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Greenville celebrates Annie Oakley with a bang, bang: Ohio’s Tiny Towns

July 15, 2018

Greenville celebrates Annie Oakley with a bang, bang: Ohio’s Tiny Towns

GREENVILLE, Ohio – Annie Oakley’s statue looks over the southwestern Ohio working class town she called home more than a century ago and today where teen-aged girls compete in sharpshooting contests in a festival that has been held for 55 years.

The Annie Oakley Festival is just one of two festivals on the weekend of July 27 through 29 to honor the town’s legacy. The other is the more sedate Gathering at the Garst, on the grounds of Darke County’s Garst Museum on North Broadway, which focuses on the history of Greenville and its role in opening up the American Midwest for settlement. 

And while the festivals draw tens of thousands of visitors every year, those who come also discover beautiful parks, a museum of Ohio history and a tiny restaurant that makes a unique sandwich.

The Oakley festival begins July 24 with practice for the Miss Annie Oakley shooting competition. Young women, ages 14 to 19, dress in costumes of the day and compete for the title of Miss Annie Oakley, shooting BB rifles at balloons. 

This year, after a parade down Broadway, an historical marker will be placed at the house at 225 E. Third St., where Annie Oakley was visiting when she died of “pernicious anemia.” Historians believe she actually died of lead poisoning from a lifetime of handling ammunition in hundreds of skill shooting performances.

July 28 and 29, there will be free bus trips to Annie Oakley’s birthplace, childhood home and her grave, located a few miles outside the city, and other important Annie Oakley sites. 

Gathering at the Garst

The Gathering at the Garst focuses more on Greenville’s history, including reenactments of the signing of the “Treaty of Greene Ville” in 1795 by General “Mad” Anthony Way and the leaders of 12 Native American tribes.

Later, Fort Green Ville closed and gave way to the modern community. The land that once housed the fort is now downtown Greenville.

The treaty assured the Native Americans their own land and assured settlers that it was safe to settle the Midwest. But the museum also has a display that shows how that treaty and others were later broken by the American government.

Eileen Litchfield, president of the Annie Oakley Foundation, said officials have discussed combining the two festivals. 

But, she said: “We offer very different events at each festival.They are not really in competition.”

A quiet town

Greenville Police Lt. Eric Roberts said the city is relatively quiet. There has not been a homicide there for eight years.

In 2016, there were 12,836 residents in the city that measures 6.6 square miles.  The population is mostly white with a small number of African-American residents, some whose ancestors fought in the Civil War and were given land grants for their service. There are also few Amish families in and around the city.

Located near Dayton and 239 miles south of Cleveland, Greenville is a peaceful town with a thriving Main Street and a love of its local sports teams, which does not prevent people from joking about them.

“If there is ever a tornado warning here people rush to the high school football field,” deadpanned Roberts. “There hasn’t been a touchdown there in years.” 

Annie Oakley, favorite daughter

Annie Oakley was born in Darke County, just outside of town, and died while visiting relatives in Greenville, the city she called home.

Before her death in 1926, Oakley traveled the world as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show with her husband and fellow sharpshooter, Frank Butler. She met kings and queens and royalty of many nations, but she never forgot Greenville, and the city has never forgotten her.

Annie only stood five feet tall, but her memory casts a giant shadow to this day. Her statue, with rifle in hand, welcomes visitors and her presence is nearly everywhere.

In 1860 she was born Phoebe Ann Moses, or Mosey depending on which relative or expert you talk to. Her grave in the Burke Cemetery north of town attracts thousands of visitors each year. Her husband, who died just weeks after his wife, is buried beside her.

Oakley has an entire wing of the Garst Museum full of memorabilia including a kinetoscope created in 1894 of her shooting demonstration created by by fellow Ohioan Thomas Edison. It was the second kinetoscope, the forerunner of the motion picture, ever created. Admission to the museum is free.

Bear’s Mill

Another thing to see in the area is Bear’s Mill, a working, water-powered, grist mill that was built in 1849 at 6450 Arcanum Bears Mill Road in Greenville Township, just east of downtown. Annie Oakley’s father, Jacob, died in 1866 while trying to make it back home from getting winter supplies at the mill. Today, the mill features demonstrations, an art gallery and presentations by people wearing traditional garb.

Quick draw artist

Everyone in Greenville knows that no one is faster on the draw than Harry Ballengee, even at the age of 82.

Ballengee is a quick draw artist who will demonstrate his skill as he competes with other fast guns from around the country at the Annie Oakley Festival.

How fast is he?

“I’ve been clocked at one-third of second,” he said. “I’m fast, but not the fastest. There is a guy who pulls at one-fourth of a second. I’ve won my share of competitions though. There will be about 20 of us at the festival, we’re always competing against one another.”

He shoots a modified Ruger .357 Blackhawk that fires wax bullets.

Ballengee grew up watching westerns on television -- “Gunsmoke,” “Hopalong Cassidy” -- he draws like they did, western style. 

“We have to hit a target of course, and are penalized if we miss it no matter how fast we draw,” he said. “We have a measuring device that records the speed of our draw to the thousandth of a second.”

Ballengee has been shooting professionally for 45 years, more than half his life, and he’s good at it.

He said he has no desire to shoot anyone, but he feels like he was born more than a century too late.

“I think I would have enjoyed life way back then,” he mused. “But I would really miss electricity.”

KitchenAid sale

KitchenAid is a major force in the city. With 1,300 workers, the factory east of downtown is the city’s biggest employer. During festival weekend, downtown turns into a giant sidewalk sale, with the KitchenAid Appliance store leading the way.

People line up the day before outside the store, the only KitchenAid store in the world, for gifts, prizes and heavy discounts. They can also see the KitchenAid museum in the basement. It includes the first mixer ever sold by KitchenAid (then Hobart) in 1924. They expect more than 30,000 shoppers over the weekend.

Maid-Rite, a unique treat

Don’t let the thousands of pieces of chewed gum on the side of the  Maid-Rite Sandwich Shop throw you off.

The restaurant, 125 N. Broadway, which opened in 1934, serves a unique sandwich. It is made of finely ground beef from locally produced beef and is prepared with a carefully guarded recipe of herbs. It is served with pickles, mustard and cheese for $2.05. Add ham for a Big Jim.

The menu does not go much beyond that. The only other sandwiches offered are a ham and cheese, chicken salad and egg salad sandwiches.

Not that they need much else. The sandwich is so popular that the restaurant is almost always full and there is a line of cars at the drive-thru window.

“I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid,” said Cheryl Clouse, 70, of Ansonia. “We didn’t have much money, but my dad would stop here and buy all four of the kids Maid-Rites, he could afford that.”

And the gum on the wall? 

Part-owner Steve Canter said no one is quite sure why or how it started.

“We know it started in the early forties, after that people just kept on doing it,” he said. “I scrape it off now and then, no one seems to notice.”

If You Go:

The Annie Oakley and the Gathering at the Garst festivals take place July 27, 28 and 29 in Greenville, located 33 miles north of Dayton. Both are free.

The Annie Oakley Festival is at the at the Darke County Fairgrounds. The Gathering at the Garst is at the Garst Museum in downtown Greenville.

The Oakley festival will feature horse riding, shooting contests, bullwhip demonstrations and numerous food and souvenir vendors.

The Garst festival will have historic reenactments and Native Americans demonstrating their ancient and modern foods, music and culture. It will have an art exhibit and contest and also feature live bands.

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