Belknap Rifles Association shot to the top as a drill team.
Founded in 1884 during a nationwide craze for military drill competitions, the Belknap Rifles Association was named after its first patron, streetcar magnate Col. Augustus Belknap. Rifles were supplied by the state of Texas, which recognized such groups as regular infantry units in the Texas Volunteer Guard.
Although the Civil War, federal occupation and Indian attacks were history, “a great deal of enthusiasm in military affairs was aroused,” wrote Arthur Storms, one of the Belknaps’ early officers, in the November 1932 issue of Bright Scrawl, a publication of the Junior League of San Antonio.
State and interstate militia competitions were newsworthy attractions during the summer of
1884, and a Texas group, the Houston Light Guards, won first place in a national contest.
Barred by age limit from joining the established San Antonio Rifles, called “the Dudes,” the teenage Belknaps were known as “the Kids.”
Led by future Judge Robert B. Green, who served as cadet captain, the group met in the old “Bat Cave” municipal building, the Arbeiter Verein in back of the Joske’s store and in the Albert Maverick Building. In good weather, they drilled in Travis Park and later in Alamo Plaza.
Col. Belknap’s contributions helped with rent on some of these premises, but the cadets put up the money for their own uniforms: blue jackets, white pants and helmets, at a total cost of $150.
The young men put on minstrel shows and pantomimes, while their girlfriends and sisters staged a “petticoat broomstick drill” to raise funds.
A year after their founding, they took first prize at drills held in San Antonio and Lampasas. By
1889, said Storms, they were “adjudged the best drilled company in the United States” when they were awarded the world’s championship cup at Galveston.
The Belknaps showed off in a Washington, D.C., drill with “roping exhibitions and other Texas stunts.” They also were invited to march in a parade for the centennial of George Washington’s inaugural in New York, where they tipped the Lone Star — the only state flag present — at the reviewing stand.
As gilded youth of some of San Antonio’s most prominent families, the Belknaps traveled with servants and shared TexMex home cooking with militia men from other states. Membership in the company was “the first rung of the ladder leading to San Antonio’s ‘four hundred’ in those years,” said Storms, adding that the militias “were the hub around which the principal social activities radiated.”
In competition season, members would “go to barracks” for weeks in the old Armory, “up before daylight to drill from 6 o’clock until it was time for them to go to work.”
When called upon to help quell election riots in Laredo in 1886, the company boarded a special train along with the San Antonio Rifles and a company of Texas Rangers. The fighting was over by the time the Belknaps marched into town behind their fife and drum corps, said Storms, “and the sight of the bullet holes was sufficient for us.”
When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, many of the Belknaps took part. Some formed an infantry company, others formed a cavalry troop and some fought with Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
Afterward, some of the former militia men became “efficient officers in the regular Army,” said Storms, “and a number were eligible to offer their services in the World’s War (World War I).”
The Belknap Rifles Association drilled in Travis Park and later in Alamo Plaza.
The Belknap Rifles Association was named after its first patron, Col. Augustus Belknap.