Emily Smith (1910-1996) became the leader of Manchester’s Girl Scout Troop 1 in 1933. She inspired and taught hundreds
of girls during more than three decades, and led the troop’s scouts on seven trips to Europe between 1949 and 1964. As
former scouts still continue to say, Emily was a gifted teacher who “didn’t tell you what to do, but showed by example.”
In the best traditions of volunteerism, for which Manchester is notable, Emily was remarkable.
She received the “M” award in 1962, “in recognition for outstanding service to the Girl Scouts of Manchester and improvement of international relations.” The Chamber of Commerce gave the award annually, beginning in 1958, to honor service to the community. (It is now called the Community Achievement Award.)
Emily viewed the European trips as ways to improve international friendship. In preparation, the girls had to learn about the culture, language, currency, and government of the countries they would visit and correspond with a pen pal there. Since they would be camping out throughout their three-month trip abroad, they also had to attain proficiency in wilderness camping, backpacking, and organizing clothing and meals. Emily and various assistant leaders also prepared the girls by taking them to New York and Boston where the girls would separate into small groups and navigate city streets using maps.
The girls had to earn money for the trip – $600 in 1949 – to cover expenses, including the $300 for the ship’s passage from Canada to England. They sewed their own sleeping bags and clothes, and planned the logistics of carrying enough for three months away from home. They babysat, worked in stores, and organized fundraisers – spaghetti dinners, international suppers, and rummage sales – and made and sold grinders, trail mix, and holiday wreaths.
Claire Olds, former Troop 1 scout and assistant leader, recently finished writing, “Just Emily, Manchester’s Extraordinary Scout Leader.” I asked her the story of the book’s title, and she said that in 1946, when she went to her first Troop 1 meeting, she expected to address the troop leader as “Miss Smith,” but Emily said to call her “just Emily,” rather unusual in those days.
Claire recalled Emily as “tall, slim, rather reserved,” and soft-spoken but clear and businesslike. Claire said that meeting and working with Emily “changed her worldview for the rest of my life.” Within a few days of her first meeting, Claire worked on plans with the troop to help with the March of Dimes, an event sponsored by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, a non-profit organization that raised funds to research cures for polio, and later focused on birth defects and mothers’ health. The next Sunday, the troop went for a hike at Case Mountain in the Highland Park section of Manchester. Claire says of Emily, “I noticed the serviceable boots, jodhpurs and jacket Emily wore as she set an easy brisk pace…pointing out early spring flowers…red buds on some maples, and green watercress around the brooks and springs.”
That summer, Emily led them on a two-week backpacking trip on the Long Trail in Vermont, staying in tents and lean-to shelters. “We first had to study the trail maps and then pack our gear and food. I volunteered as exchequer. Each put in about $15, planned menus, shopped and divided the supply so that each one would carry a portion of light dry foods – spaghetti, dehydrated potatoes, beans, macaroni and canned tuna, corned beef, Spam and dried prunes, apricots and raisins.”
Throughout the book, Claire describes the combination of practical knowledge and simple philosophy that Emily offered to the girls. Claire recalled asking Emily about a “telltale scar of thyroid surgery” from about 1936-1940. “She passed it off as minor surgery, recounting the nurse scolding her for getting up out of bed the day after the operation. This was a woman of great independence, living a simple life in service to others and one who never sought praise or reward, or sympathy for bangs or bruises along the way.”
Frugality was a necessity after World War II, and Emily’s troop bought backpacks at army-navy surplus stores, and made sleeping bags with nylon bought from Pioneer Parachute, located in one of the old Cheney Mills in South Manchester. For her sleeping bag, scout Claire “did my sewing at Emily’s and once she invited me to stay for lunch, a toasted cheese sandwich and cream of tomato soup. As we began to wash the dishes, I noticed Emily turn on the hot water and immediately collect the first, usually cooler, in a jug which she set aside for watering her plants. This elementary lesson in conservation remained with me.” Emily lived with her parents at 55 Middle Turnpike East, a sturdy two-story house that is still there with a greenhouse on the western side.
Claire quotes Janice Murphey, a 1952 trip participant, who attended a 1980 reunion: “Emily really opened our eyes to the nature which surrounds us, and the people who support us. The lessons of trust and teamwork were always there.” Many former scouts credited Emily with teaching them skills of self-reliance and organization that they called upon all their lives.
In addition to outdoor skills, strength, and stamina, the scouts needed the ability to present a polished appearance on their travels. Emily asked her friend and Hamilton Standard co-worker Vivian Firato (now Vivian Ferguson and our Town Historian) to speak to the girls about dress and manners, including how to stay composed on all occasions. The girls were from a mix of educational, social, and religious backgrounds, and they would be meeting people from an even larger mix of cultures and backgrounds. Vivian recalls feeling honored, at such a young age, to be asked to teach others about comportment.
Emily also called upon Jeanne Low, French teacher and head of the Language Department at Manchester High School, to speak with the girls about France and the differences between French and American culture. Emily believed that international friendships could lead to improved understanding and contribute to a more peaceful world.
Emily kept diaries, which Claire quotes throughout the memoir. Some entries are terse, such as “rather rough” about a July 1961 Atlantic crossing. Some entries are funny, such as, in June 1964, “I doubt we will see any Beatles.” In July 1964, Emily and her assistant leader took 13 scouts to Paris’s Folies Bergeres music hall, and Emily noted, “some very nice costumes, when they wore any. Didn’t get home ‘til midnight…”
Besides her commitment to scouting, Emily wrote for The Manchester Evening Herald, taught Latin at Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, and volunteered at the Manchester Historical Society, the Garden Club and other local organizations. Find out more about Emily, Girl Scouts, the camp on Lydall Street, and the international expeditions in “Just Emily,” available at the Manchester Historical Society’s museum stores or by clicking Museum Store. The Manchester Historical Society thanks Claire Olds for her gift of 125 copies of the book, and for presenting a program at the History Center on June 26, 2011.
Susan Barlow serves on the Historical Society’s Board of Directors.