Joan Butler came home from work one day to find a box of Girl Scout-related information on the steps of her apartment in Speigeltown. Apparently, the leader of her niece’s Brownie troop had quit, and because Butler had been a volunteer, she inherited the job of troop leader.
That was 1958.
Butler, now 82, had no children of her own, but she had five nieces and she became the leader for their troops, sometimes leading three troops at a time and beginning a three-generation legacy in her family.
Her family has been involved in Girl Scouting for more than half the 100-year life of the organization.
“We camped. We did home economics. We worked on all areas of the badges,” said Butler, who now lives in North Greenbush. She remembers taking her Cadette troop to the “round up” in Vermont, where there were 10,000 Girl Scouts and Girl Guides from all over the United States and abroad.
Butler was a strict leader; girls learned to be self-sufficient.
Her niece Karen Butler of Troy has fond memories of scouting in her aunt’s troop. “We had to get the wood and break the wood. We did all the work,” she said.
Janice Butler of East Greenbush, the youngest of Joan Butler’s nieces, recalls having to learn to build a fire and start it with only two matches, as well as cooking meals on stove made of a tin can.
Joan Butler always made sure the troop was in top shape. “Whatever we went to, our troops always looked good,” Karen Butler said. “We had inspection before we went anyplace.”
During camporees, Joan Butler inspected the girls’ tents, and the neatest one got to keep “Smokey Bear” in the tent for the night.
While she was strict, she was also a leader with a heart who took any girl who was interested into her troop. “If a kid couldn’t afford a uniform, one would magically arrive,” Karen Butler said.
JoAnne Matott of West Chazy can’t remember not spending a Saturday with her Aunt Joan for Girl Scout activities. She does remember snowshoeing to lean-tos with a backpack and sleeping bag and camping out for three nights in the wilderness. “We were chopping our own wood, cooking our own meals over the campfire and drying out our socks over the fire,” she said.
Matott stayed in Girl Scouts through her senior year of high school and then volunteered with a troop of younger girls when she was in college. She passed that on to her own daughter, Sara Young, who eventually started a Brownie troop of her own.
Young has fond memories of her time in scouting, like planting a tree near a factory. “Every time I drive by it, I remember it,” she said. She also remembers the goofy times, when they had a haunted house and whipped up a bunch of cold spaghetti and grapes to simulate brains and eyeballs.
Young, who lives in Niskayuna, now serves as a volunteer regional accounting coordinator for the Girl Scouts of Northeastern New York, which she sees as a great way to give back.
Karen Butler went through Brownies, Juniors and Cadettes with her aunt. She remembers end-of-year banquets where the Girl Scouts cooked the food and acted as waitresses for their parents, who were treated to a silly fashion show during the evening. “It wasn’t a regular fashion show,” she said. “One girl had a ‘spring dress.’ She took a dress and she sewed Slinkies all over it for springs.”
Jean Mahar of Ballston Spa remembers her Aunt Joan as a second mother to all the girls, taking them on bicycle trips through Saratoga Battlefield, helping them to sew their own uniforms and taking them to nursing homes to deliver homemade lap blankets and sing Christmas carols.
She also remembers her aunt’s dedication to scouting. “She had a spare bedroom, and it was all scout stuff that she was figuring out and planning,” Mahar remembers. “I think she spent all week getting ready for those meetings.”
Joan Butler ran three troops at a time, having the different age levels working together. Forty to 50 girls filled the Speigeltown Firehouse every Saturday.
Her nieces passed the love of scouting down to their own daughters. “Scouting was just a part of life,” Jean Mahar said. “We grew up with it, and I was more than happy to do it with the girls.”
Her daughter, Kayla Mahar of New York City, remembers always having a group of girls around the house. “It was great seeing her in a leadership role and having her do something different than just being a mom,” Mahar said.
Laura Giarrusso, Janice Butler’s daughter and a Brownie in the late 1980s, grew up listening to her mom and aunts tell stories about scouting. She remembers a family camping trip where Girl Scout-like organization came into play, with scheduled times for games, singing and other outdoor activities.
Like her mother, Jean Mahar, Jennifer Mahar of Waterford has Girl Scout camping memories, including a particularly soggy outing. “We were in lean-tos and had very bad storms and pouring rain, but we probably had the most fun on that one,” Jennifer said. “We girls were screaming and laughing all night with the thunder. I don’t think our parents slept at all.” Jennifer Mahar stayed in scouting through 10th grade when she earned her Silver Award.
Girl Scouts are still earning badges and awards — something that hasn’t changed over the past century, but the types of awards have evolved to reflect women’s increasingly broad roles in society.
Karen Butler remembers working on cooking, baking, sewing and knot-tieing badges. Girls might have been earning badges like these as well as “housekeeper” and “clerk” from Butler’s time into the ’80s, but now there are badges focusing on science, technology and environmental conservation. The Girl Scouts has a set of “legacy” badges that have been modernized from their original counterparts, but involve timeless aspects of Scouting.
Other traditional Girl Scout activities are still around, but they are vastly different from what girls did decades before.
For example, Girl Scouts still sell cookies, and the activity is still about fundraising, but only in part. “The way the cookies program works today is that it is really focused on the financial literacy component of the cookie program and the entrepreneurial aspect of a girl running her own business,” said Nancy Bielawa, chief development and brand office for the Girl Scouts of Northeastern New York.
Girls are asked to create a marketing plan, set goals, make projections, and come up with strategies, all things a small business owner needs to do. “People might think, ‘Isn’t that cute, the girl is selling cookies,’ but there’s a lot more behind it,” she said.
All of the Girl Scouts’ activities, even the traditional ones such as camping and crafts, are focused on the core concepts of leadership — discover, connect and take action, Bielawa said. The activities are all designed to be girl-led, with adults providing the framework and guidance.
Girl Scout programming also reflects the world’s shift to a global outlook, having implemented many more travel programs than it has ever before. For example, 12 Girl Scouts from the Capital Region went to Alaska in June. During the months before, they raised funds for the trip and worked with Girl Scouts from Alaska on what they were going to do when they got there, including a sustainability project. Other girls have been planning a trip to India, and next year, a group will be going to Ecuador.
The programs are a two-year effort, where girls immerse themselves in the country and its culture for that time, and the experience culminates in a trip abroad. Girls can participate in these programs as individuals or in groups, as the non-troop option in today’s Girl Scouting.
Some of what Girl Scouts gives girls hasn’t changed in a century’s time. “It gave me a sense of community and belonging,” Matott said. “I always knew I had friends.”
Janice Butler remembers a valuable life lesson. “You learned to work as a team because you had to,” she said. “You learned to get along with everybody, even those you might not have chosen to be with.”
Janice also remembers the organization she learned in scouting, a skill that still serves her today.
The Butler family is proud of its three-generation Girl Scout legacy, and Joan Butler’s nieces all have fond memories of the woman who started it all. “If it wasn’t for Joan, we wouldn’t have had Girl Scouts,” Karen Butler said.