The plaque below was originally installed at the foot of the
flagpole in front of the ATA Headquarters in Vandalia, Ohio.
The names inscribed are those whose leadership was
resposible for its construction in 1923.
A Grand Old Time in Vandalia
By Jim Morris
There will be a time, it is sad to think, that few people will remember or even know about the only regular world-wide sports championship held annually in the Dayton area.
Even today, just nine years after the final event in Vandalia, there is little or no trace that the Grand American Trapshooting Tournament was held on National Road from 1924-2005.
The Grand American, which began in 1900 in Queens, N.Y., attracted the top shooters and families from around the world. In later years, when you drove into Vandalia, you could hear the “pop, pop, pop” of the shotguns, like a giant popcorn popper. It was a carnival atmosphere with food and vendors and non-stop shooting for two weeks. Each night there were shootoffs under the lights in front of the grandstand to decide the day’s winners. And just about every night there was some form of entertainment. More than 10,000 people attended each year.
The buildings have been torn down now, the land has been cleared. The airport got its way. As the late airport director Blair Conrad once said, “My aim is to get rid of the ATA.”
And so when the last shot of the 2005 Grand American was taken, the Amateur Trapshooting Association packed up its traps and targets and headed for its new “permanent” home in Sparta, Illinois.
You’ll notice that word “permanent” is in quotes, because once and for a long time after that, Vandalia was called the “permanent home of the ATA.”
And what a grand home it was. In 1923 a group of Dayton businessmen found out the nomad ATA was looking for a home. They quickly put together a plan that not only lured the trapshooters to Dayton, but it thrilled them to do so. Because in less than a year, a fine two-story building was erected and spacious grounds of 62 acres with a line of 16 traps, all facing north, were created.
Dayton was chosen for many reasons: its central location; the hospitality shown in 1913 and 1914 when the NCR company went all out to host the 14th and 15th annual Grands, the former just months after the Great Flood of 1913 devastated a large part of the region, the enthusiasm of the civic leaders, the several large hotels in downtown Dayton, the rail line that took many trapshooters to and from Dayton each day, the ability to raise money and, of course, the beautiful grounds located on the National Road at “The Crossroads of America.”
Those leaders included some of the greatest men in Dayton history, men like Charles F. Kettering (automotive pioneer), Gov. James Cox (publishing), F.B. Patterson (NCR) and Col. Frank Huffman (Huffy).
When the first Grand American began in 1924, Fred Rike, owner of Rike’s Department Store in downtown Dayton, gave the speech welcoming the shooters. Elmer Shaner, considered the “father of organized trapshooting,” then spoke, praising Dayton and the work so many people had put in to create the wonderful shooting grounds.
And so year after year, shooters from all over the U.S. were joined by shooters from foreign countries, including many Canadians. They came by car, truck, train, plane, bus and motorhome to shoot and to watch some of the world’s best shooters. They stayed in hotels, motels, private homes, tourist homes, motorhomes and tents. And one famous shooter even slept under his car at night.
Several famous people either participated in or visited the Grand American when it was held in Vandalia.
In 1925 the Grand was probably most significant for the appearance of a person who probably didn’t shoot than it was for all the fine shooters in attendance. There is, to this day, some dispute on whether or not the famed Annie Oakley actually shot at the Grand.
Jimmy Robinson, later a nationally known outdoor writer, who was working as a statistician for the ATA at his third Grand American, always claimed Oakley did, in fact, participate, breaking 97 of 100. She is pictured in his 1974 book holding a shotgun with the caption saying she had shot on Sunday. One account went so far as to say that he, Robinson, talked her into shooting, even though she was 65 years old and wearing an iron leg brace as the result of a 1921 automobile accident.
Oakley’s biography at the Trapshooting Hall of Fame carries the following passage about the 1925 Grand: “Annie obliged some of her friends and shot a race, breaking 97x100.” This could have been based on Robinson’s account and, it is mentioned in his book, The Best of Jimmy Robinson, in a similar manner. Perhaps that’s where it came from. No list of scores from any of the pre-Grand or Grand events of 1925 lists her name. It has been suggested that if she did shoot, perhaps it was 100 practice targets.
