Boys' Life
Vol. XV No. 2, p.5
February 1925

Dan Beard
The Friend of Youth

by J. Irving Crump

 
It was man's job to swim the rapids of Licking River, and during a freshet most men balked at the perils of that boiling half-mile above Covington. The chances of coming through alive were about even, and when a farmer watching the flood from the banks of the river saw two boys undertake to run those mad rapids he just naturally pronounced them "fool kids" and started overland on foot to fish out their bodies.

Crouching bow and stern in a cranky Sycamore dugout, the two boys wide-eyed with the thrill and excitement of their adventure headed their craft for mid-stream. In an instant they were sucked into a veritable maelstrom of wild white-capped waves thundering against floating drip logs and flinging drenching spray high in the air. The force was terrific. Tons of water crashed through the channel ripping and tearing at the banks, dislodging trees from the banks and shooting these battering rams down-stream. Through the center of it all plunged the dugout at what seemed to be express-train speed, the boys tensed and a little frightened perhaps at their own daring, fending it from threatening logs up-thrust above the boiling flood. By a miracle they came through the worst of it right side up. It began to look as if they were going to win through entirely. Then suddenly out of the muddy torrent a great black hand appeared, rose high in the air, paused a moment while it flung foam and spray from its clutching fingers, then descended, seized the dugout and bore it under, out of sight.

"It was sheer luck and nothing else that brought my cousin Tom and me through that rapids alive," said Dan Beard to the writer. "The roots of that old 'sawyer' held fast in the bed of the stream, ripped a hole in the dugout so big that it was never any good again. And the rapids came so near tearing us to pieces and breaking every bone in our bodies that — well, to-day, sixty-odd years after, I get cold and clammy every time I think of it. I've been in a good many tight places in my life; been shot at and all that and yet I don't believe I have ever been as close to death as I was in that boyhood adventure of mine back there in Kentucky."

It was adventure such as this that made Dan Beard love the out-of-doors; love it with such enthusiasm, that he has devoted his entire life to bringing as much of it as possible to several generations of boys who were not as fortunate as he in being born and brought up in a country such as Kentucky was in those days. In stories and pictures and in every other way at his command he has tried to foster a love of the woods, the fields, and the open spaces, in the hearts of boys everywhere, and to make their lives as clean, their bodies and spirits as hardy and as noble of purpose as Kenton, Crockett and Boone and the other buckskin men who have always been his heroes.

Dan Beard's boyhood was spent in Covington, Kenton County, Kentucky. That was Boone country. Even the county was named after Boone's closest companion, Simon Kenton. Dan Beard's father knew some of the buckskin men of his time. He knew Kenton and Crockett, Sam Houston and Colonel Bowie. Dan Beard's maternal grandparent was a pioneer mother. Back of Covington a dense forest began in his day and reached for miles to the mountains — a wilderness as primeval as it was in the days when Boone roamed it. On the edge of it were log-cabins built by the early settlers and occupied by the descendants of some of them. Some of Dan Beard's companions were the boys of these pioneer families. With these sons of the buckskin men as chums and the forest as a playground, no wonder that he grew up to love the out-of-doors. No wonder that he learned how to shoot and trail; learned the language of the wild; learned the handicraft that was so essential to these wilderness dwellers who had to build everything for themselves, even the wooden bowl they ate from and the crude furniture they used in their cabin homes.

Every one of his chums had as much reverence for Kenton, Crockett and Boone as he had. They tried to imitate their deeds of bravery. They almost unconsciously shaped their lives in the footsteps of these men in buckskin who built the empire. Their gang was the Boone Scouts. Their rendezvous was a cave under the roots of a huge partly uprooted sycamore tree on the far side of Bank Lick, with only one way of approach and that was to swing across the stream on the dangling end of a wild grape vine.

There they fished and learned to swim. There they made bows and arrows and learned to throw the tomahawk as well as old Simon Kenton himself or any of the redskins who sought to take his scalp. There they learned trailing and woodcraft, and with their knowledge sometimes stirred the fears and imagination of those who were not so well versed in woodcraft as they were, for Mr. Beard tells a story of how, having studied the tracks of a black bear, he carefully went down to the river just above the town and, crawling along the edge a log-raft, modeled the track in the mud of the bank. The tracks he made were about three times as big as the biggest bear track that had ever been seen in that vicinity, and they were so unpleasantly near the town that people began to get nervous. Local hunters scoured the woods for months for the bruin big enough to make tracks that large. But of course no one ever brought in his pelt, although there were strange stories told and retold of the big bear's doings about the country side.

