Keepers of the Alamo, 1885–1905

Interior View of the Alamo in 1904. The Alamo interior as it appeared after 1894 and before the Daughters of the Republic of Texas assumed responsibility for the chapel in 1905. The U.S. Army built the gable roof in 1848 when the building was renovated for use as a supply depot. Photo from Historical Sketch and Guide to the Alamo by Leonora Bennett, 1904.

Thomas Rife, 1885-1894

Thomas Rife was the first Keeper of the Alamo to be appointed by the City of San Antonio. He held the position from its inception in 1885 until his death in 1894. He was a long-time city employee who may have been given the position because he was disabled and a recently discharged employee of the police force. Tom Rife was not a veteran of the Battle of San Jacinto but had served under Colonel Jack Hays during the Mexican War. He had also been a ranger under Captain William Wallace; a soldier in the 32nd regiment of Texas volunteer cavalry during the Civil War and a scout in West Texas with Captain Henry Skillman. During the Civil War, he was twice wounded, once at Deer Creek, Mississippi, and again, near Presidio, Texas.1

After a long career as a stage conductor in West Texas, Rife served for six years with the San Antonio police as a patrolman. He was allied with prominent leaders of the San Antonio Mexican community, some of whom were also law enforcement officers. He was an outspoken amateur historian who took an active part in efforts to preserve the Alamo church. During his term of office, he was paid $50 per month by the City of San Antonio as the Keeper of the Alamo. He was well known, and news of his death was widely reported in Texas and beyond.2 Two streets were named for Rife in San Antonio; one is now known as Golondrina Avenue. It is near Rip Ford and Big Foot Streets in the Highland Park neighborhood.3

William McMaster, 1894-1897

William McMaster was the second custodian of the Alamo to be appointed by the City of San Antonio. He was born in New Orleans in 1819 and immigrated to Brazoria County in 1835 at age 16.4 He was granted 640 acres of Donation Land for his part in the Battle of San Jacinto. He served in Capt. Peyton R. Splane’s Company as a private and was assigned to the rear guard in Harrisburg to guard the baggage. In March 1842, when Mexican General Rafael Vásquez occupied San Antonio, McMaster enlisted in Capt. Gill’s company, Col. C. L. Owen’s command. In 1851 he received $31.50 for his service during the Vasquez campaign.5 In 1860, he and his wife Mary were living in Columbia, Brazoria County, where he was a merchant.6 During the Civil War, he was a captain in the Quartermaster’s staff of the 13th Regiment Texas Volunteer Infantry7 in Colonel Joseph Bate’s Brazoria Coast Regiment. Between 1880 and 1893, McMaster was a US Deputy Marshal.8

McMaster applied for the position of Keeper of the Alamo when the position was first created in 1885.9 He became the acting custodian in December 1894 while Rife was ill.10 Under the heading “Shameful neglect” the San Antonio Light of October 15, 1896, he stated, “The keeper of the Alamo is badly in need of a heating stove for the cold days of the winter. The big building is not only very large and airy, but the windows are unprovided with glass panes, and the front door must be kept open.” By November, he was “keeping himself warm today by the aid of a small stove put up by the city.”11 He was reappointed in January 1897 and kept the position until the spring of 1897. William McMaster died on May 09, 1907.12

Samuel C. Bennett, 1897-1899

Sam C. Bennett was born in 1827 in Missouri and was a wholesale grocer in Chicago from 1861 until 1865 and later ran a wholesale grocery business in Kansas City, Missouri.13 He arrived in San Antonio before 1876, bringing all of his surviving children with him.14

There were three men named Samuel Bennett in San Antonio during this period. Two were prominent businessmen and were often confused with each other. Sam C. Bennett was a sheep rancher and merchant.15 It was he who worked as the Alamo tour guide between April 1897 and his death in 1900.16

According to an article in the newspaper dated May 13, 1897, The Alamo Monument Association kept a box on the wall of the Alamo for contributions to the fund. In connection with this box, a reporter mentioned that the custodian had a small book explaining the history of the Alamo that he had printed at his own expense. The custodian sold the book to visitors upon request.17 In late 1893, while Thomas Rife was still alive, a reporter for the New York Herald noted that there was a guidebook available18, but 1897 was the first mention of a printed text of the Alamo tour. Sam Bennett’s daughter, who later served as the Alamo tour guide, greatly expanded this text.

