*In 1963, the Intermediate level was divided in Juniors (grades 4-6) and Cadettes (grades 7-9).
A dozen girls, in their green uniforms, yellow ties, and jaunty berets, had a blast at the campaign office. They stuffed envelopes; assembled press releases; and filled campaign kits with buttons and bumper stickers.
Vice President Nixon’s press secretary, Herbert G. Klein called the Washington Post to suggest that there was a great photo opportunity happening at campaign headquarters. A campaign staffer had tipped off Klein and said the girls might be working at the Kennedy-Johnson office another day.
A witty local reporter asked the girls whether “some people might not regard Nixon’s defeat as a community service,” the girls giggled and confidently stated, “Kennedy isn’t going to be elected.”
The girls had put in about four hours of work when a telephone rang; the caller asked for Mrs. Smith. In fact, the caller was Helaine Todd, executive director of the National* Capital Area Girl Scout Council.
*Also in 1963, the National Capital Girl Scout Council and four other councils combined to form the Nation’s Capital Girl Scout Council.
Todd was a tad upset. She informed Mrs. Smith that “Partisan political activity is absolutely against local and national Girl Scout policy. ” Todd also declared that the girls could not count the day toward service hours. (That seems a bit over the top, in my opinion.)
Mrs. Smith, a relatively new leader, was “flabbergasted and aghast.” She grabbed the girls and swiftly exited. At the next troop meeting, she turned the experience into a learning opportunity, explaining what she had done wrong.
Of course, Nixon lost in 1960. Much could–and has–been said about Richard Nixon. But I must give the Nixon family credit for being strong supporters of Girl Scouts–before and after their White House years.
Both Nixon daughters, Julie and Tricia, were active Girl Scouts and future First Lady Pat Nixon was their co-leader.
Mrs. Nixon greatly enjoyed her time as honorary national president of GSUSA, welcoming girls to the White House and visiting the national headquarters in New York.
As summer camp winds down for the season, it is time to reflect on the experience. Girls’ letters home often provide insights and anecdotes about camp life.
Lois Milstead (right) attended Camp May Flather in its first summer. The Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital has run May Flather as its flagship camp since 1930. A temporary camp operated nearby in 1929, and Lois attended that as well.
Her letter appeared in the Washington Post on September 7, 1930.
My Camping Trip
I have just returned. from a four weeks’ stay at the Washington Camp, May Flather, situated in the mountains near Harrisonburg. Va., to which I also attended last summer. This camp is for Girl Scouts.
Although I am not yet a Girl Scout, I enjoy the ways of their life. I hope to become one in the very near future.
The whole four weeks to me were but an enjoyable time. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute while there. I am fond of all kinds of athletics and sports and camp life naturally appeals to me. I play golf and tennis a lot at home, and although I had neither of these sports at camp, there were many interesting pastimes to fully make up for the lack of them.
I will give a brief outline of our daily routine. Revielle, breakfast (just before breakfast we have flag raising), kapers (that is little tasks from each cabin), inspection, classes (forestry, camp craft), swimming, court of honor, dinner, rest hour, classes (handcraft, nature), retreat, supper, camp fire, taps.
I took many overnight hikes and one three-day hike. These were loads of fun.
While at camp this year, I met many of the: girls with whom I was acquainted last year.
Mrs. Hoover visited the camp while I was there. Mrs. Cheatham and Mrs. Flather also came with her. They spent two days and a night with us. They were present for the formal dedication of the new camp site. Mrs. Hoover dedicated a picturesque little bridge and Mrs. Flather, for whom the camp is named, donated much toward it.
Miss Dorothy Greene, the director of our camp, has done much to the bettering of it, making the girls feel at home, and they are trying to live up to the high standards and morals which she has set for them. I had lots of fun at camp, but I was rather glad when the time came to go home, for I missed my mother and daddy.
Lois A. Milstead (age 12), Dahlgren, Va.
I don’t know if Lois ever joined the Girl Scouts. She graduated from the State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1938.
Lois worked on the school newspaper, the Commercial Echoes. She married George Goodwin, a reporter, two years later and moved to Georgia.
