In 1920, in the heart of the Central Indiana Council, Camp Chank-Tun-Un-Gi, a program was established to inspire the interests of young Scouts and emphasize camping and Scouting skills. It was a program that would help to bring out that spirit in every boy who participated. Through the efforts of two men, the Scout Executive, Francis O. Belzer and his Assistant, Stanley L. Norton, a camp rank system known today as Firecrafter was created.
The idea of this new camp rank system arose out of a similar system employed at the Culver Woodcraft Camp of Dan Beard, the famous outdoorsman and early Scouter, whom Belzer knew and visited often over a period of many years. Belzer served as an instructor there in 1917. Beard rewarded his campers' achievements with a series of three ranks: Notcher (bronze), Midnotcher (silver), and Topnotcher (gold), each symbolized by a patch of appropriate color having a beaver within a stylized "C" for Culver. Belzer was impressed by Beard's methods and decided that a system of awards was needed at Chank-Tun-Un-Gi, not only to inspire interest in camping activities, but also to shift the emphasis from athletics to Scouting skills. During the winter of 1919-20 with the help of Stanley L. Norton, Scoutmaster of Troop 20 and newly employed Assistant Executive, he formulated the camp rank system to offer this recognition. With remarkable foresight, he structured the system to provide a continuing source of service to improve the physical facilities of the camp. The discussions of Belzer and Norton led to the introduction of three ranks, Camper, Woodsman, and Firecrafter in 1920. The third rank's name "Firecrafter" was coined during the winter of 1920-21. It was first published in 1921. Knowing the tastes and interests of Scouting-age boys, the founders made the new third rank both a challenge and a mystery.
The first Firecrafter ceremony took place at Camp Chank-Tun-Un-Gi on a summer Friday night on June 25th, 1920. At the close of the first camping period (June 14-26), the customary awards campfire was held in the camp arena. Among those expecting to be recognized were four Woodsmen, Louis Booth (T46), Robert Effroymson (T46), Paxton Unger (T46), and Stanley Gray (T21), who had completed all of the requirements for the new third rank. They waited through the campfire without being called, and as its closing minutes came near, they began to think they had been forgotten. Finally, just before the Scoutmaster's benediction, Assistant Executive Norton instructed the candidates to remain in the arena after the close of the campfire. And so the bewildered Woodsmen waited anxiously while the other Scouts, Scouters, and parents drifted away. When they were at last alone facing the dying embers of the campfire, they were put to the Unknown Test and became the first of over ten thousand Scouts to become Firecrafters. The ceremony was conducted by Belzer, Norton, Rexford Pruitt, Scoutmaster of Troop 46, and Ernest (P.D.) Hoelscher, the camp physical director.
In looking back over that first brief ceremony, the four founding Scouters realized that the full possibilities of the third camp rank had not yet been worked out; but they lost no time in completing the job. Before the end of the next camping period of 1920, they had collaborated on a ritual, which is still the basis of the Hill Ceremony today, drawing heavily on the writings of Ernest Thompson Seaton for the three fires and the Story of the Fire. In 1920, a total of ten Scouts and three Scouters sealed their membership as Firecrafters.
The camp rank emblems were also designed by Belzer, starting with the Culver "C" for the Camper rank. The original patches were cut from felt and hand-sewn by 'Aunt Stella' Doeppers, who worked at the Council office. In the early days, when a Scout became a Camper, he received a khaki vest with the Camper "C" emblem sewn on it. When he became Woodsman, a yellow teepee was added to the original patch. When he became a Firecrafter, he received a whole new patch including the red fire. The kahki vests were worn over the Scout uniform at campfires.
The rank of Minisino was established in the spring of 1921. Although called the fourth rank, Minisino is not a rank at all in the sense of outranking Firecrafter, but rather is a recognition and honor of one who has made outstanding contributions to Scouting and Firecrafter and who can be expected to continue his contributions. Minisino is a Miami Indian word meaning "tried and proven". The requirements and manner of selection were secret. Every youth Firecrafter is eligible for candidacy after he has served Scouting and Firecrafter for a prescribed amount of time. If chosen, he will be "tapped out", and in order to be crowned he must successfully complete a two-week candidacy (originally four weeks) in a long-term summer camp having the Firecrafter program. Every adult Firecrafter is a candidate for Minisino from the day of his induction, but his candidacy ordinarily requires a minimum of four years for completion. All Minisinos are crowned at special ceremonies at summer camp or at rituals. The first Minisino crowned was Henry 'Heinie' Marsh in 1921 at Camp Chank-Tun- Un-Gi during the First Camp.