It was part of the custodian’s job to set straight some people's understanding of the place of the Alamo in history. In May of 1897, a visitor wanted to see “the exact spot on which King Alamo fell in the battle with the French, and it took a considerable length of time to convince the man that there never lived such a personage as King Alamo and that it was the fort that fell in a battle with the Mexican troops instead of the French.”19

Under the headline “Alamo Needs A Register,” the San Antonio Daily Light reported that a new register was needed in the Alamo and that Custodian Bennett “has a man working on it.” This rare mention of the Alamo register includes this detail; “The new one will be secured as was the one just completed, by soliciting advertisements for the blotters between the pages, the receipts there from paying for the book.”20

Bennett supervised a thorough cleaning of the Alamo building. During the cleaning, he reported that he found traces of blood under the whitewash of the interior walls.21 Notwithstanding earlier efforts to remove debris from the Alamo church, Bennett had twenty-one cartloads of dirt and rubbish removed in 1897.22 He also removed what was left of the wooden floors installed by the US Army fifty years before.23

He died on January 15, 1900, aged 72 years, when it appears that he was still employed as the Alamo Custodian. The flags at the Alamo and City Hall flew at half-mast during his funeral service.24

Leonora (Lea) Bennett, 1900-1905

Lea Bennett was the daughter of Sam C. Bennett. After her father’s death, she was appointed temporary custodian on January 18, 1900, when she was 38 years old25 and held the position until June 8, 1905. Her pay was $50 a month, the same as the men who held the position.26 Leonora Bennett was born in Missouri in 186227 and moved with her parents to San Antonio.

Leonora’s father (and her predecessor as the Keeper of the Alamo) printed at his own expense a slim volume that he sold on his account to visitors to the Alamo for fifteen cents.28 Leonora Bennett enlarged this historical sketch and, in 1904, published a book called “Historical Sketch and Guide to the Alamo.” The first 81 pages of the 131-page book is a history of Texas from the appearance of Sieur de la Salle in 1685, through the careers of Philip Nolan, Augustus Magee, and Moses Austin and ending with the battle of San Jacinto. Pages 83 to 107 contain four “historical sketches,” which are probably the text of the tour given to visitors during the period between 1897 and 1905 when she or her father were the tour guides. This part of the book may have been based upon the booklet that Sam Bennett printed and sold to visitors. Following the text of the tour, there is a short history of the other San Antonio missions, including the San Fernando church. Parts 4 and 5 of Miss Bennett’s book are three poems about the Alamo and a list of the Alamo martyrs.29 In 1905, after Miss Bennett’s time as the Keeper of the Alamo ended, she continued to live with her sister at the family home on Dwyer Avenue.30

Samuel Lytle, 1893, 1905

Samuel Lytle was the last Keeper of the Alamo to be appointed by the San Antonio City Council under the agreement reached with the State of Texas in 1883. The last city-employed Keeper of the Alamo was an old friend of Thomas Rife, the first man who held that position. William Lytle, a blacksmith, arrived in Washington-on-the-Brazos from Tennessee with his wife and his son Samuel Lytle on December 15, 1838.31 Eleven-year-old Samuel Lytle met Tom Rife in Washington-on-the-Brazos in 1842, and they became lifelong friends.

Like Rife, Sam soon found himself in Bexar County. William Lytle established a stock ranch on the Medina River in 184632, and Samuel and his older brother were witnesses to the marriage of Thomas Rife to his first wife, Mary Ann Brothers, in 1853.33 He was a neighbor of William “Big Foot” Wallace34 and was with him during a fight with hostile Indians in Medina County in September 1855.35

In April 1860, Samuel Lytle enlisted in a company of minutemen.36 On May 10, 1862, he mustered into Company H, 32nd Regiment Texas Cavalry, where he was elected 2nd Lieutenant. He remained with this unit throughout the War37 and was promoted to Captain.38 By March 1863, he was on detached service at Eagle Pass in pursuit of deserters. When Thomas Rife returned from Mississippi in the fall of 1863, he enlisted in Samuel Lytle’s company but soon detached for service with Henry Skillman’s scouts in West Texas. Lytle was a Director of the Alamo Monument Association in 189139 and again in 1894.40

