Annie Oakley lived on the Eastern Shore

She wrote autobiography while living in Cambridge house

May 23, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

"Learn to ride a horse — not merely hold on.

"Learn to shoot. Aim high and never give up.

"Service.

"Love."

—Annie Oakley's advice to young women

Show business figures such as Dorothy Lamour, Lionel Atwill, Robert Mitchum, Francis X. Bushman, Oprah Winfrey, Divine, Kathleen Turner and Garry Moore were either Maryland natives or adopted the state as their home.

Others such as John Wilkes Booth and Tallulah Bankhead have decided to spend eternity here.

It's probably not generally known that the world-famed sharpshooter Annie Oakley, whose real name was Phoebe Anne Mozee (sometimes spelled Moses), lived for several years in Cambridge.

She and her husband decided to retire from the road in 1902, after she was injured in a railroad wreck in Virginia that left her with a partial paralysis. She had been touring with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show and Congress of the Rough Riders of the World.

In 1912, she and her husband, Frank Butler, purchased a plot of land in Cambridge that overlooked Hambrooke's Bay, off the Choptank River, and built what was to be their retirement home.

A unique feature of the house was the roof, which allowed Annie to step out of any of the windows and onto the roof where she could take aim at waterfowl bobbing on the nearby Choptank.

Annie was born in Darke County, Ohio, in 1860. Her father died six years later, casting the family into poverty. Annie worked on the family farm and learned trapping.

An enterprising teenager, she learned how to use her father's Kentucky rifle, not only to put quail and rabbit on the family table but also to sell it in nearby Greenville, Ohio, and to keep several hotel kitchens supplied.

With her earnings, she was 15 at the time, she was able to pay off the mortgage and save the farm from foreclosure.

"Oh, how my heart leaped with joy as I handed the money to my mother and told her I had saved enough to pay it off," she wrote in her autobiography.

Her reputation as an excellent marksman spread, so much so, that a hotelier in Cincinnati invited Annie to a shooting contest with famed vaudeville marksman Frank Butler.

She bested Butler by one shot — 25 to 24 — and in the process won the contest and the heart and affection of her opponent.

Butler said he had fallen in love with Annie on the spot, and after marrying in 1876, the couple carved out successful careers performing on the Wild West circuit.

In 1885, she and her husband joined Buffalo Bill's show (William F. Cody), and she instantly obtained top billing, with her visage boldly printed on show posters.

Carleton Jones, the late Sunday Sun reporter, wrote in a 1991 article that "those shows were probably the leading force along with Ned Buntline's dime novels about Cody and others in shaping the cowboy legend of the West."

For 30 years, the show roamed the nation with a cast that included Annie (who performed for 17 years), as well as a supporting cast that featured Pawnee Bill, hundreds of Indians, scouts, a cavalry unit from Fort Riley, Kan., and herds of horses — enough of a thundering spectacle that certainly had to have influenced filmmakers D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille not many years later.

It took between 50 and 60 railroad cars to transport the massive show not only through the U.S. but overseas to Europe, whose citizens could seemingly not get enough of these alien visitors from the American Wild West, dressed in leather, fur, war paint and feathers.

A million spectators lined up to see the show when it played Madison Square Garden in New York City during an 18-month run in the 1880s.

Audiences in London, Berlin and Paris, equally enthusiastic, came to see the woman that Sitting Bull, the Sioux Indian Chief, had named "Miss Sure-Shot."

Even Queen Victoria took in the show as did her son, the future King Edward VII. In a spectacular sharpshooting feat, Annie managed to cleanly pop with one shot a lighted cigar that was held between the lips of Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany.

Annie told The Sun in 1923, "If my aim had been poor, I might have averted the great war."

When the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show played at a lot on York Road at Oxford Avenue in 1899, The Sun observed that the "rifle shooting by Miss Annie Oakley and Johnny Baker and Bill himself was quite up to their usual standard."

On an earlier visit to Baltimore, the newspaper commented that Annie "did seemingly impossible things in the way of what in a man would be called marksmanship. The markswoman used rifle, double-barrel, breech-loading guns and pistols with equal dexterity."

During their retirement years in Cambridge — Annie who was always Mrs. Frank Butler in private life — entertained their friends who traveled from New York City and elsewhere on hunting and fishing trips.

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