When British Gen. Robert Baden-Powell walked down a gangplank in New York harbor in late January 1912, 40 teenage boys in khaki stood waiting at attention.
These were some of America's first Boy Scouts, and they were there to honor the man who had founded the organization in Great Britain five years earlier. Baden-Powell, a hero of the Boer War of the 1890s, was on a world tour to promote scouting, and he was eager to see how it was taking root in America, where the organization started in 1910.
He walked along the line asking each of the New York Scouts his name. But when Baden-Powell came to the last one — a 16-year-old who stood more than 6 feet tall — observers saw his face light up. As the Scout turned red with embarrassment, Baden-Powell grabbed his hand and pumped him with questions about the patches on his uniform, each denoting achievements and skills learned.
Baden-Powell was delighted to see someone who had earned so many of the 60 patches, called merit badges. By that August, Eldred, who lived in Oceanside, had earned 21 of them. He qualified for a new award, one designed to parallel the "Wolf" medal given to only the very best Scouts in England. But U.S. Scout leaders decided on a new, more American-sounding name for theirs.
The next month — September 1912 — Eldred became the nation's first Eagle Scout.
A century later, on Sept. 8, 2012, a crowd of 1,700 — most of them boys from the Northeast and dressed in khaki uniforms — gathered in Rockville Centre to rededicate the park, located on North Centre Avenue, named for Eldred. On hand also were members of the Eldred family, including Eldred's son Bill, now 84, who was also an Eagle Scout.
'A coveted award'
Only 4 percent of all Boy Scouts achieve the rank, which takes about five to six years. Of the approximately 900,000 Scouts in America, only about 51,000 make Eagle Scout.
"It's a coveted award," said Gary Butler, assistant chief Scout executive with the Boy Scouts of America National Council in Irving, Texas. "There's probably no other [service] award that a young person can win that's so prominent. We've had Eagle Scouts who have walked on the moon, been president of the United States and are pioneers in their industries."
Eldred, whose Eagle Scout medal is in the National Scouting Museum in Irving, Texas, was the product of a different time; and a different Long Island. His house on Terrell Avenue is gone, but there is a town park nearby, with a creek running through it. It's highly likely that a young Eldred fished in that creek and played in the woods that once surrounded it. He loved the outdoors, his son said, and that helped motivate him to do the work necessary to earn all those merit badges, five of which are still required for Eagle Scouts: camping, first aid, lifesaving, personal health and swimming.
Other badges Eldred earned reflect a century of change. "He had a merit badge that required you to shoe a horse," Butler said. "Today we have one in robotics."
Eldred was born in Brooklyn in 1895. His mother raised him after his father died. "They were dead broke, as far as we can tell," said Eldred's son. Eldred's older brother Hubert organized the troop in 1910 and became its first scoutmaster. They held their meetings in the Eldred family barn.
Love of nature remained
Eldred, who attended Oceanside High School, was so proficient in his Scoutcraft that he finished the requirements before the Boy Scouts of America had even finalized the design of the new Eagle Scout medal. So it wasn't until Labor Day 1912 that he was actually presented with it.
"It took him less than three years .?.?. that's incredible," said Andrew Foertsch, 18, an Eagle Scout from Massapequa who spoke at the ceremony. "It took me seven years, nine months. And it was a lot harder back then."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the teen who was mortified by Baden-Powell's attention remained modest about his own singular achievement.
"I don't remember how old I was when I learned that he was the first Eagle Scout," his son said. "But it was a while!"
After graduating from Cornell University, Eldred served in the Navy during World War I. Later, he settled in New Jersey and worked in the agriculture and railroad industries. The love of nature and the outdoors that he developed on rural Long Island never left him.
"He was always busy in the garden," recalled his son. "We transplanted more trees than I could count."
Eldred died in January 1951, at age 55. His original Troop 1 is now Troop 40, and is based in Rockville Centre. The troop's website extols would-be Scouts to: "Have some fun. Learn a few things. Get dirty."
Those words probably would have resonated with America's first Eagle Scout.