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.
Even at the end of her career, she skipped on and off stage like a child, only the sharpshooting medals pinned to her bodice betraying just how good she was. Frank knew that the contrast between tiny Annie and her amazing skills made a great act. Audiences loved her from the start.
Annie took her stage name, Oakley, from a town she and Frank passed through on a tour. From then on, she was Annie Oakley in public, Mrs. Frank Butler in private. It was a life of one-night stands in isolated towns, an endless season of trains and tents, mud and rain, hotels and trunks -- but they were building the act.
Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show
Annie and Frank were on the circuit for several years before they hooked up with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and Indian Congress in 1885. William F. Cody was a Western legend. He was a buffalo hunter, scout, friend and foe to the Indian and finally, and perhaps most fittingly, master showman.
Buffalo Bill was one of those uniquely American, larger-than-life characters. His frontier exploits had been made famous back east by the lurid and highly exaggerated stories in Ned Buntline's dime novels. So, when Cody went into show business, his fame assured big audiences.
In partnership with another showman, Nate Salsbury, Cody created a production combining elements of the European circus, spectacular theatrics and the rodeo.
Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, subtitled "America's National Entertainment," was a boisterous cavalcade of trick riding, sharpshooting, stagecoach robberies, cowboy-and-Indian battles and other acts of high melodrama. Most of the cast were authentic cowboys; the Native Americans were members of the Pawnee and Sioux tribes. At one time or another the participants included Rough Riders, Russian Cossacks and South American gauchos.
The audience also got to see trained horses and cattle, the Deadwood Stagecoach, Indian villages, settlers' cabins and a large brass band. While it was not historically accurate, and was politically incorrect by today's standards, the Wild West Show was great theater. "He has out-Barnumed Barnum!" one critic raved.
"There I was," Annie recalled in her memoirs, "facing the real Wild West, the first white woman to travel with what society might have considered an impossible outfit. . . . The travel and early parades were hard, but I was happy. A crowned queen was never treated with more reverence than I was by those whole-souled cowboys . . . for 17 long years, I was just their little sister, sharing both their news of joy and sorrow from home."
From now on, her companions would bear such names as Long John, Pawnee Bill, the Cowboy Kid, "King of the Cowboys" Buck Taylor . . . and Sitting Bull.
Little Sure Shot
It says something for Annie's skills, both professional and social, that Sitting Bull adopted her as his daughter when he joined the Wild West Show. His friendship was an honor that Annie took to heart. "[Sitting Bull] fought justly, for his people had been driven from their God-given inheritance and were living on broken promises. . . . He asked me to take the place of the daughter he had lost in the Custer massacre," she wrote. "He always called me Machin Chilla Mytonya Cecelia, meaning 'my daughter, Little Sure Shot.' "
All the Crowned Heads Of Europe
Several times, Buffalo Bill packed up his troupe, Deadwood Stagecoach and all, and took the Wild West Show to Europe. Annie found herself taking tea with Queen Victoria and shooting with the Prince of Wales. She was presented to the kings of Denmark, Greece and Saxony, as well as the Russian czar. She also met with "princesses, dukes, duchesses, lords and ladies, too," she noted in her memoirs, which were serialized in newspapers.
Annie even received a marriage proposal from a stranger, who called himself her Darling Ducky, and enclosed his photograph with the proposition. In a rare display of pique, Annie shot a hole through his forehead and returned the photo marked "respectfully declined."
In Germany she was dared to shoot a cigarette from the lips of Kaiser Wilhelm. "Had I known then what I know now," she recalled dryly during World War I, "I might have slipped."
A Temporary Retirement
With her amazing skill at stunt shooting, Annie continued to be a leading attraction of the Wild West Show. In 1892, she and Frank, seeking some semblance of domesticity, bought a house in Nutley, N.J. It was the place they returned to between tours and where they attempted retirement after they left Buffalo Bill in 1902. (Supposedly, they had a falling out with the showman.)
Soon, though, the Butlers were back on the road again, with Annie performing and eventually joining another show.
Why did they give up on retirement so quickly?
In addition to their show earnings, Annie had brought in extra cash by endorsing firearms and ammunition, and she competed for good purses in shooting matches. But the money went; Annie continued to send support to her family back in Ohio, and the couple contributed to the care of Frank's two children from a previous marriage.
But maybe it wasn't just money concerns that made them climb the stage again. Perhaps, too, Annie and Frank missed the applause. The stage had been their real home for many years.
They sold the Nutley home in 1904. Annie again gave shooting exhibitions and eventually joined another traveling show. But by the time the Butlers reached Cambridge in 1911, Frank was in his 60s and Annie in her 50s. This time they thought they were really ready to settle down. They bought land, had built a house and took up residence in 1913.