Shortly after the bear incident the community was stirred by the call of war. Those were thrilling days in Kentucky. Fort Sumter had been fired on. The Civil War was raging throughout the Southland. Covington was a fortified town. All the able-bodied men were in service either with the Union or Confederate forces. Dan Beard at the age of twelve was "the man of the house." His father and all his brothers were Union soldiers. His cousins were all with the Confederacy. At one period the famous Kirby Smith had his gray troops on one side of the town while the equally famous Confederate raider John Morgan had his men on the other side. The rifle pits were just beyond the town limits. The picket line cut off Bank Lick, the "swimmin'-hole." Dan Beard and his boy chums used to have to run the guards to go swimming. Sometimes they would sneak into the trenches and watch for the battle until they were yanked out of danger by the scruff of the neck and sent back to town, or to the hospital where they were made to help take care of the wounded.

With this sort of a boy-hood for a background it is no wonder then that Dan Beard felt that he was withholding from every other boy the finest, cleanest, and most wholesome pleasures that could be found if he did not open their eyes to the fun that the great outdoors held for them. No wonder, then, that he has preached Boone and the buckskin-men so unceasingly that all of us have come to know and love those fine figures of the pioneer days and have installed some of them in the Hall of Fame.

Mr. Beard says that he was "vaccinated' for West Point, but it didn't take. Likewise they tried to make him a civil engineer which did take, and he became a good surveyor and, as such, traveled the country, running lines and making maps all the way from the Calumet and Hecla mines in Michigan to New Orleans. He mapped all of the Southwestern Division, and these maps were the first topographical maps of Cincinnati. Likewise he made maps of sections of the country where prosperous towns flourish to-day but which then were the fringes of the wilderness.

With enough of that to satisfy him he came to New York and, though he did not realize it then, he brought Boone or the spirit of Boone, to Broadway with him. The moment he set foot on Manhattan Island he regretted that he had come. The city was no place for a man of his inclinations he thought. During the first three hours in New York he had three fights. He was a Southerner, and intentional rudeness had always been to him an insult. An insult meant a fight, or an apology. He found plenty of rudeness in New York then.

He found other things that aroused his ire, too. New York was a huge community of "flats"; tenements, they are called in other cities; three-, four-, five and six-storied brick buildings crowded with families, with no place for boys to have real fun, save the roofs or the cobbled, ash-can-lined streets, where they took their chances with trucks and drays. He saw signs on these flats, too, announcing that children and dogs were not allowed. Right there he changed his mind and decided that he was glad he had come to New York and that New York was the place for him to stay just as long as it continued to be the selfish, benighted city it appeared to be, with no place or tolerance for boys or dogs. He saw he had a job on his hands; a big one.

It was to teach the city boys how to make the best of the facilities at hand to have real fun. He was determined to open their eyes to taking advantage of every little bit of the out-of-doors that was available, if it were only an open lot or a scrawny tree or a scraggy iron-fenced city lawn. He wrote and illustrated "The American Boys' Handy Book," which immediately became the most popular boys' book of its time, and continued so for decades.

He tells us that he came to New York on a vacation and to visit with his brother who was at that time in the city. It proved to be mighty fortunate for hundreds of thousands of boys that Mr. Beard took this vacation, for probably if he had not made the trip he would have continued to be a civil engineer for the rest of his days and the boys of this country would never have known the invaluable treasures that he has dug out of his apparently inexhaustible fund.

Not immediately did he turn his attention to writing his now tremendously popular books. Through some sketches that he made while a surveyor a New York editor discoverered that he had a lot of undeveloped talent as an artist. The editor made Mr. Beard realize it, too, when he bought one of his drawings. For four years he worked nights at the Art Students' League developing this ability, meanwhile fast making a reputation for himself among the national publications as a sketch artist. He was one of the few men who could be depended upon in those days of slow photography to make quick news sketches, and he was continually being called upon to hustle out to a fire or the scene of an accident and to come back with drawings ready for immediate publication.

From this, with the background of his work at the Art Students' League, he suddenly leaped to fame as a magazine and book illustrator, and it was not long before practically all the publishers in New York were eager to have him work for them. So great was his popularity that when the publishers asked Mark Twain who should be given the work of illustrating "Innocents Abroad," "Tom Sawyer," and his other books, he insisted on having Dan Beard do the drawings.

As an illustrator Mr. Beard's studio became the gathering place of the famous artists and authors of his time. And the younger artists and authors who were struggling for recognition sought his advice and suggestions. Charles Dana Gibson was one of these youngsters and so were many others whose work is now well-known.

