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What is the Brigade Boys’ Club?

Ben Steelman
Boys Brigade Armory

This postcard showing the Boys Brigade Armory in Wilmington was mailed in 1908. (Photo courtesy of the New Hanover County Public Library)

One of Wilmington’s oldest home-grown youth organizations, the Brigade Boys’ Club — originally called the Boys’ Brigade — was founded on Valentine’s Day 1914 by Col. Walker Taylor (1864-1937), a Wilmington businessman and regional commander in the state militia.

Taylor, an active Presbyterian layman, wanted to reach out to underprivileged boys in the Dry Pond neighborhood of Wilmington. He modeled his group on the Boys’ Brigade, an interdenominational Christian youth group founded in 1883 in Scotland by William Alexander Smith; for many years it was affiliated with the American Boys’ Brigade organization as Company A of the 1st North Carolina Regiment.

The only requirement for membership was that boys had to be enrolled in a church Sunday school. To attend one of the Brigade’s annual encampments (at locations such as Kure Beach, Southport or Hanby Beach), boys had to prove they had attended Sunday school four weeks in a row.

Originally, the group met in a Sunday school classroom at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Front and Queen streets, Wilmington. Boys were drilled at weekly formations, shouldering wooden rifles and swords, noted Susan Taylor Block in her history of the organization, “The Character Factory: The Story of the Boys’ Brigade.”

 Within a year of its founding, the boys even had uniforms: blue jerseys, white duck trousers, white caps and white canvas shoes. (Within a few years, judging from photos reproduced in Block’s book, the uniforms grew even more elaborate.)

Membership soon exceeded 100, and in December 1903, Taylor bought a house and lot on the southeast corner of Second and Church streets. The house was removed, and in 1904, construction began on a two-story “Armory” building for the Boys’ Brigade.

Architect Charles McMillen — who also designed the Masonic Temple on North Front Street, the Bridgers House/Greystone Inn, 100 S. Third St., Wilmington [Map this], and the Murchsion National/Acme Building, 200 N. Front St., Wilmington [Map this] — designed an impressive Romanesque structure , with turrets and battlements, using an artificial stone that made it resemble a castle or a fort.

Inside, the building boasted an auditorium, dining room, kitchen, gymnasium, dressing rooms, a bowling alley and a 2,000-volume library (donated by James Sprunt), all available free to Brigade members. Not surprisingly, membership quickly soared to nearly 500 boys.

Funds for the structure were donated by Mary Lily Kenan Flagler, a Wilmington native and wife of Florida rail and real estate tycoon Henry Flagler, in memory of her father, William Rand Kenan Sr., a Confederate veteran. North Carolina Gov. Robert B. Glenn was present for the dedication on June 23, 1905;

In later years, the Brigade branched out, adding programs in track and field sports, basketball and baseball, a drama club and a debating society. It offered vocational classes and staged hobby and pet fairs.

The Armory was closed during World War I, but reopened in 1921 with help from the Wilmington Kiwanis Club. In 1929, the organization affiliated with the Boys’ Clubs of America and renamed itself the Brigade Boys’ Club.

In 1950, the club moved into new facilities at 718 S. Third St., Wilmington [Map this]. The old Armory at Second and Church was thereafter converted into apartments (and acquired a rather seedy reputation, informants told Beverly Tetterton). In 1962, the original building was demolished. (A postcard image appears in Tetterton’s book, “Wilmington: Lost But Not Forgotten.)

In 1972,  the club acquired  several acres of land in Sunset Park and built  the “William H. Montgomery Unit,” in honor of the club’s first executive director and founder of its Senior Fraternity. A large new building was erected in 1987 at 2759 Vance St., Wilmington [Map this]. Girls were admitted to the club’s programs in the 1990s.

Today, the Brigade Boys and Girls Club served some 1,800 young people in New Hanover and Pender counties.

The club continued to use the building at 718 S. Third St., Wilmington [Map this] — renamed the “Harry B. Register Unit” in honor of the group’s first physical director — through the 1970s. In the 1980s, it was acquired by the AME Zion Church, which operated it for many years as the Shaw-Speaks Center. Today, it houses the New Hanover County Day Treatment Center and Juvenile Empowerment Services.

User-contributed question by:
Manfred Taylor

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2 Responses to “ What is the Brigade Boys’ Club?”

  1. On February 10, 2011 at 11:52 am Wayne wrote:

    If you don’t know what/where the Dry Pond area is, MyReporter answered this question not too long ago.

  2. On January 31, 2012 at 11:56 pm Ken wrote:

    Growing up in the 50’s,(in the neighborhoods of Nesbit Courts and Sunset Park), I have several memories of the ‘boy’s club’ on 3rd street, one was that they had an ‘indoor’ swimming pool, and we would go swimming there, another was the ‘fast’ pitch softball games that used to be played at night, on a fenced in field next to the boy’s club building, just to name a couple. We also used to swim at the old ‘Y’ located down town. On another note, my momma used to work at a drive inn called the ‘3-D’, which was located next to the old Boy’s club, on 3rd street. Thanks for bringing back some of these memories, times back then weren’t always so good, especially for a lot of us ‘poor’ kids, but I sure wish I could go back and redo some of the things we used to do.

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