While Minisino originated as an accolade for special merit in Firecrafter, the Royal Order of Hi-Bark became, for a time, an outlet for the fun and games group. Starting as a prank to relieve the tedium of staff life, it quickly caught fire and burned its own special brand of loyalty into the hearts of its members. Hi-Bark began one day in the summer of 1924, when P.D. Hoelscher, Harry Ice, and Merle Miller were standing at the old swimming hole in Fall Creek discussing, as a camper would, the needs and shortcomings of the world and what to do about them. Having considered the merits and demerits of their fellow campers, they decided to form a new and exclusive organization to be known as the Blockheads. A candidate, upon being chosen, was "chipped" with a length of a bark-covered log, which he pulled around with him at the end of a rope. The candidacy was long and strenuous emphasizing athletics and high jinx, and lasting for as long as an entire camping season. All of the shenanigans involved in the Hi-Bark candidacy did get in the way of regular camping activities, they did have the appearance of tolerated hazing, and they did not necessarily please all persons in authority in Scouting. So in the end, Hi-Bark had to go. The last recorded meeting was held at the 40th Anniversary Reunion of Firecrafter in 1960.
Throughout its existence the Firecrafter idea has been tried and adopted in several councils throughout Indiana and in other parts of the country. Firecrafter had spread to several councils. Here is a list of some of the known fires, Aurora Area Council, Aurora, IL; Champaign-Urbana (Arrowhead) Council, Champaign, IL, and Wayne Area (Whitewater Valley) Council, Richmond, IN; Kikthawenund Council Madison County, IN; Delaware County Council, Muncie, IN; Buffalo Trace Council, Evansville, IN; Lincoln Trails Council, Decatur, IL, Okaw Valley Council, Flora, IL, Sekan Area Council, Independence, KS, South Plains Area Council, Lubbok, TX, Wabash Valley Council, Terre Haute, IN; Licking County Council, Newark, OH; Grand Valley Council, Grand Rapids, MI; and Pottawattomi Council, Jones, MI. Evidence of Firecrafter would eventually be found in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Kansas, Texas, and Pennsylvania.
About 1946-47 the Firecrafter officers began to think seriously of becoming a national organization, providing an alternative to the Order of the Arrow program already established in many councils across the country. They wrote a constitution and by-laws to govern the national Firecrafter program. All decisions were made at the Home Fire (Indianapolis). Since the early 1930's the National Council had been searching for a suitable service organization that would have the full support and backing of the National Council. There were several camp activity programs in play at that time, among them were Order of the Arrow, Mic-O-Say, Pipestone, and of course Firecrafter. The National Council contacted Belzer about having Firecrafter become the National program. Belzer thought long and hard about the concept of a national Firecrafter organization, but in the end turned down the offer. His reasons being losing the quality control over the program and he felt it was best left local.
In 1972, the Central Indiana Council, the Delaware County Council, the Kikthawenund Council, and the White Water Valley Council were consolidated to form the Crossroads of America Council, thus enlarging Firecrafter's operating area, while bringing it into contact with the Order of the Arrow. At this time a new Flame structure was created to correspond with the sections of the Council. The reconstruction took place under the leadership of Jack Wyatt, Ron Edmiston, Joe Harshman, Frank Chase, Jim Roberts, David Joe Krentler, and Mark St. John. Charters were required for Flames and Embers, training of officers was mandated, communication with the Order of the Arrow was opened, and certain Ember and Fire identities were relinquished. These changes were implemented in a new constitution in 1972 and further revised in 1979 when the present constitution was adopted. In these altered circumstances, Firecrafter has continued to expand, penetrating into all parts of the enlarged Council and establishing amicable relationships with the Order of the Arrow.
