Ben Higgenson of New York

 

The funeral home was as old as he was. Rays from a hot August sun, resembling a shot string, pierced through a stained glass window and reflected off a Victorian sofa where three elderly women sat. Slowly, they came to pay tribute—three nurses from the Johnes Home, an old man with a walker, two ladies in their 80s and a dignified gentleman in his middle 60s. The service started five minutes late, as most seem to do. The elderly minister walked to the closed coffin, surveyed his audience, and read from a tattered Bible.

I had hoped it wouldn’t be a normal service, but it proved to be so—Bible verse after Bible verse with an occasional hymn and a few standing prayers—an impersonal funeral for a very exceptional man. No mention of his achievements through 99 years of life, no talk of his vast accomplishments with the shotgun, his skill with a fly rod and bait caster, his upland game hunting prowess or the excellent bird dogs he always owned. Lord, I thought, please make my service better than this one—at least more interesting.

Patiently, I waited for just a mention of some personal things about him, but they never came, and I realize why when we finished the 23rd Psalm. Those in attendance that summer morning were his casual friends and business acquaintances. Those who shot trap with him, fished and hunted with him, had long since had their funerals. When you pass on at 99, it’s a decided fact that few, if any, of your old hunting and fishing pals will be present for that final gathering. I was one of them, as was Judge Berry, who sat across the parlor from me. The poor minister really didn’t know anything about the man whose funeral he was preaching. The Judge and I did.

His name was Barclay Maynard Higginson. Everyone in Newburgh, NY, called him Maynard. Every trapshooter on the East Coast called him Ben. And those who shot at the prestigious New York Athletic Club in Pelham Manor, NY, from 1908 to 1974 knew you had to beat him to win.

I met him with my dad in 1947 at a Washington Birthday Shoot. He was 59 years old, and I was 10. About all I could handle in the way of a gun was a Remington Model 31 20-ga. with a solid rib, full-choke barrel, but what I lacked in a suitable trapgun, I made up for in the desire to shoot well someday.

Ben always had time to talk to me and give me pointers he thought my dad might have overlooked. When he went out to shoot, I stood behind him and watched every target. I carried his shell bag from trap to trap, held his gun while he cleaned his glasses, and was as happy as he was when he broke a good score.

He owned a successful contracting company, and poverty never knocked on his door. Every year, he would buy a new Cadillac and, before taking delivery, would insist the dealer keep the back seat. Ben needed the room for his bird-dog crates. He saw the need for a sports utility vehicle 50 year before one became available.

He shot in the same wool sweater, summer and winter, for almost 70 years. It may have gone to the dry cleaners once or twice, but it always looked pretty tattered. He wore it from 1908 to 1910 when he shot on the Harvard Trapshooting Team and just kept wearing it after graduation. Other than this old garment, he was always impeccably dressed and never without a necktie.

The New York Athletic Club was 10 miles from the heart of New York City, and trapshoots began there in the 1890s. It was a difficult place to shoot good scores as tricky winds played havoc with the targets thrown over the waters of Pelham Bay. Winning scores were most generally low, but it was the scene of the largest and most prestigious tournaments held in the East from 1906 to the early ‘60s. Its banner event of the year was the Amateur Clay Target Championships of America, held each May. If you were a serious trapshooter, you attended the big May shoot. And the big-name shooters came to compete for Tiffany sterling silver—trophies, and 24-carat Tiffany medals with diamonds went to the major winners.

Walter Beaver, Steve Crothers, Charlie Newcomb, Joe Hiestand, Fred Tomlin, Dan Orlich and a host of other future Trapshooting Hall-of-Famers shot in this tournament—some quite successfully, some quite poorly. Only one man won the singles at the Amateur Clay Target Championships of America three times—Barclay Maynard "Ben" Higginson.

There were few good days during the year to shoot at NYAC, but May 3, 1947, was one of them—a slight southwest breeze, temperatures in the low 50s and good visibility. It was about as perfect a day as you could expect on these grounds, and the 16-yard club championship was at stake, a 200-bird event.

Ben was in Squad 3, Position 2. I watched him break the first hundred with ease, shooting a used Ithaca 4E that he had bought a month before for $65. I was behind him during the second hundred, too, as he ran the first 50. Only 50 more to go for the first 200 straight ever in the 50-year history of the famous club. I knew this, and I was sure Ben did.

On his 169th target, the old Ithaca broke down. Ben turned to me and calmly said, "Dick, take this gun to Charlie Hardy [the club’s groundskeeper and gunsmith]. He’ll fix it. It’s happened before, and he’ll know what to do."