Miss Elizabeth Remembers
"People think she was this big, noisy cowgirl, like that woman in the musical ['Annie Get Your Gun'], but she wasn't," Elizabeth Phillips recalls. "She was very tiny, only about 5 feet tall, and very soft-spoken, not a bit loud and brassy like people think she was. If you met her, you'd never think she was anyone famous."
Now 91, the Cambridge native, addressed by everyone as Miss Elizabeth, is one of the few surviving Cambridge residents who knew Annie and Frank.
"I was just a little girl when my mother took me to see the Wild West Show," recalls Miss Elizabeth, sitting in the parlor of the rambling white frame house that has been in her family for ages. "It was something to see! She rode into the ring, and she was so tiny!" Miss Elizabeth's blue eyes sparkle. "Everyone went, you know. That was a big, exciting thing for us. They were here one or two nights, and my mother took my sister and I." She smiles at the memory, all these years later. She leans closer, confiding a secret. "She wore a wig, you know. She'd gone gray overnight, after a train accident, but she wore a wig when she performed."
The Butlers bought 5 acres on Hambrooks Bay off the Choptank River and built a small bungalow-style house. The view across the water is as beautiful today as it was when Frank and Annie sat on their front porch catching the cool breezes on hot summer days.
From a wide, deep dormer window in the master bedroom overlooking the bay, Annie is said to have shot waterfowl for the table. "She is such a clean shot," reported a local newspaper, "that Mrs. Butler is able to take her ducks down with a single shot through the eye."
The local papers of the day often mentioned the Butlers' comings and goings in Cambridge. They socialized with the local gentry and hunted waterfowl with the rich city people who owned hunting properties in Dorchester County.
Frank sometimes contributed his rather mawkish poetry to the newspapers' columns, extolling the virtues of friendship, dogs and clean living.
Miss Elizabeth's late sister, Miss Jean, took piano lessons from one of Annie's nieces, who had come to stay with the couple one summer. Going to one of her lessons, Miss Jean brought Miss Elizabeth along for her first visit with the Butlers.
"Annie picked me up and carried me around her house, showing me everything," Miss Elizabeth says. "Everything" included autographed photos of Annie with the rich and famous, her extensive collection of Wild West Show memorabilia and her trophies and medals. Annie was always particularly proud of these, and displayed them with her rifles and guns in the living room, on shelves she had built especially to house them.
"Of course," Miss Elizabeth says, "in the First World War, she had all her medals and trophies melted down for the war effort." She treasures her own memorabilia of Annie. Carefully she spreads photographs and old-fashioned greeting cards on the table. They were sent by Annie, on her travels, to a little Cambridge girl many years ago. Annie always loved children.
"And they had a dog, Dave," Miss Elizabeth remembers. "He was named after a friend of theirs who was part of a vaudeville team. They loved that dog. They had another dog, but he was run over by a car. So they found Dave here in Cambridge. He was a springer spaniel. He was a part of their act, but they treated him like he was their child." In her photograph of Annie, Frank and Dave, taken late in the Butlers' life, Annie and Frank are hovering over Dave, looking down at him like the proud parents of a smart child.
Collecting Annie's History
"No two photos of her look the same," says Jean Del Sordo, director of the Dorchester County Public Library, who has made a study of Annie. "It's as if she was a different person every time she was photographed."
It's true; in every photograph that Ms. Del Sordo displays, Annie Oakley looks different. A serious, dark-eyed girl with a guarded expression, she cannot be called beautiful, but she was pretty, with fine bones, long dark hair and a broad, rather sensuous mouth.
As the photos begin to show an older woman, the guarded expression never quite leaves her eyes. Jean Del Sordo points out, "She almost never smiles. By all accounts, she was a very private person who only confided her deepest feelings to those closest to her, like Frank -- or her dogs."
Later, over dinner at the Victorian house they have restored on an old residential street, Jean and her husband, Steve, a historian, talk about Cambridge, about the plans for the Annie Oakley Riverside Jamboree that will celebrate the woman and the town this month. "But you need to see Annie's house!" they say. "You need to talk to Mark Resnick! The Resnicks bought Annie's house, and Mark's the one who's really been instrumental in planning the jamboree."
The Oakley-Butler House
When Dr. and Mrs. Mark Resnick bought the Oakley-Butler house in 1982, they were aware that it had been built by Annie and Frank. The shelves where Annie displayed her trophies, memorabilia and medals were still there, in spite of remodeling by subsequent owners.
Shortly after the couple moved in, Mark, 42, spotted a tiny corner of paper between the shelf molding and the wall. Using a hemostat to extract it, he discovered five letters and some photographs belonging to Frank and Annie that had lain there unnoticed for more than half a century.
"We'd bought the house for the location and because Annie Oakley had lived here," Mark says. "When I found these, I felt a connection with the Butlers." He has hung a large framed display of the letters and photographs in the front hall.