In March 1893, Captain Samuel Lytle sought the appointment as Custodian of the Alamo after the municipal elections when all city positions were renegotiated. His old friend, Tom Rife, successfully retained the appointment.41 However, by September 1893, Rife became ill, and Captain Lytle was appointed acting custodian.42 In February 1894, by a motion of Alderman Smith, the San Antonio City Council voted to allow Tom Rife to assume his position as custodian “as he has recovered.”43

In 1903, Miss De Zavala had requested that a member of the De Zavala Chapter be placed on the committee to select the Alamo custodian, but the choice was left in the hands of the Mayor.44

Lytle became the Alamo keeper again in June 1905 and was paid $38.35 for a partial month (23 days) in July. On July 31, 1905, Lytle was paid $50 for a full month as the custodian45, and he was finally appointed the permanent keeper on September 17, 1905. The next month, on October 4, 1905, the Daughters (DRT) officially received custody of the building from the State of Texas, and his position at the Alamo was terminated. Sam Lytle died in San Antonio on June 24, 1918.46

The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, 1905-2015

In April 1905, the DRT named the De Zavala Chapter caretakers of the Alamo for one year.47 In August 1905, the title to the Hugo-Schmeltzer Building was transferred to the State. In October of that year, the DRT was given custody of both the Hugo-Schmeltzer building and the Alamo chapel. Adina De Zavala was the President of the DRT chapter in San Antonio, and San Antonio Mayor Callaghan gave her the keys to the chapel on October 11, 1905.48 Only a month earlier, Miss Driscoll had appointed her friend Miss Florence Eagar to serve as Custodian of the Alamo.49 Miss Eagar was a member of the De Zavala Chapter.50 Her pay was initially $45 per month.51

After the Daughters were given custody of the buildings, a long struggle commenced between two factions in the DRT that eventually ended with the partial destruction of one of the buildings the DRT was sworn to protect. In November 1905, the two factions struggled over which would control the keys to the chapel. Miss De Zavala refused to give the keys to Miss Eagar, and on November 3, 1905, the Driscoll faction filed suit against Miss De Zavala for possession of the keys.52 The following April, a new DRT chapter, the Alamo Mission Chapter, seceded from the De Zavala Chapter and was recognized as the only San Antonio chapter of the DRT. The De Zavala Chapter was expelled from the DRT, and the struggle between the two groups continued until 1913. That year, at the insistence of the DRT's executive committee, the City demolished the upper story of the convent.53

When the Daughters of the Republic of Texas received custody of the two remaining buildings of the old Alamo mission in 1905, they appointed one of their members, Miss Florence Eagar, to act as the Custodian of the Alamo. Florence Eagar was the inspiration for Miss Clara Driscoll’s 1906 short story, “In the Shadow of the Alamo.”54 In that book, Miss Driscoll spelled out the Alamo myth that the DRT promoted until recent times. Miss Eagar drew the illustrations used in the book.

In 1845, the original Alamo bell was found in front of the mission in the river by Anton Lockmar. It was made of brass and weighed fifty pounds. It was passed down many times and used for several purposes, including as a call bell in the Magnolia Hotel in Seguin until it was returned to San Antonio and Miss Eager requested that it be hung in the Alamo “where it will remain until Mr. Johnson asks that it be returned.”55

In 1907, Miss Eagar married US Army Major Harris L. Roberts and left San Antonio56 just as did the heroine in Miss Driscoll’s story. Mrs. Robert’s mother, Mrs. Sarah Eagar, replaced Florence as the Custodian.57 Mrs. Eagar was 65 years old when she took on the role and was still custodian and tour guide in 1913.58 Despite their misgivings about its veracity, the tour these women gave was similar to that of their City predecessors.59