In less than five minutes, I was back on the field with the repaired Ithaca. Ben’s squad had finished and moved to the last trap, waiting for him.

Unruffled, he walked out alone and broke the seven remaining targets—175 straight—and on to the last 25 I was as nervous as a 10-year-old could be, watching that last round.

When he broke his 199th-straight target, something I’ve never seen again in 53 years of competitive trapshooting occurred. Oshin Agathon, Ben’s best friend, who was shooting ahead of him, ran over to congratulate Ben on his 200. He was followed by the leadoff man, and before long, the other two squad members were shaking hands with poor Ben who didn’t know what to think.

"Wait a minute, folks," Ben said. "We’ve all got another one to shoot." Sheepishly, the embarrassed squad members went back to their positions on the line.

When it came Ben’s turn for his 200th target, the bird came out broken. He called again. Another broken target. Then a slow pull. On his fourth call of "pull," he turned a quarter-left angle to dust—200 straight!—the first and only time it was ever done at the New York Athletic Club in a 200—bird event.

I went to work for Remington in 1957 and stopped going to the NYAC almost completely. Although I had lost personal contact with Ben, I occasionally read where he was still hitting them pretty well. After 1974, I never read his name again. I knew my old friend was well into his 8Os and quite possibly dead. Every time I saw an old NYAC member, I’d always ask about Ben. The answer was always the same: "He must be dead. Boy, could that old man shoot!" And well he could.

Twenty-four years passed, and I had begun to collect old shooting medals, watch-fob trophies and celluloid pins related to trapshooting advertising. Once in a while, I’d find something, but pickings were slim. After five or six years, my collection numbered less than a dozen.

One day I happened to think about Ben and how many he must have won going back to 1908, the year he started to shoot. He had no relatives that I was aware of, so probably after his death, someone who just didn’t know or care discarded what appeared to be rubbish. By chance, I called the last phone number I had for him, hoping someone might answer who could direct me to where the old memorabilia might be.

A sharp, crackly voice said, "Hello," and I knew old Ben hadn’t met his Maker yet. He was 94 and still going strong. The very morning I called, he had killed three ducks on the Hudson River near his home, hunting alone from a sneak boat!

We spoke for more than an hour that day in the fall of ‘81. After a minute of conversation, I knew there was no shot rattling around with senility in his head. He, for sure, had all his faculties. Finally, the subject got around to his old shooting medals and fobs. He had all of them except his gold Tiffanys with precious stones. These he had given to the Albany Savings Bank where he still served as a director. The others were in a bureau drawer in the home he had lived in for more than 70 years. "If you want ‘em, I’ll send ‘em to you—you can have them," he said in a voice sounding much younger than its years.

Patiently, I waited for a package from Ben. A week went by and then another, but nothing came. After the  third week, I pretty well convinced myself that he had second thoughts about giving them to me. It was almost Christmas now, six weeks since our conversation. Finally, I could wait no longer and called him. "Mailed ‘em the day after we spoke in early November. Hope they didn’t get lost," Ben said.

Well, I was convinced they were lost. A snail could have delivered them by now—we lived but 40 miles apart. A few days later, the mailman left a dilapidated shoebox on my doorstep. The only return address was "Higginson, Newburgh, NY" My pocket knife cut the thin string that held the top in place. There was no tape holding the lid, just string. The box was terribly beaten up, and a section of it was missing. Seven weeks of U.S. Postal Service handling will do that to a shoebox. These people could damage an anvil!

Like all boys, since my early years at birthday and Christmas time, I’ve always opened boxes that contain the unknown with anticipation and a sense of great excitement. Most of the time I’ve been sadly disappointed—more underwear, socks or handkerchiefs—never that startling surprise when you take a step backwards and say, "Wow, just what I hoped for!"

I said "wow" when I took the lid off Ben’s shoebox some 20 years ago. It was like opening a pirate’s treasure chest. Gold and silver watch fobs with precious stones, a gold fob with a ruby from the 1912 Maine State Shoot, solid gold medals from the New York Athletic Club, four gold—engraved trophy pocket watches and numerous fobs and medals from his shooting days on the Harvard Trap Team.

There were nearly 30 items in that old box, and to this day I wonder what might have fallen out along the way, thanks to our friends in the postal service. The majority of what is pictured on the cover of this issue came to me in that shoebox.

For the next six years, I visited Ben frequently. He was still that feisty, tell-it-like-it-is character whom I remembered as a boy. We shot a lot of targets over again—like his 200th bird at NYAC nearly 40 years earlier. He remembered it exactly as I did.