But all during the time Mr. Beard was creating the drawings of Tom Sawyer, and the other Mark Twain heroes, his mind was always on the hundreds of thousands of other boys, real boys, throughout the country. He could not help contrasting his own adventurous boyhood with the circumscribed boyhood of the fellows he saw playing about the cobble-stoned streets of the city. Nor could he be thoroughly happy until he took time off from a busy career as an illustrator and wrote the first of what was to be the most popular series of boys' books ever published.

The instant and far-reaching success of the "American Boys' Handy Book" was a surprise even to Dan Beard himself. It seemed almost as if every boy in America read it at the same time and then promptly adopted Dan Beard as his friend and adviser. Thousands of letters began to pour in from all corners of the country. Boys visited him from remote points riding their bikes or hiking to his house, to ask him for advice or just to see this man who "looked like Buffalo Bill" but who was far more interesting to them because he seemed more like a chum grown up than a famous illustrator.

With the boys of the country clamoring for more books — more "things to do" — Mr. Beard never did find time to get back to his work of being an illustrator alone. And after a time he did not want to. He found a lot more fun in being with the boys and in doing things that interested them. He surrounded himself with them because he could not help it and because he loved them. "Peck's Bad Boy" was his office boy and every chap in the country was his chum. They simply claimed him as their own and would not give him up to his adult admirers. He became, as the explorer, Dillon Wallace, says, "The mentor of the American boy in his activities."

To satisfy the demands — the almost insatiable appetite of those boys for new ways of having fun — he built a big boys' camp where thousands of them have had the best times of their lives. He organized the Sons of Daniel Boone after the fashion of the old "Boone Scouts" of his own boyhood, and in hundreds of other ways devoted his best efforts to showing all boys the joy and fun to be gained by using their ingenuity and resourcefulness, by "doing."

With his tremendous popularity among the boys of the country it was only natural that other men and women, who were as interested in the boys as he was, but who did not possess the ingenuity and happy faculty of being a boy with them, turned to him for advice and assistance in their work. With the organization of the "Boy Scouts of America," Mr. Beard became the National Scout Commissioner, giving unstintingly his interest and ability and wonderful personality to the organization and its boys.

And because he carried with him from his boyhood through his career of seventy-four years the spirit of the pioneers and their love for the out-of-doors he attracted to him, beside the boys, hundreds of men who were as interested as he in the woods and the open spaces. Such men as Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, Dr. Hornaday, Irving Bachellar and men famous as explorers, plainsmen, big-game hunters, adventurers, and statesmen, became his friends and associates. With them he championed important measures for the conservation of wild life and organized associations such as the Campfire Club of America and the Buckskin Men.

Possessed of tremendous enthusiasm and the physical resources to match, today, at an age when most men are content to rest on their accomplishments — Mr. Beard, whose achievements have made him a national figure, is as much the "boy" as he ever was. He is still writing books and traveling over the country, making friends with the boys. He can become as excited as ever in a newly planned camping or fishing trip. He is as ready as ever to take off his coat and help boost a few logs in to place, if there is a new cabin being built. His jackknife is as keen as it ever was to make something new. Indeed, it was not long ago that for "a rest" he and several other Campfire Club companions tramped miles through the Canadian wild on a hunting trip in which he accounted for a fine big bull moose.

So far-reaching have been Dan Beard's efforts and the influence of his books that for four decades he has enjoyed the enviable privilege of being at once the friend and the hero of thousands of the boys of today and the men who were the boys of yesterday. Dr. Wm. T. Hornaday speaks for them all when the writes to Mr. Beard that "Your name make me rejoice that you are alive, and the sight of you thrills me. Live as long as you possibly can. At present this wobbling world cannot spare you."

My Friend Dan Beard by Charles Dana Gibson


Daniel Carter Beard (1850-1941) had an unusually diverse career that brought him into national prominence as an illustrator, reformer, naturalist, and co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America. The son of painter James H. Beard, he and two of his brothers, Frank and James C. Beard, became prominent New York-based illustrators and cartoonists after establishing a shared studio in 1878. Dan's illustrations appeared in many of the popular periodicals of the time. Among reformers of the late 19th century and early 20th century, Beard was well-known as an early and active supporter of the Single Tax Movement inspired by Henry George's 1879 book Progress and Poverty. Most of the illustrations presented here reflect that interest...
The Political Art of Dan Beard
By Jim Zwick