The Annie Oakley Center at the Garst Museum in Greenville tells the story of “Little Miss Sure Shot,” the world-renowned sharpshooter from Darke County.
“She’s real, she’s a down-to-earth person,” said Dr. Clay Johnson, executive director of the Garst Museum. “Even though she was an international superstar, she was really deeply rooted to the values of small town America and I think so many people can still relate to that today.”
Born Phoebe Anne Mosey just north of Greenville in 1860, Oakley’s early life took a tragic twist after her father died, leaving a desperate widow with seven children.
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Out of necessity, Oakley picked up her father’s old muzzle loader when she was 8 years old to provide food for the family. She was such a good shot, she could put a bullet through a small animal’s head to preserve the meat.
Despite her best efforts to help her family, she was sent to a county home at age 10 and then hired out to an abusive family. She escaped two years later and reunited with her family.
Honing her shooting skills, Annie sold game and birds she shot to area stores and restaurants, earning a reputation for her skills. A Cincinnati hotel keeper arranged a shooting contest between Oakley and Frank Butler, a professional exhibition shooter. Annie was just 15 and Butler was 25.
The rules were simple. Twenty-five birds would be released, and whoever shot the most would be the winner. Butler shot 24 of the 25 birds, but Oakley triumphed, shooting all 25. She won the contest and Butler’s heart. The two married a year later and began a life performing together in stage shows and circuses.
Artifacts at The Annie Oakley Center illuminate the personal and professional life of Oakley, who would become a trailblazer for women.
“We try and take the myth out of the woman as much as possible in the exhibit and just show what she was really like,” said Brenda Arnett, who has worked at the museum for 14 years.
Eight of the rifles Oakley used during her career are displayed, including a shotgun that weighs only six pounds and was custom made to the proportions of her body by British gun maker Charles Lancaster.
Black-and-white film footage captures Butler quickly tossing targets into the air as Annie skillfully shoots each one in rapid fire succession.
Cindy Aukerman of Union City, Ind., recently visited the museum with her great-niece, 11-year-old Alexis Stump. “I want her to know she wasn’t a cartoon figure, she was a strong woman,” said Aukerman. “We talked about how Annie made her own way at a time when there weren’t a lot of options for women.”
“I think she’s a role model for lots of people because back then women would just cook and clean while the men did all the shooting,” said Stump, as she compared her own height to a life-sized cutout of Oakley.
Bill Cody, owner of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, heard of the 24-year-old’s shooting skills and offered Oakley a contract to become part of his traveling show.
She performed in the United States and in Europe in front of royalty and heads of state during her 17 years with the Wild West Show.
In 1900, she came home to Greenville for a performance. A loving cup, presented to Annie at the show and inscribed “To Miss Annie Oakley, from her old home town friends, Greenville, Ohio July 25, 1900,” has a place of prominence within the exhibit.
Annie became friends with Sitting Bull, the Indian leader who defeated Gen. George Armstrong Custer at the Battle at Little Big Horn. The famous chief is credited with giving Annie her moniker, “Watanya Cicilia,” Lakota for “Little Sure Shot.”
Sitting Bull later joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the gifts he gave Annie — ceremonial war clubs, a silver spoon from Custer’s battlefield, and grooved and painted willow arrows — are showcased at the museum.
“During that time period, women who were associated with the wild west were essentially portrayed as very rough and tumble and free and easy with their virtue,” Arnett said. “She was the complete opposite.”
Oakley liked fine things and was a proper Victorian woman in her private life, Arnett said. The beautiful tableware, china and lace she used in her daily life are displayed in cases, as are some of the necklaces and monogrammed broaches she wore. A silk dressing gown designed with roses and leaves that Butler gave to her in 1915, hints at a loving marriage.
After retiring from the Wild West Show, the couple gave shooting exhibitions and made charity appearances. They adopted an English setter named Dave and a photograph of the couple, posing with their pet, is on display.
The dog had nerves of steel and became part of an act to raise money for the Red Cross during World War I. He sat like a statue on top of stool while Oakley took aim and shot an apple off his head.
The couple was heartbroken when Dave was hit by a car and killed. The dog collar he wore is part of the collection. “When I first saw it, I cried,” said Arnett.
Oakley died in Greenville on Nov. 3, 1926. Frank died 18 days later. The couple is buried in Brock Cemetery, 12 miles north of town.
“Darke County is a small county population wise,” said Dr. Johnson, “and to have someone of such grandeur and success is a wonderful symbol of our county. We are very much proud of her.”