Sadly I do not get to spend my days reading all of our amazing books, periodicals, and archives. Knowledge of the collection is built over time and through a variety of avenues. Sometimes I discover things while working on presentations, or an interesting tibit turns up while searching for some other piece of information and I make a note of it as a possible future blog topic. Often the visitors to the Library help with this process by discussing the sporting topics they are passionate about with me, sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm. Answering reference requests from researchers and as well as from the general public also often leads to interesting information held in our collections that I have never encountered before. Last week I received such a request from a library in Buffalo, New York. They were looking for a copy of an article by Jim Foral called “Ithaca’s Golden Girls,” originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of The Double Gun & Single Shot Journal. Fulfilling this request led to the delightful discovery of an article outlining the early participation of women in the sport of trapshooting.
Leading up to the turn of the 20th century women began to sample the outdoor pursuits that had so long been the domain of men. Led by a few exceptional sportswomen, the physical, mental, and social benefits of outdoor recreation were enthusiastically embraced by the female population at large. Foral’s article describes how magazines and retailers both adapted to cater to this new audience. Sports and outdoors magazines began to feature articles targeting women and even those written by sportswomen. Sellers of sports equipment and apparel developed lines of merchandise for women and ran advertisements in magazines aimed at women. The bulk of Foral’s article is about the commercial relationships that developed between individual sportswomen and gun manufacturers, specifically two spokeswomen for the Ithaca Gun Company, Mrs. Alice Belknap and Mrs. Troup Saxon.
Alice Belknap was a grade school teacher and her husband was a doctor. They lived in Wyoming, New York. In 1899, Dr. Belknap had a hand in founding the Wyoming Gun Club which held monthly trap shooting practices and quarterly registered shooting matches. Although she started as a spectator, it wasn’t long before Alice picked up a gun herself and joined in. She developed into a strong competitor and was passionate about promoting the sport of trapshooting to women. She contributed articles to sporting magazines in which she noted the benefits of trapshooting including spending time with ones husband, the glow of health acquired through outdoor pursuits, and the development of discipline, steady nerves, and confidence.
In 1908 Alice won the Wyoming Gun Club Championship and was elected the Club’s president. She competed in local and regional contests and was soon known as “The Best Lady Shot in the East.” It should come as no surprise then that the Ithaca Gun Company recruited her as a representative. The company sent her a No. 4 grade twelve gauge gun with gold-plated triggers and ran an ad including her image and testimonial in November 1908 issues of sporting magazines. She was also featured in Ithaca Gun Company ads in March and April of 1913.
After her husband’s death in 1913 Alice Belknap gave up competitive shooting. She remained interested in the sport of trapshooting and continued to promote it by occasionally acting as an instructor to other women. The independent streak that helped her rise to the top rank of amateur shooters stood her in good stead for the rest of her life. She purchased an insurance agency and several years later also started a real estate business. At one point she also owned the Wyoming City Water Works which she expanded and improved. She never remarried. After a long and successful life she died at 83 in December 1957.
Ithaca Gun Company’s second female spokesperson shared Mrs. Belknap’s plucky independence but little else of her story is similar. Mrs. Ermina Broadwell was a tomboy from Oklahoma territory who spent her childhood rambling around the countryside and hunting with her dog Jack. In her late teens Mr. Troup Saxon came to town performing rifle shooting exhibitions. Ermina met him through her father and the two were married in 1908. Mrs. Troup Saxon showed a natural affinity for shooting, hitting nineteen of twenty-five targets in her first trapshooting competition – beating all other shooters by three. The Saxons hit the road, making a living trapshooting. Ermina burst onto the national stage at the Oklahoma State Fair in 1908. The pretty young woman caused a sensation when she outshot all the local male competitors. The fact that she was citizen of the state made her even more popular. In addition to putting on shooting exhibitions and participating in competitions, the Saxons helped establish local shooting clubs wherever they went. They were ideal representatives for a gun company and Ithaca Guns established a relationship with them. The Saxons became commissioned gun-sales representatives for the Ithaca Gun Company and would display and demonstrate the Ithaca guns, as well as take orders for them.
Mr. and Mrs. Troup Saxon traveled from town to town performing. Mr. Saxon developed into a skilled marketer and made sure that their shows were well publicized. Despite her skill, there is also correspondence between Mr. Saxon and Ithaca Gun Company outlining a plan to make sure that she beat him by one shot in nine out of ten competitions. Mrs. Saxon’s gun of choice was a No. seven grade, twelve gauge ejector gun that retailed for $400. Ithaca Gun Company used photos of Mrs. Troup Saxon and her gun in ads that ran in all the sporting magazines in April and May of 1911.
In 1914 the Saxon marriage had failed and Ermina found herself looking for work. She approached Ithaca Guns about becoming a salaried salesperson or demonstrator but company policy barred such arrangements. The best they could offer her was a commission on sales. She made one last attempt to revive her shooting career at the Grand American Handicap in Ohio but only managed a middling performance. Her career as professional trapshooter was over but her pluck and independence never failed her. She lived in Seattle, Idaho, and Arizona, before establishing herself in Anchorage, Alaska where she cooked for mining camps and managed hotels. She had a daughter and eventually had four more husbands before dying in 1949 at age 60.
Both of these women did a great deal to normalize women’s participation in trapshooting and outdoor pursuits in general. They led by example but also encouraged would be shooters through the establishment of gun clubs, authoring of magazine articles, and instruction of novice gunners. Although advertisers like The Ithaca Gun Company were after the potential profit that might be generated by these new sportswomen, their ads traveled far beyond the regions that women like Mrs. Belknap or Mrs. Saxon could visit in person. Those images did their share to inspire women’s participation in sport too. Happily the sport of trapshooting is alive and well and many women still participate in it. In fact several members of the NSLM staff recently tried it for the first time! If you would like to read Jim Foral’s full account of these enterprising women please contact me at the Library.
Foral, Jim. “Ithaca’s Golden Girls.” Double Gun & Single Shot Journal, Winter 2016, pp. 129-139.
Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 450 years of the history of equestrian sport, fly fishing, wing shooting, other field sports, and country life.