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Fred Gilbert

The sun made its appearance a little late over the gun club on Lake Okoboji in northern Iowa the morning of Aug. 8, 1927. Its tardiness was caused by a rather thick fog that hung like a shroud over the trapfields until almost 10 a.m. A shooter later remarked, "It was eerie; only the traps were surrounded by the fog, and each end of the line was clear. It was like a bad omen, but none of us thought about it until the following day when we heard the news."

Fred Gilbert, the old war-horse of Spirit Lake, Iowa, felt quite well that morning. For the first time in weeks, he felt good. At age 61, his great shooting days were long behind him. Overweight and suffering from high blood pressure, he remained keenly interested in trapshooting, though he hadn't shot competitively since 1925.

The annual Okoboji Indian shoot was being held at State Park at Orleans. Fred, who had never learned to drive a motorcar, asked his son-in-law to take him to the gun club. "There are folks I need to see, and old days to talk about," he told his daughter Annie. Those were the last words she ever heard him speak.

Gilbert was not a frequent visitor at gun clubs anymore. "The Wizard of Spirit Lake," as he was fondly called, once traveled around the country in a private railroad car, competing at shoots for his employers, the DuPont Powder Co. and the Parker Gun Co. He had shot targets in every state as well as England, Scotland and Ireland. There wasn't much he hadn't won, and for years his run of 591 straight stood as a world's record. Only the Cast Iron Medal, symbolic of the live bird championship of America, escaped his capture. For six straight years he had the highest average in the nation, and in 1909 while traveling the rails he shot at 12,630 targets. Quiet and reserved, Gilbert was gentlemanly and courteous to all. He possessed a rare quality of being the best at his game, yet liked by all he beat. One of his most ardent supporters and a personal friend, the legendary Annie Oakley said, "He won without bragging and lost without grumbling ."

nullA number of different events were on the Monday, Aug. 8,1927, Okoboji Indians program. The Monkey Shoot, where all members dress and shoot in Indian costumes, attracted the most interest. Fred Gilbert donned his full Indian uniform and posed for several pictures. He considered the request of friends to once again break a few targets but decided against it. Gilbert shook many hands that morning and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself. Shortly after lunch he began to feel poorly and asked to go home.

During the relatively short trip to his farm, he lapsed into periods of unconsciousness. After arriving home, a doctor and family members were called. It was thought he recognized his wife, but soon he fell into a deep coma. Life lingered until 8: 15 that evening, when the end came. Rev. Herbert Marsh conducted the funeral a few days later at the First Presbyterian Church in Spirit Lake. It was the largest service ever held in the little Iowa town that Fred Gilbert had made famous. Friends and sportsmen from throughout the Midwest attended and sent flowers or telegrams. Out of respect for the man whose trapshooting accomplishments were known worldwide, businesses were closed during the one-hour eulogy.

A week after his death, A. B. Funk, an aging and longtime sportswriter for the Spirit Lake paper, wrote a most befitting tribute to Fred Gilbert. It read in part:

I saw it all happen from the start to the finish. I first met Fred in 1872 when he was seven years old. He was a towheaded lad chiefly noted for his abounding good nature and his proficiency in the use of profanity. Fred was a pioneer product of the Iowa northwest. He lived in Clay County at the time of the Inkpadutah raid and for a short time his mother was a prisoner of this savage band. This was shortly before the Spirit Lake massacre. His father John P. Gilbert came to the lakes in the 1850s. In the sixties and seventies he was a fur buyer and carried mail for pioneers between Spirit Lake and larger cities.

Young Fred had a shotgun in his hands from the time he was able to carry one and at an early age gave evidence of the skill that would later make him famous.

He hunted with the men and won their admiration for his good sportsmanship and rare juvenile shooting ability. No one called him Fred. Back in those early days he was known only as "Dood." He married the daughter of John Klein, his employer. Klein was a Civil War veteran and intensely religious. At the urging of his father-in-law and to the marvel of his friends, he joined the Baptist Church and his exuberant swearing ceased.

