When the venue is appropriate to do so, I often open my author and artist biographies with the following: “As a child on the farm of my maternal grandparents in Southern Ohio, and while carted around on the shoulders of my teenage uncles, or on the broad tall backs of our horses, my view of life began atop those high places. From those lofty vantage points, the fairytale landscape and the storybook yarns spun by the hill people there impressed my mind's eye and ear so indelibly that they emerged over the years as images in my artwork, and as the bedrocks of my last three books.”
Looking up to it from the main highway far below, the farmhouse, shielded in white clapboards and silver metal roof, seems to float high on dewy air, harbored in make-believe. Arrive down its long and winding lane, and sit on its creaky front porch swing, only then do you see the source of its magic, for it hovers on the southern rim of the star-wound crater in which the world-famous Great Serpent Mound lies, a mythical place, whose stories reach back millennia, and can never be known by mortal beings. A place like that weaves into a person’s soul and doesn’t let go. It becomes its very fabric, textured by its plantlife, its animals, and its people. Near and not quite so near, fabled persons populated comparable, as well as varied, Ohio backdrops, individuals such as inventors Thomas Edison and Orville and Wilbur Wright; astronauts Neil Armstrong and John Glenn; actors Roy Rogers, Clark Gable, Doris Day, Dean Martin, Paul Newman; singers Nancy Wilson and John Legend to name a few—and oh yes, more presidents of the United States than from any other state in the union. And lest I forget, sharp- and exhibition-shooter Annie Oakley.
In addition to our both being Ohio-girls, Annie and I were born on the same day of the same month, today’s date, as a matter of fact, although she preceded me by well over three quarters of a century. Farm life shaped both of us, me to a far less degree than it did Annie, because my everyday tenure on the farm was interrupted in my toddlerhood when my parents and I moved to Columbus. Thereafter, weekends and summer vacations found me back on the farm, decidedly citified and a bit awkward in my former sanctuary.
Annie’s was a back-and-forth girlhood, too, but as dissimilar to mine as it could be. The sixth-born of her parent’s nine children, she and her family were thrust into deep poverty upon her father’s death when she was six years old. By the age of seven, Annie was trapping, and by eight, shooting and hunting, and bringing food to the table of her siblings and widowed mother. She was a budding entrepreneur even at that young age, for she sold her excess kills to nearby locals and shopkeepers, one of whom shipped it to hotels in Cincinnati and other cities. Not to be outdone, she undertook to sell her game personally to regional restaurants and hotels. Her “sharp-shooter” days had begun.
Having been too impoverished even to attend school, three years after the death of her father, Annie was admitted to the care of the superintendent and his wife of the Darke County Infirmary, where she learned to sew and decorate. At a later date, she was “bound out” to a local family to care for their infant son, a position whose promise of fifty cents per week in wages and an education never materialized. Her two-years of near slavery to them comprised cruel physical and mental abuse. At age 12, she ran away, found herself a much more benevolent situation, and by age 15 was back living with her mother again. Despite having married for a third time, apparently her mother was never able to outgrow her dependency on Annie, an obligation Annie shouldered willingly. By the age of 15, Annie was able to pay off the mortgage on her mother’s house with the money she earned by way of her unparalleled skill at shooting guns. By then she had won shooting contests and met traveling show marksman Frank E. Butler, the man who became her husband, partner, manager, and mentor for the rest of her life.
Remaining childless, together Annie and Frank, accompanied by their adopted dog, became headliners, five-foot-tall and comely Annie as America’s first female star, appearing in such venues as “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show,” and in Europe at the “Paris Exposition of 1889,” and in the United Kingdom before Queen Victoria, as well as crowned heads of state in Italy and France. Supposedly, upon his request, she shot the ash off a cigarette held in the mouth of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, a feat she regularly performed with her husband in their shows.
Ill health as a result of a train accident, and then again a car accident in later years, Annie slowed the pace and the face of her career, appearing on stage in shows written for her. Legal battles against libelous lies about her took up much of her time and energy as time passed, but she continued to perform and to set shooting records well into her sixties, nearly to the very date of her death on November 3, 1926. By then Frank and Annie had been together for just over 50 years. So grieved by her death was he that Frank stopped eating and died 18 days later. It was discovered that throughout her life, Annie had donated all her fortune to her family and various charities.
“Aim at the high mark and you will hit it. No, not the first time, not the second time 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 bull’s-eye of success.” Annie Oakley, scribed at the exhibit at the “National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas.”
From the porch swing of our family’s farmhouse, I often saluted Annie Oakley. It was as if her spirit hung high in the air above our Appalachian hills that formed the backdrop of our enormous Serpent Mound Crater, a spirit urging me on, willing me, a fellow Ohioan, to never give up.
Author and artist Linda Lee Greene is on social mediaat the following:
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/lindaleegreene
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