Whether this story was embellished by Robinson through the years is open to conjecture. As photographer Marvin Christian pointed out after studying the photo in the 1974 book of her holding the gun, it was taken on the porch of the ATA clubhouse.
Chances are this “controversy” will never be settled. Did she shoot or just pose?
One of the highlights in Grand American history was the big parade in 1985. Movie stars Dub Taylor and Dale Robertson were asked to come to participate in a celebrity shoot, along with John Philip Sousa’s grandson, astronaut Deke Slayton and NRA executive secretary Ray Arnette.
Since that was the year John Philip Sousa was being inducted into the Hall of Fame, Christian, who was doing public relations work for the ATA as well, contacted the Marine Band to lead the parade.
“Since it was Sousa being honored, they did not hesitate for a moment. They came in and the only thing they asked from us was to provide lunch,” Christian recalled.
Perhaps most remembered, however, was the appearance of the stately Budweiser Clydesdales.
Although not there to entertain, an appearance by “King of the Cowboys” Roy Rogers at the 1959 Grand caused quite a stir. He was there to shoot and took part every day but one. The singing cowboy movie and television star was performing at the Ohio State Fair in Columbus each evening that same week, so he was driving to the Grand to shoot. An avid shooter, he broke a 199/200 in the Clay Target Championship that year. And on every trap he shot, large crowds gathered.
As much as Rogers enjoyed his 1959 Grand, he never returned, saying it wasn’t fair to the other shooters to cause such a distraction.
Other notables who visited the Grand through the years included General Norman Swartzkoff, sportscaster Curt Gowdy, writer Gritts Gresham, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, General Paul Tibbits and actor Charlton Heston, who was NRA president when he visited in 1999.
For many years, the Grand provided a great shooting exhibition for its participants and area visitors. In the early days it was the Topperweins, Ad and Plinky, who thrilled the audiences and later it was Herb Parsons, who toured the country for Winchester in the 1940s and ’50s.
“Herb Parsons was the greatest and I saw all of the great exhibition shooters,” said the late Hugh McKinley, former ATA executive director.
In the 1999 book, The Grand American, Parsons’ son, Lynn, is quoted as saying, “He always put on a show on the opening day of the Grand. That day was always marked on his schedule, year after year. He was going to be there on that day, no matter what. He always enjoyed shooting at the Grand.”
The ATA Hall of Fame
It took until 1969 before the sport’s Hall of Fame was opened. There was even a gala held at the Sheraton-Dayton Hotel for some 400 people. The Hall of Fame was housed in the west end of the ATA building until it closed in 2013 and moved to Sparta, Ill., the new home of the Grand American. Enshrined are the greatest trapshooters, including the familiar names of Oakley and Sousa.
While the founding fathers of the facility in Vandalia considered the National Road address to be permanent, there were other attempts made to relocate the Grand.
One such situation arose in 1967. Dayton Journal-Herald outdoor writer Jim Robey reported an attempt by delegates and politicians, including the governor, from Missouri to try to lure the ATA and the Grand to a location near Lake of the Ozarks, promoting it as the geographic center of the United States.
The late Ohio Gov. James Rhodes got wind of the effort, came to the ATA grounds in Vandalia and said: “We intend to keep the ATA right where it is. It’s a tradition in Ohio.
“There are plans to build a trapshooting museum and establish a shooters’ Hall of Fame at the ATA grounds … We are not going to let it go to another state,” Rhodes added.
Robey also reported ATA General Manager McKinley saying: “There’s a lot of tradition here about the Grand American. It has been here since 1924 and to move it would be like moving the Kentucky Derby from Churchill Downs.”
But, of course, that day eventually came. The ATA had, for several years, been restricted in its activities by airport security. When 9/11, 2001’s terrorist attack on the U.S. came, security became even tighter.