As Ransburg became the main summer camp of the Crossroads of America Council, Camp Belzer (originally Chank-Tun-Un-Gi), became Crossroads' main Cub Scout camp. In 1978, it was decided that the Cub Scouts of the Crossroads should have the opportunity to experience the Firecrafter program. Under the leadership of Paul Knotts, a Cub Scout Rank of Firecrafter was created. The dubbed it Webelos Camper. Knotts was the Council Chief in 1977, and during the implementation of the rank, John Talley was Chief in '78. The national Scouting movement would later move to a two-year Webelos program. Through the leadership of Glen Steenberger, a second Cub Scout rank was created called Firelight. While earning Webelos Camper, Scouts learned the outdoor code, Scout Motto, Logan, Sign, Salute, and Handshake. They learned how to set up a tent and tie two basic knots as well as discuss the three ideals of Firecrafter: Friendship, Leadership, and Service. In Firelight, first aid is added as well as knowledge of the Scout Badge and Arrow of light. Scouts had to identify trees and plants, take a 1-mile hike, and participate in a Spark of Interest Trail. The Webelos ranks continue to be offered at Camp Belzer and Kikthawenund.
Adults were admitted to Firecrafter almost from the beginning as "honoraries", a misleading term, since it is well understood that membership in Firecrafter is not merely an honor for an adult, but also a commitment to undertake additional leadership responsibility in support of Scouting and the Firecrafter program. Starting in 1921, adults were admitted by vote of the Fire, limited initially to members of the senior camp staff and to a quota of one honorary to every ten youth Firecrafters at a given ritual. Under the 1927 constitution, only those adult staff members who gave most of their time to Firecrafter could hope to be admitted.
The staff limitation was eventually abandoned in favor of a Lord Baden Powell, who was admitted in 1960. The quota restriction was relaxed in 1950 to accommodate deserving Scouters who had been missed because of the rapid postwar expansion of Scouting in the Central Indiana Council. Another notable Scouter to be admitted into Firecrafter was William "Green Bar Bill" Hillcourt in 1990. By 1959, it was concluded that this problem had to be taken care of; so a quota system was reimposed and a screening committee was set up to review adult nominations.
The presence of adults in Firecrafter did not arise alone from the admission of adults as honorary members, but arose also from the fact that scouts who became Firecrafters also became adults within a very few years. For a time, such adults had no role to play in the organization. They could not go to camp. They could not work with the program there. The most they could do was to become life members of their Fire, which they had always been able to do, even as scouts, upon payment of a fee (originally ten dollars). In the late 50's, Bob Harger and Eric Wadleigh became concerned about this problem, and under their leadership the Firecrafter Alumni Association was formed at the 40th Anniversary Firecrafter Reunion in 1960. Into it were inducted all of the adults who were members of the Fire. Henceforth, all adult "honoraries," and all youth Firecrafters upon reaching the age of 21, automatically became members of the Firecrafter Alumni Association. Lew Johnson wrote and established the adult candidate program which would replace the honorary Firecrafter program operated by the Fires. To this day the Firecrafters nominate and elect an Alumni President, Vice-President, Secretary, and Treasurer.
In the early days and for many years, the spark of Firecrafter was kept alive and glowing by the strength and vitality of its three-member backbone, Belzer, Norton, and Aunt Stella. This trio generated such a vigorous scouting spirit that the success of Firecrafter was inevitable. With the thoroughness of Belzer, the perseverance of Norton, the warmth of Aunt Stella, and the dedication of all three, it didn't take long. The foundation of goals, standards, and ranks of achievement was constructed with care. It was decided that the purpose of Firecrafter should be to build leadership through friendship and service to Scouting. Much thought and much effort went into this endeavor, with results that we see today.
More than ninety years have passed since that first evening in 1920, and many changes have taken place. Belzer, Norton, and Aunt Stella have long since passed away, along with many dedicated successors, and we no longer have the special vigor of a new and struggling organization. The original leadership structure has had to be modified because of continuing changes in Scouting and growth of Firecrafter's boundaries. Our constitution and by-laws have had to be amended many times to keep in step. These changes, together with modifications in emblem display, in requirements, in ceremonies, and in fact all phases of Firecrafter, have led us to a present day organization that differs in many ways from the original.
Nevertheless, ninety years later, the members of Firecrafter continue to contribute all they can to Scouting and to its betterment. Most important is our continued emphasis, unchanged and unweakened by the passage of time, upon the basic principles laid down by our founders. With them we still dedicate ourselves to the development of leadership through friendship and service to Scouting. May we steadfastly strive toward this goal and constantly renew our pledge of the Unknown Test.