Girl power thrived in El Dorado County before the pioneers but Girl Scouts were added to the list of strong women who were making a difference in 1927. A troop of girls in Camino started by Vera Woolridge and Bertha Burrows became the first unofficial troop. A year later an official troop began in Placerville.
Today, there are 124 Girl Scout troops in El Dorado County and 1,097 registered Girl Scouts, from Daisies to Brownies, Junior Cadettes to Seniors and Ambassadors.
With a combined 198 years as Girl Scouts, “once a Girl Scout, always a Girl Scout,” Loie Bonser, 87, Donna McPherson, 68, and Barby Pulliam, 85, have a lot of scouting stories to tell.
All of them have been leaders in El Dorado County Girl Scouts and they are still involved.
A lifetime of scouting
Pulliam, an honory associate of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, taught the use of solar cookers to Girl Guides/Girl Scout leaders in 30 countries. She started scouting at 11 in Englewood and became a troop leader at 17 while attending Stanford University and continued leading troops with the assistance of her husband, Carl, as their daughters and granddaughters grew up.
Bonser became a Brownie in her hometown of Berkeley at a time when Brownie troops were a separate organization. She became a Girl Scout at 10 and stayed in Scouts until she went away to college. Her first job was as a professional Girl Scout for the Oakland Council.
“Then I took a break when I got married and had children,” said Bonser, “except for being a Cub Scout den mother.”
When Bonser moved with her family to El Dorado County in 1961, her oldest daughter was ready for Brownies and Bonser became a troop leader.
“When I first got here, El Dorado County Girl Scouts were independent and all the cookie money we earned went to support our day camp in Cedar Grove, the old Snowline CCC Camp,” said Bonser. A year later a vote was taken to incorporate El Dorado County troops into the Sacramento area Girl Scout council. A general revolt of the El Dorado County Girl Scout leaders left troops without leadership and Bonser, one of the few leaders left standing and determined to give her daughters the scouting experience she had enjoyed, became “Mrs. Girl Scout.”
“I recruited and trained the new leaders, organized the El Dorado County troops and ran the day camp just like a resident camp,” said Bonser.
Bonser was camp director for 28 years and a troop leader for 18.
McPherson, whose camp name is “Rainbow,” has been the archery instructor at the Girl Scout Day Camp at Sly Park for 20 years. She was born and raised in El Dorado County and started her scouting experience in the Placerville Troop at the age of 7.
“There was nothing for girls to do then — no sports, no organizations,” said McPherson.
A family with three daughters moved across the street from her house when she was 5. McPherson was dazzled by the oldest daughter who went on a two-week Girl Scout camping trip.
“One day, a Jeep pulled up to the house filled with girls. They were dirty, but they were singing and laughing. I knew I wanted to do that,” McPherson said.
McPherson stayed in Girl Scouts until there was no longer a troop for her age group. When her daughters came along, she became a junior leader and then had her own troop for 15 years.
“Both of my daughters, my step-daughter and my granddaughers are Girl Scouts. My son-in-law runs the canoes at the day camp and my daughter runs the waterfront.”
The first Girl Scout day camp in the county was Camp Peavine near Icehouse Reservoir. With a lease of $1 a year, negotiated by Swift Berry, and construction by Sid Mainwaring, Jack Fraser, Jim Nokes, the Civilian Conservation Corps and a lot of fathers, the camp was underway in 1939.
The Camino and Placerville troops used it in 1940 for the first time.
Bennett Park, behind El Dorado High School, became the Brownie Day Camp site from 1945 until 1952 when it was moved to the El Dorado County Fairgrounds.
In 1946, Clara Schreiber started a troop in Diamond Springs and there was a Gold Hill troop as well, led by Alma Winje.
By 1948, there were also troops in Georgetown, Pollock Pines and South Lake Tahoe.
In 1960 there were 746 registered Girl Scouts in El Dorado County and 211 adults. In that year, Lilla Hill’s senior troop, camping at Wright’s Lake, was credited with preventing a forest fire when they came upon an abandoned campfire while backpacking to Grouse Lake. The fire had spread and the troop formed a bucket brigade to put it out.