During many lunches, I learned a lot about the man who was approaching his 100th birthday. He was born March 7, 1888, just a week before the worst snowstorm ever to hit New England—the blizzard of ‘88. His memory was flawless. He could tell me where he was and what he was doing when Pres. McKinley was shot in 1901. Names of squad members from his days at Harvard rolled off his lips like he had been in their company earlier in the day.

He was an only child from a broken home and was sent to a boarding school in Rhode Island when he was eight. One day, he showed me a letter his father had written the school’s headmaster in 1896. It read in part, "I trust you will not be too hard on Maynard. He is a frail child and not destined to live a long life." I detected a sparkle in Ben’s eyes when he said, ‘My father got a lot of things wrong."

During his last year at Harvard, he was captain of the trapshooting team that went undefeated that year in collegiate ranks. "Back then," he said, "trapshooting scholarships were given much like football and baseball scholarships are given today."

He won the 1912 Amateur Clay Target Championships of America quite by accident. He really shouldn’t have been there. In the fall of 1911, he learned the government was to close forever the spring duck-shooting season. Prior to this conversation, I never knew there was a spring duck-hunting season. In late April of 1912, he started by rail for the Platte River in Schuyler, Neb. I remember he said, "I left Newburgh a week after the Titanic sank." The trip took four days and three nights, but a hard freeze made the shooting poor, and he returned home earlier than expected.

His early arrival home from Nebraska allowed him to compete at the NYAC. "It was a windy, cold day," he said, "but I shot ‘em quick before they got tough." He won by a single target over a future Trapshooting Hall-of-Famer, Charlie Newcomb of Pennsylvania. Ben won this same event in 1949 and again at age 70, in 1958.

But success at trapshooting and catching big trout and salmon didn’t carry over much with women. He wasn’t quite so successful in this category. Two bad marriages had cost him a fair amount. "In retrospect," he’d say, "if I had it to do all over again, I’d only marry a beautiful woman, ‘cause if it didn’t work out, there would always be someone to take her off my hands." I told him that I’d keep this in mind.

Sometimes after lunch, we would stop by the Albany Savings Bank and look at the dozen or so Tiffany diamond and gold shooting medals he had given the bank. They were specially framed and hanging in the president’s office. I used to think, "These don’t belong in a bank president’s office. They belong in mine or in a museum somewhere."

Ben started to slow down in the fall of 1986. He didn’t have that little spring in his step that used to always be there. He’d eat some but not well. I could see he was losing weight, but his mind was still sharp and his dry sense of humor ever present.

When 1987 rolled around, he began to look poorly, and I could sense the end was near. Doctors couldn’t seem to find anything wrong, but he was slipping and was in and out of the hospital.

One day while visiting, I asked Ben why he quit trapshooting at the age of 88 when he was still in excellent health. "I broke 98 at the old New York Athletic Club the last time I ever shot," he said. "Driving home, I realized I’d become too good natured to be competitive anymore."

Later that year, in July at the New York State Shoot, he was inducted into the state’s Hall of Fame. He was too weak to make the trip to accept the plaque, so I took it home and presented it as he lay in a hospital bed in Newburgh. Ben was elated to get that simple walnut plaque with a brass plate. I turned my head when tears started to trickle down his cheeks. It marked the only time I ever saw him show emotion.

He died quietly the afternoon of Aug. 4, 1987, just seven months shy of his 100th birthday.

A year later, I made a call on the president of the Albany Savings Bank and told him I thought Ben Higginson’s Tiffany medals belonged in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame and Museum in Vandalia, Ohio. Being a money-man, and therefore possessing no sentiment, he consented to give them to the museum in return for a large writeoff for the bank.

They are on display now in Vandalia and considered by many to be one of the most valuable and beautiful collections in the museum.

On cold, winter nights as I sit by the fire near the same hearth that warmed my father and grandfather, I think back to things that happened years ago. Like all shooters, I’ll call "pull" for the last time someday, and when that happens, my thoughts won’t be on lifetime averages or the number of trophies boxed in the attic but rather on times spent with people like Ben and others who so vividly told me about the old game as it was almost 100 years ago.

My memories of past associations far outnumber good scores. Maybe that’s what age does to someone, for I didn’t always feel this way. Maybe, like old Ben, I’m just too good natured now.

He’s been gone almost 14 years, and every once in a while, someone will say, "Remember that old man from Newburgh you used to talk about. I know someone just like him." And my answer has always been the same, "No, you don’t. No, you don’t."

Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 June 2010 09:28