Note: This entry was originally published on March 10, 2014, but somehow it was accidentally deleted.
No, it’s not a newly discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder book. The Little House in Washington, DC, was the first in a series of model homes used by Girl Scouts across the country. Sadly, the Washington Little House is long gone and one current Little House in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, is about to close.
Built behind the White House in Washington, DC, for the second Better Homes Demonstration Week in June 1923, the Little House was a fully working home, with a modern kitchen, breakfast nook, three bedrooms, and a nursery. Between June 4 and June 10, 2,500–3,500 people visited the house each day. After the exhibition, the Better Homes in America and General Federation of Women’s Clubs donated it to the Girl Scouts for use as a national training and innovation center. It became the first of many “Little Houses” across the country, where Girl Scouts practiced their homemaking and hospitality skills.
Lou Henry Hoover, wife of the secretary of commerce and national president of the Girl Scouts, paid $12,000 to relocate the Little House. First Lady Grace Coolidge (right) laid the cornerstone, as Hoover watched.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Little House was THE place to go on Saturdays. There was always some badge activity to try or new skill to learn, and the First Lady, as honorary president of the Girl Scouts, might decide to drop by. After all, the White House was just around the corner.
A well-dressed group waits to welcome a distinguished guest to the Little House
The Girl Scouts of the District of Columbia rented a room in the northwest corner of the second floor as its headquarters until it outgrew the facility in 1928. The Little House was used continuously for trainings and demonstrations of the domestic arts from June 1923 to April 1945. The building was used as a branch of Girl Scouts of the USA, the national organization, for the next decade then given to the landowners in May 1955. The Little House was torn down in the early 1970s. There is a commemorative plaque in the lobby of the office building that currently sits at the site. Update: We now have the plaque at our Frederick Archives and Program Center.
A dollhouse versionof the Little House has been on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.
POSTSCRIPT: All of the photos used here are from the Harris and Ewing collection and may be downloaded FREE OF CHARGE from the Library of Congress. You don’t need to buy the overpriced copies offered on eBay!!
Although not an honorary national president of the Girl Scouts of the USA, President George H.W. Bush was also a great supporter of the Girl Scouts.
Troops touring the White House from 1989 to 1992 often received a special greeting from the president himself.
He kept the tradition up when his son became president, especially with groups that came to watch a White House tee-ball game.
Nation’s Capital Girl Scout Troop 2722 hoped to see the country’s leader when they cheered on a White House tee-ball game on June 3, 2001, but they were surprised to see two President Bushes! The elder Bush graciously posed for photos.
Tributes to President George H.W. Bush consistently cite his kindness and decency, attributes that align with the Girl Scout mission of making the world a better place.
Much has been written about the legacy of former First Lady Barbara Bush, who passed away on Tuesday, April 17, at age 92. Commentators have noted her unusual position as a wife of one president and the mother of another; many tributes have also mentioned her extensive commitment to literacy promotion.
While in the White House, first ladies are also invited to be honorary president of the Girl Scouts of the USA. Mrs. Bush accepted eagerly and was active in many Girl Scout events. She even attended the 1990 National Council Session in Miami to draw attention to the Girl Scout Right to Read program.
As her neighbor, not just in the White House but also at the Vice Presidential Residence, the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital had many opportunities to see and interact with her.
She spoke at the GSUSA 80th birthday celebration on March 12, 1992, held at the US Department of Agriculture atrium. Mrs. Bush helped launch a new national service project that day, “Girl Scouts Care for the Earth.”
An official photograph of the event appeared in the Summer 1992 Leader magazine:
But our council archives have several behind-the-scenes photos from that day. It is delightful to see Mrs. Bush and her friendly, unhurried interaction with a group of very nervous Girl Scouts.
barbara bush 2
barbara bush 1
barbara bush 3
The photograph below is my favorite. I went back to the original to see if there was any additional information, such as the girl’s name and what she is giving to Mrs. Bush. Could that be a sparkly yellow pom-pom SWAP? She seems fascinated by it!
We are fortunate that this busy first lady always made time for the Girl Scouts.
