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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Camp Mabry

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

AUSTIN - This question's not likely to show up on "Jeopardy" but here goes: Name the third oldest continuously-occupied military post in Texas.

To come up with the correct answer, of course, you have to know the oldest installation and the second oldest. Number one is Fort Bliss, established at El Paso in 1848. Number two is Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, built in 1876.

And now the reveal. The third oldest active military post in Texas is Camp Mabry in Austin.

Located west of Loop 1 (MoPac) between 35th and 45th streets, Camp Mabry was established in 1892 as the permanent training ground for the Texas Volunteer Guard, forerunner of the Texas National Guard.

Until 1891, Texas guard units held summer encampments near one city one year, somewhere else the next year. But as the last decade of the 19th century began, the summer drill was staged in Austin.

Having hundreds of citizen-soldiers from across the state in town for a couple of weeks proved a nice economic windfall for a community. That stimulated a group of local boosters to try to land the annual encampment permanently in the Capital City.

A "public minded and patriotic committee" found a suitable tract of land along a tributary leading to the Colorado River about three miles northwest of the Capitol, a location that back then was out in the country. Prominent businessmen helped underwrite the purchase of 90 acres. The land was then deeded to the state.

By the summer of 1892, the camp was ready for its first volunteer guard gathering. Austinites went by horse and hack to the camp to witness what were called "sham battles," training exercises with the citizen soldiers maneuvering and firing blanks when they engaged the "enemy" force. To obtain money for more land, the guard sold tickets to these battles.

With the onset of the Spanish-American War, troops from Texas were mobilized at the camp. When Adjutant General W. H. Mabry-who commanded the guard and the Texas Rangers-died of malaria four months after arriving in Cuba in 1898, the camp was named in his honor.

The annual encampments and the faux fights they featured reigned for years as one of Austin's biggest entertainment events, far exceeding the crowds generated by the nascent collegiate sport called football. The International and Great Northern Railroad ran regular trains from downtown to the camp and back, a round-trip ticket costing a quarter.

In 1906, spectators saw the Blue Army take on the Brown Army, with each guardsman issued 20 blank cartridges. Infantrymen marched and took positions while cavalry troopers dashed around on their horses, training in all aspects of combat for a war few would have thought likely at the time.

But when revolution broke out in Mexico in 1910, it took only four years before a U.S. invasion of Mexico seemed imminent. That didn't happen (except for a brief Naval occupation of Vera Cruz), but in 1916, mounted forces under Gen. John "Blackjack" Pershing did splash across the Rio Grande from New Mexico in search of an illusive Pancho Villa.

A year later, the U.S. entered the building world war in Europe and watching fake battles was no longer considered a recreational sport as Americans began dying along the front.

Located adjacent to the Missouri-Pacific Railroad main line, Camp Mabry grew significantly during World War I. Numerous limestone and wooden buildings still in use in modern times date from this period. The post hospital cared for soldiers afflicted with the so-called Spanish flu, one of the most vicious pandemics the world has known.

In 1935, the camp became headquarters for the newly-created Department of Public Safety, which stayed there until 1952 when it moved to its own building on Lamar Boulevard in North Austin.

Today the post covers more than 375 acres. Though still headquarters of the Texas National Guard, weekend warriors no longer stage large-scale combat training at the camp, but it remains a busy installation.

The camp's parade ground, where horse cavalry and infantry once drilled, is now encircled by a mile-long exercise track. It used to be that anyone could drive past the un-guarded entrances to the camp and walk or run on the track, but visitors now have to check in at the south gate that had to be built after the camp tightened security following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York.

Despite the emphasis on modern military matters, since 1992 the camp has been the home of the 45,000-square foot Texas Military Forces Museum.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" August 29, 2018

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