Deer announces final show at festival


By Gery Deer

For the last 20 years, I have had the honor of leading a performing troupe of authentic Wild West arts practitioners in the American Western Arts Showcase during the Annie Oakley Festival in Greenville, Ohio. Every year, whip handlers, knife throwers, trick ropers, and even shooters have gathered to compete, perform, and share our skills to the delight of crowds from all over the country. Of all the things I’ve learned from my time producing this event, my favorite part has been getting to know Annie Oakley, one of the most famous female performers in American history.

Anyone who studies women’s rights should really learn everything they can about Annie Oakley. In short, she was ahead of her time. Most people know Annie was a skilled markswoman with a rifle, a Wild West show performer, and a savvy businesswoman. But she was also the first American woman to brand herself and protect and defend her public image. To truly appreciate how special she was, it’s important to understand the difficult life she lived before.

Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses on August 13, 1860, just a few miles north of the city of Greenville, in Darke County, Ohio. At age 6, her father died, leaving the family impoverished. Her mother was forced to move the family to a rented farm. Later, when a sister died of tuberculosis, she and her siblings were separated, and Annie was moved to the county infirmary. Annie eventually ended up with a terribly abusive family where she struggled through her early teenage years in what she likened to slavery.

Annie learned to shoot at the age of eight, a skill she later used to earn money and goods by trading with local merchants. Discovered at a Cincinnati shooting contest by her future husband, Frank Butler, Annie experienced unprecedented global fame as a performing markswomanship. She joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885 and traveled the world with them until her retirement following a train accident in 1901.

Annie spent her later years at the New Jersey shore with her husband. She occasionally attended public shooting events for charity and was also a vocal and active advocate for women’s rights to hold paid work, equal pay, play sports, and practice self-defense.

In 1908, her public image was devastated by an article published by William Randolph Hearst in the Chicago Tribune claiming she had been imprisoned for stealing to support a cocaine habit. Dozens of newspapers nationwide carried the story which was, it goes without saying, a complete lie.

With Hearst refusing to retract the story, Annie would not stand for such defamation and sued all 55 newspapers who printed it for libel in the largest suit of its kind in U.S. history.

She won all but one case because that defendant cited the newswire as the “trusted resource,” indemnifying the paper. Her victory still resonates through libel law today.

After traveling the globe and performing for the crowned heads of Europe, Annie Oakley died in 1926 in a small house in Greenville, only a few miles from where she was born. Her husband of 50 years, Frank Butler passed just eight days later. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 for her charitable support of women’s causes. She was, and is, an inspiration to people all around the world.

I am fortunate to have met members of Annie’s family, studied her professionalism and showmanship, and performed in modern Wild West shows, albeit with a bullwhip instead of a rifle. No matter how tough things get, her most famous quote inspires me to keep trying. “Aim at a high mark and you will hit it. No, not the first time, nor the second, and maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting for only practice will make you perfect. Finally, you’ll hit the bullseye of success.”

After two decades, 2023 will mark the final season for our showcase performance at the festival that has honored Annie Oakley for 60 years. It’s been an honor and I will greatly miss it. But, no matter what I do, however, Annie’s wisdom and fortitude will always be with me.

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