With the ATA being forced out of its “permanent” home, little support was offered by the state, county or city to keep the event in the area. With the governor of Illinois involved, the move to Sparta was debated and finally approved by the ATA directors. This time, there was no effort by Ohio’s governor to keep the multi-million dollar annual event in Dayton.
When a 14-year-old from Murfreesboro, Tenn. named Austin Hendrick took the last shot ever at the Grand, in 2005, trapshooting in Vandalia, after 81 years, was over.
State shoot also
had to move out
Many of the same shooters who attended the Grand American each August in Vandalia and many other Midwest shooters also came to the ATA homegrounds in June to take part in the Ohio State Trapshooting Tournament.
Many came because it was an opportunity shoot on the same traps as the Grand American and because it was the best shooting facility in the world. The Ohio shoot is one of the oldest shooting events, dating back to 1887. That means it is 13 years older than the Grand American.
Although Ohio’s state shoot is smaller than the Grand American, it served as a warm-up for the young people who worked the traps and scoring stations. And at the same time, there was economic impact in the area at restaurants, motels, grocery stores, etc. Not as much as the Grand, but still significant.
A Vandalia restaurant owner once said, “The Grand American and the Ohio state shoot are our Christmas season.”
From 1962 on, the state shoot was held at the ATA grounds in Vandalia, with the exception of 1981 when a dispute arose between the ATA and the OSTA over the price of targets and other matters, resulting in the OSTA pulling out of Vandalia and holding that year’s tournament in Middletown.
With the closing of the ATA homegrounds in 2005, the OSTA again looked at Middletown as, perhaps, its new home. But even with some added trap fields, the Middletown layout would have been difficult for an event as large as the state shoot.
With very few choices, the future didn’t look good for the OSTA. Then, at the last minute, Jack Fishburn entered the picture. He developed a piece of land he owned in Marengo, just north of Columbus. It included an old campground, which he totally refurbished. Now called the Cardinal Center, Fishburn has turned it into a showplace for trapshooting.
Ohio, like every state, has fostered many great shooters through the years. The greatest of the great are enshrined in the Ohio State Trapshooting Hall of Fame, which was established in 1990 and is now in Marengo.
excelled in Vandalia
With the number of great shooters from all over the world converging at Vandalia, “the crossroads of America,” each year the chances of Miami Valley shooters winning the top championships are remote. However, there were quite a few.
In fact, the very first Grand American Handicap event was won by Rollo “Pop” Heikes of Dayton. He won it not in Vandalia, but in Queens, N. Y. at the very first Grand American.
The first area shooter to win at the Grand in Vandalia was Charlie “Sparrow” Young of Springfield, who turned in the first perfect 100 in the Grand American Handicap.
In 1943 with shooting curtailed by the shortage of ammunition and gasoline (for transportation) during World War II, the Grand American Handicap was won by Jasper Rodgers of Dayton. Another top shooter that year was Joe Hiestand of Hillsboro, who shot in his Army uniform.
Raymond Williams of Eaton was a worker at the Grand who handled the scoreboard, but he was also a shooter. In 1953 he won the GAH. Nobody remembers if he put his own name on top of the scoreboard that day.
In 1956, Clarence W. Brown won the GAH and in 1969 the same title was accomplished by Bernard Bonn Jr., a Wright-Patterson Air Force Base engineer of Fairborn.
Richard “Pat” Neff of Xenia (and later Middletown) won the GAH with a perfect 100 in 1990. In 2004, Jeffrey Norris of Hillsboro was the champ.
A number of other shooters have excelled in some of the other top Grand events. Hiestand, a Hall of Famer and one of the sport’s greatest shooters, was a frequent winner of many events from the 1930s into the ’60s. Among them were four doubles, five clay target (singles), seven High Over All (1,000 targets during Grand Week) and four High All Around (400 championship event targets) titles.
Some of the other top area shooters who won major Grand titles were Hiram Bradley of Greenville, William Colwell of Dayton, Joe Devers of Dayton, Ralph W. Smith of Vandalia, Norbert Liette of St. Marys, and Hall of Fame members John Sternberger of Englewood, Lee Davidson of Tipp City and Dave Berlet from New Knoxville.