The greatest exhibition shooter of all time — male or female — was a young woman from Darke County, Ohio: Annie Oakley (1860–1926). Just 5 feet tall and weighing barely 100 pounds, Annie was blessed with extraordinary hand-eye coordination and athleticism, giving her the ability to accurately shoot most any firearm she picked up — rifle, shotgun, or handgun.
Darke County is located in extreme western Ohio, along the Indiana state line. Greenville, the county seat, is home to the Garst Museum, home of the National Annie Oakley Center.
“The museum has the largest display of Annie Oakley photographs, firearms, and memorabilia anywhere in the world,” says Katie Gabbard, marketing director at the Garst. “An entire wing is dedicated to her, chronicling Annie’s many shooting accomplishments as well as her lesser-known philanthropic endeavors.”
In fact, very few of Annie’s medals and awards survive today, as she had most of them melted down near the end of her life so she could raise money for charity.
Annie Oakley is best remembered for the 17 years she and her husband-manager, Frank Butler, spent touring the world with “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show. A circus-like troupe employing hundreds of people, Cody’s extravaganza featured real cowboys, authentic Indians, stampeding bison, bucking broncos, runaway stagecoaches, and, of course, the legendary sharpshooter, Annie Oakley.
Annie was always the first act following the opening Grand Review, awing audiences with a number of “trick” shots: shooting an apple off her pet dog’s head, shooting over her shoulder by using the blade of a Bowie knife as a mirror, shooting while standing on the back of a galloping horse, shooting double targets while riding a bicycle, shooting flames off candles as they rotated on a wheel, shooting a dime out of Frank’s fingers, and individually shattering six thrown glass balls in the air before they hit the ground — to mention only a few of her varied, stupendous shooting feats.
Cody was constantly adding new attractions to his Wild West Show, one of which was the Lakota Indian chief, Sitting Bull, who toured for four months during the summer of 1885. After watching Annie’s amazing performance, he nicknamed her “Little Sure Shot,” then presented her with several flint-tipped wooden arrows. Today, several of those arrows are on display at the Garst Museum.
An interesting side note concerning Sitting Bull is that it was he and his warriors, just nine years earlier, who had wiped out General George A. Custer and the soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment at the Little Big Horn in 1876. As a result, Sitting Bull was often hissed at and booed by audiences when he was introduced during Wild West performances. Of Sitting Bull, Cody remembered:
“He never did more than appear on horseback at any performance and always refused to talk English, even if he could. At Philadelphia, a man asked him if he had no regret at killing Custer and so many whites. He replied, ‘I have answered to my people for the Indians slain in the fight. The chief that sent Custer must answer to his people.’ That is the only smart thing I ever heard him say.”
Annie Oakley died in Greenville at age 66, followed just 18 days later by her husband, Frank, they say of a broken heart. The couple is buried side by side at the small Brock Cemetery a few miles north of Greenville. Still today, visitors place coins atop their tombstones, remembering the many pennies, nickels, and dimes Annie shot from Frank’s hand, thrilling millions of spectators throughout both North America and Europe.
The Gathering at Garst
Each summer during the last weekend in July, the Garst Museum and the town of Greenville celebrate not only Annie Oakley but other famous Darke County people and historical events — for instance, native son, author, and radio personality Lowell Thomas (1892–1981) and the signing of the 1795 Treaty of Greenville between the fledgling United States and Native American tribes. Also part of the weekend is a living-history encampment, where early-American reenactors demonstrate firing not only period muzzleloading rifles but also cannons! Come join thousands of others and enjoy vendors, excellent food, craft beers, and great outdoor entertainment.