Some of the correspondence is from Frank, concerning the impending sale of the house in 1916 and 1917. "The party that is buying it will have one of the best built houses in Cambridge," he wrote his lawyer from the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark, N.J. The Butlers also expressed concern that their servant, George Widdoes, continue to have employment with the home's next owner.
Widdoes, Mark explains, was their driver and general factotum. He was the one who rowed out after those ducks Annie shot from the bedroom window.
Mark has become an Annie Oakley enthusiast; he has studied the biographies and the newspaper clips. The Resnicks even made the trip to Greenville, Ohio, to the Annie Oakley Museum. "Two years ago," Mark says proudly, "Annie's niece and great-niece came to visit. They wanted to see the house again, and share their memories with us."
This contact with the past inspired the Resnicks to undertake a ** restoration of the house -- to return it to the way it looked when the Butlers built it. "It's become a mission," says Mark as he gives a visitor a brief tour of the first floor one recent Saturday morning. Upstairs, Jeanette Resnick, 41, and the couple's children, Erin, 12, and Ryan, 17, are going through the usual Saturday-morning rituals of returning from one sports activity and preparing to depart for another.
It's a comfortable home; Annie and Frank designed it for living. "They used seaweed and newspaper for insulation," Mark points out. "It's very warm in the winter."
The house is very much in the middle-class style of the first 40 years of the 20th century. There's a fireplace in the living room, and a small kitchen, dining room and den, all of which have undergone many changes over the years, and are now being restored. The Resnicks also have begun the process of having the house put on the National Register of Historic Places.
"We're going to open the house to the public for the jamboree," Mark explains as the family's bichon frise romps about his feet. "Let people see where Annie lived."
Mark, a podiatrist, is active in the community in many different organizations, but the library-sponsored jamboree -- Oct. 13-15 -- is particularly close to his heart. Proceeds will benefit the Children's Department of the Dorchester County Public Library, the James Buswick Tennis Courts for the City of Cambridge and the Research Divison of the Juvenile Diabetes Society, he says.
"We're going to have a golf tournament, a play commissioned just for the jamboree, a children's fair, a fashion show, an auction, Civil War re-enactors and a whole lot more," he promises. A number of the events will be held in the town's new Sailwinds Park. (For a partial schedule, see the accompanying box.)
"It's going to be a lot of fun," Mark says as the tour ends. "We really hope people will come for the Shore as much as for Annie."
Why'd They Leave?
After walking through the streets where the Butlers walked early this century, after seeing some of the same views that they saw, after standing in the house that they called home, one is left with a question: Why did Annie and Frank move away so soon?
They had traveled quite a bit while living in Cambridge, putting on shooting exhibitions here and there. According to the book "The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley" by Glenda Riley (University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), while Frank seemed to enjoy retirement, Annie found it difficult to settle down. "I went all to pieces under the care of a home," she is quoted as saying.
In 1917, they sold their Cambridge home and moved to the resort city of Pinehurst, N.C., one of the places they had visited in their travels.
"They'd traveled for so many years, they got tired of living in one place. That's what I always heard," says Miss Elizabeth.
In Pinehurst, they took a job at a large resort hotel, where, for several years, they taught shooting to the wealthy guests who were willing to pay, and pay well, for the privilege of learning to shoot from the famous Little Sure Shot.
Annie died in Ohio on Nov. 3, 1926; Frank followed her just 18 days later. They are buried together in the Moses family plot in Ohio. But the legend lives on.
HELEN CHAPPELL is a free-lance writer living in Easton.
Aiming to Celebrate Annie
The Annie Oakley Riverside Jamboree takes place the weekend of Oct. 13-15 in Cambridge, Dorchester County. Sponsored by the Dorchester County Public Library, the jamboree features a wide variety of activities at a number of sites in the town. Opening hours are 9 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday. There is no definite closing time but each day's activities are expected to end around 8 p.m. Some events are free; others have an admission charge. Call the library at (410) 228-7331 for more information.
Following is a partial schedule of jamboree events:
noon to 5 p.m.: Half-hour tours of the Annie Oakley House.
1 p.m.: Two-hour skipjack cruise, Long Wharf Park.
p.m.: Tethered hot-air balloon rides, Great Marsh Park.
10 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Dorchester YMCA Children's Fair.
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.: Native American artists, Sailwinds Park.
1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.: Welcome ceremony for Annie Oakley's family, Sailwinds Park.
3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.: Folk singer Ray Owens, Great Marsh Park.
7 p.m. to 8 p.m.: Play: "Annie Oakley's Secret Hideaway," Great Marsh Park.
noon to 5 p.m.: Crafts, food festival, displays, Sailwinds Park.
1 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.: Reading by Annie Oakley literary prize winner, Great Marsh Park.
3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.: Annie Oakley fashion show and tea, Dorchester County Library.