In 1915, Mrs. Fannie Applewhite became President of the Alamo Mission Chapter of the DRT. By then, the Alamo Mission Chapter had assumed day-to-day control of the Alamo, and Mrs. Applewhite was appointed Custodian of the Alamo. The budget for the Custodians was $900 per year.60 The Alamo Mission chapter held its meetings in the Alamo chapel, so Mrs. Applewhite could attend to visitors during the chapter meetings. In 1916, Judge Webb, who was the husband of a past president of the chapter, agreed to pay the wages of a gardener to care for the extensive gardens surrounding the chapel. The gardener was the second employee of the DRT at the Alamo.61

Mrs. Applewhite served as the custodian until 1921 when she retired for reasons of age. Her daughter, Mrs. Leita Small, followed her as custodian and kept the position until 1946.62 Mrs. Small died August 30, 1946, at age 65, while it appears that she was still Custodian.63 She was the last individual to be known as the “Custodian of the Alamo.”

By the time Mrs. Small died, the Alamo had a maintenance and library staff that included a full-time Grounds Superintendent, Mr. Herbert R. Newcomer.64 The number of visitors and the size of the Alamo staff continued to grow decade by decade. When Mr. Newcomer retired in 196165, the person in charge of buildings of the Alamo was known as the Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds.66 The term “Custodian” or “Keeper” as it was used around the turn of the 19th Century had become an anachronism.

  1. San Antonio Light, February 23, 1887 ↩︎

  2. Omaha World Herald, Mortuary Notice, December 29, 1894 ↩︎

  3. City View, A Subdivision of Original City Lot 1, R7 D7, Civil Engineer Survey Book 5, p. 111, San Antonio; Morrison and Fourmy’s San Antonio City Directory for 1889; San Antonio City Directory for 1890 ↩︎

  4. Mrs. Joseph Morris, ed., “List of 1st Class Certificates,” STIRPES 16, No. 3, (September 1976) ↩︎

  5. William McMaster, Public Debt Claim, Texas Comptroller’s Office claims records. ARIS-TSLAC ↩︎

  6. San Antonio Light, Thursday, May 9, 1907 ↩︎

  7. William McMaster’s record, 13th Regiment of Texas Volunteers, Compiled Service Record of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of Texas, M323, Roll 367, Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Serviced During the Civil War, RG 109, NARA ↩︎

  8. William McMaster, US Tenth Census (1880), San Antonio, TX, roll 1291; General Directory of the City of San Antonio for 1881, 204 ↩︎

  9. City Council Minutes, 1884-6, Book F, p. 323 ↩︎

  10. Daily Light (San Antonio), December 4, 1894 ↩︎

  11. Daily Light (San Antonio), November 28, 1896 ↩︎

  12. San Antonio Light, Thursday, May 9, 1907. ↩︎

  13. Samuel C. Bennett, US Ninth Census (1870), Kansas City, MO, roll 782 ↩︎

  14. Samuel C. Bennett, US Tenth Census (1880), San Antonio, TX, roll 1291 ↩︎

  15. Daily Light (San Antonio), January 16, 1900; San Antonio Light, July 18, 1883 ↩︎

  16. Anson G. Bennett, US Twelfth Census (1900, San Antonio, TX, roll 1611; Jules A. Appler’s General Directory of the City of San Antonio for 1897, 158 ↩︎

  17. Daily Light (San Antonio), May 13, 1897 ↩︎

  18. New York Herald, January 7, 1894 ↩︎

  19. Daily Light (San Antonio), May 13, 1897 ↩︎

  20. San Antonio Daily Light, April 6, 1899 ↩︎

  21. Daily Light (San Antonio), June 16, 1897. ↩︎

  22. Daily Light (San Antonio), May 13, 1897 ↩︎

  23. Daily Herald (Brownsville, Texas), February 16, 1894 ↩︎

  24. Daily Light (San Antonio), January 16, 1900. ↩︎

  25. Daily Light (San Antonio), January 18, 1900. ↩︎

  26. San Antonio Sunday Light, September 17, 1905 ↩︎

  27. Samuel C. Bennett, US Ninth Census (1870), Kansas City, MO, roll 782 ↩︎

  28. Daily Light (San Antonio, Texas), May 13, 1897. ↩︎

  29. Bennett, Historical Sketch and Guide to the Alamo, 122-31 ↩︎

  30. Ann M. Bennett, US Thirteenth Census (1910), San Antonio, TX, roll 1611 ↩︎

  31. Ellis A. Davis and Edwin H. Grobe, compilers, New Encyclopedia of Texas Vol. III, (Dallas: Texas Development Bureau, 1929), 2205 ↩︎