A special Girl Scout department was added to the Cash Mercantile store in Placerville in 1961 and by that time, Silver Fork and Garden Valley also had troops.
Older Girl Scouts went on eight-day hikes into Desolation Valley. Troops planted poppies county-wide each year in honor of founder Juliette Gordon Low and yellow rose bushes at the El Dorado County Fairgrounds.
In 1966, they collected names and addresses of servicemen in Vietnam and troop leader Lilla Hill asked Carl Borelli to coordinate the Christmas trees to Vietnam program. The girls sent homemade cookies, ornaments and letters to El Dorado County servicemen.
The El Dorado County Girl Scouts made the television news in 1969 by planting 1,500 Ponderosa pines and cedar trees on Lincoln Hill near Grizzly Flat. The U.S. Forest Service transported the troops to the site by 4-wheel drive.
Laughing about some of the obstacles faced by early troops such as the lack of water at the Lion’s Park, used as a day camp before today’s park was built, the wealth of poison oak at the site which Bonser and other women had to remove and, later, the 4 a.m. sprinkler onset that soaked sleeping scouts, McPherson said, “You just do it — that’s the Girl Scout way.”
“”If things don’t work one way, you figure out another,” said Pulliam.
“Work with what you have,” said Bonser. “Our day camp is the only one in the council where girls learn to canoe and build open fires to cook their own food. Other camps are held in city parks, but we’ve got Sly Park.”
It’s the kind of Girl Scout camp where girls are expected to get dirty and be loud, said McPherson who said a woman from Davis drove her daughter up to the day camp at Sly Park every morning before work and picked her up every afternoon.
“She said the drive was worth it because she wanted her daughter to experience the kind of camp she’d had as a Girl Scout,” McPherson said.
McPherson, who makes sure all her scouts can build a fire, finds she also ends up teaching adults about fire making, fire safety and S’Mores 101 — volunteers who didn’t grow up being Girl Scouts.
“How can you live without S’Mores?” asked Pulliam.
“The chief thing about Girl Scouting is that the girls learn to do things themselves,” said Bonser, whose camp nickname is “Flash” from her nightly camp habit of going about with her flashlight to make sure that each scout was safely in her own sleeping bag. “It’s so important that parents are involved. A lot of the outdoor stuff that troops do depends on the skills of the leader.”
“Getting adults to volunteer is the hardest thing,” said McPherson. “We have so many girls that we could run two or three sessions of day camp if we had more adult volunteers.”
By the 1970s Girl Scouts in El Dorado County were learning rock climbing, auto maintenance and building solar collectors as well as aviation and career exploration.
Barby Pulliam’s Senior Troop in El Dorado Hills had the benefit of the local 99s, an international organization of women pilots.
“One of the members was a neighbor.The 99s had a goal to get more girls interested in aviation and here we had a whole troop across the street,” said Pulliam.
The 99s taught the girls about aeronautics and the parts of a small plane before taking them up and allowing each girl a turn at the controls.
“It was really fun,”said Pulliam.
In 1976, during the Bicentennial year, local Girl Scout troops joined with the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce to put a flag in every home and sold 400 flags for $4 each.
The plight of missing children captured interest in 1984 and Girl Scouts in Cool served at an all day fingerprinting event at the local firehouse.
Girl Scouts has adapted with the times. There are troops in homeless shelters, with older Girl Scouts doing outreach into the community.
Homeschooling has become a way of life in America. El Dorado County Brownie Troop 44 and Cadet Troop 2652 of Placerville are configured around the needs of homeschooled girls from all over the county instead of the more usual configuration based on the geography of neighborhoods or schools. And the organization is still producing strong, resilient women of character like Bonser, Pulliam and McPherson.
When her parents decided to take the family camping, Pulliam was the only one who had ever camped. After a rainstorm sent her mother into the car to wait it out, Pulliam built a fire and fixed diner for her family, using her impressive Girl Scout skills.
To join a troop or volunteer or find a troop visit the Website at girlscouthcc.org.
E-mail Wendy Schultz at [email protected] or call 530-344-5069.