COLUMBUS, Neb. — It’s been decades since Mark A. Keller last wore his Boy Scouts uniform.
The signature clothing that marked his time with the national organization was donated long ago to a neighbor boy who couldn’t afford the attire. Most of the other items from his scouting days are now on display in an Omaha museum.
But the 93-year-old Columbus man doesn’t need props to recount the journey he embarked on in 1937 as part of the first-ever National Scout Jamboree.
Keller shared his story recently with the Platte County Historical Society during a program that coincided with the start of National Boy Scout Week.
The Boys Scouts of America officially started on Feb. 8, 1910, and Columbus got involved with the organization in the 1920s, when four troops sponsored by the Izaak Walton League, Union Pacific Railroad, Knights of Columbus and a local church were formed.
Keller, who moved here in 1960 to take a job with a local feed company and later worked for First National Bank, was raised about 170 miles to the west near Elwood, a small Gosper County community located just south of Lexington.
The self-described “hillbilly cowboy” grew up during the Dirty Thirties, when severe drought made life tough in central Nebraska.
“I don’t think I’d been much out of Gosper County,” and certainly never out of the state, Keller said.
He planned on attending the National Scout Jamboree scheduled for 1935, but that event was cancelled because of a polio outbreak in Washington, D.C.
Two years later, at the age of 16, he would make the trip, boarding a train June 28, 1937, in Lincoln en route to the nation’s capital.
“Going to Washington, D.C., was out of this world,” Keller said.
Another site the group checked out along the way also left a lasting impression on the man who lived through the Dust Bowl.
After stops in Chicago and Detroit, Keller got to see the roaring water at Niagara Falls.
“You can’t imagine the thrill that we got to see all that water,” he said. “It was very beautiful.”
The National Jamboree trip, which lasted 12 days, also included stops in New York City and Philadelphia before the group joined more than 20,000 other Boy Scouts in Washington, D.C.
Keller said the Scouts saw all the attractions in D.C. — his favorite being the Lincoln Memorial — and met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, all while spending the night on straw mattresses.
“We were just in awe at what we saw,” said Keller.
The entire trip, which Keller’s family made payments on, cost $79 — about $2,100 less than a Boy Scout paid to attend last year’s National Jamboree.
Keller said he also took $13 in spending money with, but returned home with $3.
“We didn’t spend much money but things didn’t cost much those days,” he said.
Last year’s National Scout Jamboree was attended by more than 30,000 Scouts who spent time in Washington, D.C., before heading to a 10,800-acre site in West Virginia known as “The Summit.”
That land, where every National Jamboree will be held moving forward, was purchased using a $50 million donation Stephen Bechtel Jr. made to the Boy Scouts of America.
Keller’s trip didn’t include the massive zip lines or ATV trails today’s Scouts have at their disposal, and he certainly never carried a solar-powered charger to keep his smartphone running, but that didn’t diminish the thrill of attending the first National Scout Jamboree.
“It was an experience that this old hillbilly cowboy will probably never experience again,” said Keller.