  32. Samuel Lytle, US Seventh Census (1850), Slave Schedule, San Antonio, TX ↩︎

  33. Marriage Licenses, Bexar County Clerks Records, Book C, p. 118, (Oct. 14, 1853), San Antonio ↩︎

  34. A. J. Sowell, Life of “Big Foot” Wallace: The Great Ranger Captain, (Austin: State House Press, 1989), 119 ↩︎

  35. San Antonio Ledger, September 29, 1855; New York Times, October 17, 1855 ↩︎

  36. Helen Rugeley, ed., “Muster Rolls of Minute Men Found in Bexar Co. Courthouse,” Austin Genealogical Society Quarterly 22, No. 1, (March 1981), 22 ↩︎

  37. Daily Light (San Antonio), January 16, 1900; Ellis A. Davis and Edwin H. Grobe, compilers, New Encyclopedia of Texas Vol: III, 2205 ↩︎

  38. Anonymous, A Twentieth Century History of Southwest Texas, Vol: 1, (Chicago, New York and Los Angeles: The Lewis Publishing Co., 1907), 286 ↩︎

  39. Daily Light (San Antonio), July 15, 1891. ↩︎

  40. Daily Light (San Antonio), April 16, 1894. ↩︎

  41. Daily Light (San Antonio), March 2, 1893. ↩︎

  42. San Antonio Daily Light, September 12, 1893; San Antonio Light, September 11, 1893 ↩︎

  43. San Antonio Daily Light, February 20, 1894 ↩︎

  44. Robert L. Ables, “The Second Battle of the Alamo,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 3, January 1967, 378 ↩︎

  45. San Antonio Sunday Light, September 17, 1905. ↩︎

  46. Ellis A. Davis and Edwin H. Grobe, compilers, New Encyclopedia of Texas Vol. III, 2205; San Antonio Express, June 25, 1918 ↩︎

  47. Ables, “The Second Battle of the Alamo,” 384 ↩︎

  48. Ables, “The Second Battle of the Alamo,” 386 ↩︎

  49. Ables, “The Second Battle of the Alamo,” 386 ↩︎

  50. “A Guide to the Aline B. Carter Family Papers, 1823-2003, MS 94,” * University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections,, accessed February 4, 2014* ↩︎

  51. Ables, “The Second Battle of the Alamo,” 394 ↩︎

  52. Ables, “The Second Battle of the Alamo,” 387 ↩︎

  53. Ables, “The Second Battle of the Alamo,” 412 ↩︎

  54. Clara Driscoll, In the Shadow of the Alamo, (New York & London: The Knickerbocker Press, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1906), illustrated by Florence Eagar ↩︎

  55. Rockdale Reporter (Texas), June 20, 1907 ↩︎

  56. San Antonio Express and News, March 26, 1967; “A Guide to the Sarah Eagar and Florence Eagar Roberts Alamo Papers, 1905-1913 and undated”, Doc 14408, DRT Research Library, San Antonio ↩︎

  57. “A Guide to the Riddle and Eagar Families Papers, 1840-1945,” Collection 7426,, Accessed September 14, 2012 ↩︎

  58. Eberle, Frank and Harry Van Denmark, eds., “The Texas Magazine,” Vol: 7, November 1912 to April 1913, (Houston, Texas: Charles A. Newning, 1913), 312 ↩︎

  59. San Antonio Express and News, March 26, 1967 ↩︎

  60. Ables, The Second Battle of the Alamo, 397 ↩︎

  61. Walker, Beth and Mary Carmack, DRT: Alamo Mission Chapter,, accessed January 30, 2014 ↩︎

  62. J. Marvin Hunter, Jr., “Lest We Forget,” Frontier Times, Vol: 24, No 07, April 1947 ↩︎

  63. Mexia Weekly Herald (Texas), August 30, 1946 ↩︎

  64. undated newspaper clipping, vertical file “Grounds,” DRT Research Library ↩︎

  65. San Antonio Light, March 19, 1961 ↩︎

  66. San Antonio Light, November 20, 1962 ↩︎