Founder of Boy Scouts of America has Ottawa roots

Explore Ottawa’s Historical and Scouting Heritage Museum

Every Boy Scout and Scout leader has heard the tale of how more than a century ago an American businessman, lost in a London fog, was approached by a uniformed English boy who took him to his destination.

Intrigued by his young guide, the American went on to found the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. But from there, for many, details that may tend to slip back into the fog are that the American was William D. Boyce and he came from Ottawa, Illinois.

Boyce’s legacy is strong at the Ottawa Historical and Scouting Heritage Museum.

Although his two Ottawa homes are gone, artifacts, photos and documents tell of Boyce’s life and adventures.

Boyce may be a two-dimensional figure elsewhere, but while he lived Boyce was larger than life.

“When you’re looking for something that nobody else in the country has, we’ve got Boyce,” said Mollie Perrot, the museum’s executive director. “He lived here and he’s buried here.” For example, the reason he was in London to begin with when he met that English Scout was to arrange for a “balloonograph” expedition to Africa where aerial photography was to be conducted from a gas balloon.

Boyce could indulge in such fancies due to the fortune he amassed as a publisher of popular periodicals of the day. By 1916, his fortune was $20 million — which translated to more than $460 million today.

William Dickson Boyce was born to a Pennsylvania farm family in 1858. By the time he moved to Ottawa from Chicago, he was a renowned explorer, world traveler and successful businessman.

What brought him to Starved Rock Country was in 1900, Boyce decided to open a paper plant in nearby Marseilles. Seven months after it was finished, however, the plant was destroyed by fire. Hiring his plant workers as a construction crew, the resourceful Boyce rebuilt the plant.

In 1902 Boyce bought the palatial home of former Ottawa Mayor Frederick Sherwood. The four-story house built on a 38-acre estate had 16 bedrooms and 15 fireplaces. It was Boyce’s home until it burned in 1908 and was rebuilt on a more modest scale.

Boyce was remembered as a tough but shrewd businessman.

The 2003 book “W.D. Boyce and American Boy Scouting” by Janice Petterchak, tells a story by the late Marseilles Fire Chief John Armstrong. It recounts how a distracted Boyce told Gordon Coffeen, an installer from the Marseilles Telephone Company, where to put his new phone by pointing to the floor of a far corner of his office. Boyce was furious when he later discovered he had to lay on the office floor to make a call.

Boyce complained to phone company manager E.H. Spicer who told him, “Just a minute, Mr. Boyce, my man put that phone exactly where you told him to put it.” Boyce reflected for a moment and asked Spicer, “Does that man always do exactly as he is told?” When Spicer said he did, Boyce offered Coffeen a job and kept him on the payroll until he died.

On a personal level, Boyce could be generous. His practice of distributing one-pound boxes of candy to Ottawa and Marseilles schoolchildren earned him the nickname “The Candy Kid.”

Before long, Boyce had a falling out with Boy Scout administrators. In 1915 he started the Lone Scouts of America for boys who had rural homes and could not attend troop activities. It also was based on a British counterpart. After nine years the Lone Scouts were merged into the mainstream Scout movement.

Yet, despite their differences, Boy Scout executives never lost sight of Boyce’s contributions.

In 1926, when the national scouting organization gave out its first Silver Buffalo Awards for distinguished service the first three were to Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the British general who founded the Scout movement, the unknown Scout who inspired Boyce, and Boyce himself. When Boyce died in 1929, Chief Scout Executive James West came to Ottawa to deliver the eulogy.

The museum is not the first tribute to Boyce. A duplicate of the life-size 1937 statue “The Boy Scout” by Robert Tait McKenzie was unveiled on June 21, 1941, at Boyce’s grave in the Ottawa Avenue Cemetery.

Also, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America, five vintage-style gas lights were installed around the war veterans fountain in the center of the Washington Square park in downtown Ottawa.

At the dedication on Oct. 8, 1960, an estimated 15,000 scouts and leaders were on hand and the London fog meeting was reenacted. The gas lights were removed when the center of the park was remodeled to honor the 1858 debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

But the 1960 dedication was a glorious sight. The Boy Scouts paraded from Washington Square to the Boyce’s Grave accompanied by more than a dozen cars filled with aging former Lone Scouts.

The Ottawa Historical and Scouting Museum is located at 1100 Canal St. Hours are Thursday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for youths through age 17. Special rates for groups of more than 10 and 25 are offered. For additional information call 815-431-9353 or visit