When the Eastern Shore Met the Wild West


October 01, 1995|By HELEN CHAPPELL

As the band thumped out "The Girl I Left Behind Me," a tiny woman in a Stetson and fringed dress rode into the packed arena, rifles blazing. The sharpshooting that had made her a superstar on two continents enthralled the audience. Galloping around the ring on horseback, she aimed her six-shooters with a flourish, hitting a bull's-eye again and again.

She shouldered her rifle backward, sighted through a mirror and shattered 20 glass, feather-filled balls tossed in the air. She put a deadeye hole through brass tokens held at arm's length by an assistant and shot out the pips in playing cards.

She spun a lariat and did rope tricks. She could have thrilled the crowd simply by appearing in the arena and taking a bow that day, for Annie Oakley was already a legend, a Girl of the Golden West, larger than life when she came to the Eastern Shore town of Cambridge in the fall of 1911.

After the show, Annie and her husband-manager, Frank Butler, looked around the sleepy town on the Choptank River and liked what they saw. They liked the water, they liked the people, and they liked the hunting. Like many another visitor, Frank and Annie were seduced by the Shore. That this legendary shooting star should choose to live in a sleepy Eastern Shore town still surprises people today.

An American Cinderella

Seventy years after she fired her last shot, Annie Oakley has been lost to legend. Broadway depicted her as a big, brassy dame who couldn't get a man with a gun. A '50s TV series showed her as a pigtailed cowgirl. The real life of the woman who lived for a few years in Cambridge is a better story than all the myths. She was an American Cinderella, born poor, who rose to heights of fame and fortune.

Born in Darke County, Ohio, in August 1860, she was raised at the edge of what was then wilderness, but hardly the Wild West. Annie's Quaker parents had come west from Pennsylvania in search of the pioneer dream of fertile land. What they found was a hardscrabble existence on a barren farm.

The fourth of six children, Phoebe Anne Moses (or Mozee; records are unclear) was about 4 when her father died, leaving the family destitute. According to her memoirs, Annie first took up a cap and ball Kentucky rifle when she was about 8, shooting and trapping game to supplement the family's meager diet.

Unable to support her brood, Annie's mother sent her daughter to board with friends who ran the county almshouse. There Annie learned to sew so well that she would someday make all of her own stage costumes. From there, Annie was boarded out to a couple she called "He-Wolf" and "She-Wolf." The "Wolves" promised she would be treated as one of the family and be educated, that she would be allowed to shoot and trap.

They lied, Annie asserted in her memoirs. She describes a two-year Dickensian nightmare of endless work, brutal beatings, starvation and virtual slavery.

Some biographers attribute her tiny size to this period of malnourishment and ill-treatment. Others speculate that she was sexually as well as physically abused -- theories that they use to explain her childlessness. Annie, a true Victorian, never spoke about such things. Eventually, she escaped the Wolves, but the experience left her with permanent physical and emotional scars. All her long and frugal life, Annie's favorite charities were orphans and indigent girls.

Back at home, Annie took up the rifle again, hunting and trapping to feed the family. Her prowess as a gunner became local legend.

In those days, market gunning was a respectable occupation, although there were probably few women, and fewer young girls working with a muzzle loader and a string of traps. Annie sold her game to brokers, who in turn supplied hotels and restaurants. In five years, so the story goes, she had earned enough money to pay off the mortgage on the family farm.

Enter Frank Butler

Frank Butler, about 26, Irish, charming and darkly handsome, had been touring as a shooting act for several years before his show rolled into Ohio. Shooting acts were a popular attraction in those days. Challenged by Annie's clients to a prize match with a local shooter, Frank was stunned that his opponent was a petite girl of about 15. She outshot him handily.

Annie not only won the purse, she won Frank's heart. He knew a good thing when he saw it, and began to groom his sweetheart for a career as a stage shooter. They were married about two years later, and for the rest of their lives, Frank devoted himself to assisting in Annie's act and managing her career. By all accounts, it was a successful partnership and a very happy marriage.

Phoebe Anne Becomes Annie Oakley

Annie was not the first female trick shot on the tour circuit, but she was quite different from the mostly garish female performers of the era. Capitalizing on her diminutive height and her youth, she cultivated her innocent image with flowing hair, jeune fille high-necked dresses, leggings and her trademark wide-brimmed hat.

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