But that disappointment was short-lived. Shortly after the elusive eBay auction ended, a new donation arrived in the mail. The enclosed letter from a local estate attorney explained that her client, Betty Chapman, had left behind a scrapbook that she had compiled as a Washington, DC, Girl Scout in the late 1920s. As Chapman had no immediate family, the attorney thought we might like it.
The package contained a three-ring school notebook, with newspaper clippings and other papers pasted on lined notebook paper.
The first clipping, on the first page, I immediately recognized:
This round-faced girl, with the slightly mischevious grin, is Elizabeth Kahler, one of Washington’s first Golden Eaglets. She appears in many of our early photos, including this one of the 1927 White House Easter Egg Roll.
Elizabeth has the same photo in her scrapbook, along with an autograph from the first lady. You can still see the creases from Elizabeth putting it in her uniform pocket for safekeeping.
The book is stuffed with more clippings, invitations, letters, and badge records.
But perhaps the biggest find is nine issues of the Girl Scout Bugle — a publication that I did not even know existed!
These four-page publications from 1927 and 1928 were part of a journalism training program. The first issue explains its purpose. I don’t know how long the program continued.
Stuffed in the envelope with the Girl Scout materials are other mementos of Elizabeth’s life, such as the programs from her college graduation. She attended the George Washington University, earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees before graduating from medical school, with distinction, in 1940.
Elizabeth married fellow physician Ervin Chapman and maintained a medical practice in Washington, DC. She passed away in 2007.
I guess those Red Cross courses made a significant impression on Miss Kahler.
You might assume that the Girl Scout Council of Washington, DC, began with a formal meeting of prominent women concerned with youth issues. Perhaps Juliette Gordon Low trotted across Pennsylvania Avenue from her office to meet with the first lady at the White House.
But in reality, the Washington Council was the product of an auto accident, a case of appendicitis, and a brief kidnapping.
But when JGL moved the headquarters to New York City in 1916, Washington Girl Scouts had to take charge of their own affairs. With more than 50 active troops, it was time to get their files in order and apply for a charter.
The first question was who would be the commissioner (president) of the DC Girl Scouts. The obvious choice was Lou Henry Hoover, an old friend of Daisy’s, but she was too busy for the amount of work necessary to seek a charter. After thinking about civic-minded women in Washington, she came upon the solution by accident–literally.
In 1916, Mrs. Hoover had been in a fender bender with Henrietta Bates Brooke. Mrs. Brooke was well known in Washington for her various charitable endeavors. She had met JGL years earlier in Savannah and seemed ideal. Mrs. Hoover called on Mrs. Brooke, only to find her confined to her bed with a severe attack of appendicitis.
Being in no physical condition to deny any request, [Mrs. Hoover] quickly persuaded me to build a council, so when I got well, I had that to do.
—Memoirs of Henrietta Bates Brooke
Mrs. Brooke turned to her friend Edith Macy, the head of the New York council, for advice. They decided to invite a group of like-minded women to tea at Mrs. Macy’s apartment in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood. As an added incentive, they promised a viewing of Mrs. Macy’s art collection.
This was a plum invitation. Mrs. Macy lived in the newly built McCormick Apartments at 1785 Massachusetts Avenue NW. The luxury Beaux Arts building had five stories and only six enormous apartments.
Edna Coleman, director of Girl Scouts in Washington, invited Mrs. Hoover to attend the tea, but, unfortunately, the future first lady was traveling at the time. That invitation is preserved at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.
coleman to hoover page 1
coleman to hoover page 2
coleman to hoover page 3
In any case, there was a huge turnout for the Thursday afternoon tea. About one dozen women admired the paintings, nibbled on cookies, and exchanged pleasantries.
After tea was served, I simply locked the doors. Learning that they would only be permitted to depart after accepting places on the Washington Girl Scout Council, they all accepted and always stayed in scouting.
—Memoirs of Henrietta Bates Brooke
On July 17, 1917, the Girl Scout Association of the District of Columbia became the eighth council chartered by the national headquarters.
From these humble and haphazard beginnings, the Girl Scouts of the District of Columbia has grown in include parts of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. One hundred years later, the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital is the largest council in the United States, with over 87,000 members.