Meanwhile he kept on intimate terms with his "scattergun" as he called it. During the hunting seasons, he visited disaster on game birds. He shot for market as the laws then did not forbid it. Hunters from far and near began to appreciate his skill, sportsmanship and pleasant personality. Among them was a man named Rice, who represented the DuPont Powder Co.

Mr. Rice convinced young Fred he was good enough to compete in the 1895 World's Pigeon Shooting Championship in Baltimore. All the best were there, including the great Bogardus. As the score closed on the last day, the telegraph wires to Spirit Lake were singing with eager request for details as to who and what was Fred Gilbert who had just won the World's Championship.

Characteristic of this sterling man, Fred modestly returned to his humble work of "sorting 'taters " and "husking turkeys" as he put it. But his life was never the same after his big victory at Baltimore. Mr. Rice was instrumental in having Fred enter a permanent engagement with the DuPont Powder Co., and he was soon traveling the country, winning tournaments and countless new friends .

Fred Gilbert was dearly loved through all the years of his manhood by the people who knew him best. His recognition and achievements never in the least changed his attitude or relations with the home people. This uneducated pioneer boy became the cherished companion of great men of culture and wealth, yet he always remained just plain "Dood" Gilbert.

One of the great live bird shooters that Gilbert met at the 1895 World's Championship in Baltimore was Thomas Marshall, the mayor of Keithsburg, Illinois, and himself a future Trapshooting Hall of Famer. The two hit it off well, and for the rest of his shooting career Fred Gilbert's best friend and mentor was the stately Marshall. Another competitor at Baltimore was Mrs. Frank Butler, more commonly known as Annie Oakley. She too took an immediate liking to the 30-year- old sensation from Iowa, and their friendship lasted until her death .

While working in the Vandalia museum, I found a 1976 note to then museum director Marjorie Smith from one Thomas Marshall Gilbert of Sun City, Ariz. He was the son of the late Fred Gilbert, and I immediately knew he had named his son after his best friend and shooting mentor .

Last summer I successfully tracked down the granddaughter of J. A. R. Elliott, a Trapshooting Hall of Famer of the Fred Gilbert era. Subsequently, Mr. Elliott's descendant gave our museum a great collection of Elliott's shooting medals, including the famous Cast Iron Medal that he retired in 1902.

I had hopes of finding some of Fred Gilbert's trophies for our museum but soon learned there was no Thomas Marshall Gilbert living in Sun City, Ariz. The next day the ladies in our museum office found the name of a great grandson, Douglas Gilbert, living in New Jersey. A phone call there was answered by a Catholic Mission secretary who informed us that Doug Gilbert once served as an African missionary , but was no longer with the Mission. I was about to give up when the lady on the other end said, "We have his mother's and father's address, if that will help you." Elated that I had finally found a living Gilbert descendant, I found it amusing that his name was Thomas Marshall Gilbert Jr.

A few weeks later, I flew to Kansas and spent the better part of a day and evening with Mr. Gilbert and his wife Jean. They had many of his grandfather's trophies and medals, which they were more than pleased to loan to our museum in Vandalia, where they are now on display.

Fred Gilbert also had a daughter Annie, named after Annie Oakley. A son was named after Tom Marshall and a daughter after Annie Oakley. That pretty well sums up how Fred Gilbert felt about these great shooters.

The May 1900 edition of The Sportsmen's Review (forerunner of TRAP & FIELD) told how Annie Oakley felt about Fred Gilbert, too. When covering the Grand American at live birds, the editor had this to say:

One of the most regrettable circumstances of the entire shoot was the illness of Fred M. Gilbert which prevented his attending the park any day during the entire week. Fred had come to New York the previous week in time to shoot his match with J. A. R. Elliott and at that time appeared to be in the best of health. The following Saturday he attended the Crosby-Elliott match, and as the day was quite chilly, he must have caught cold, for the next day he was taken with a severe attack of the grippe which confined him to his bed.

As an expression of sympathy for Fred Gilbert in his misfortune in not being able to attend the Grand American this year on account of his severe illness, Annie Oakley suggested that his friends contribute to purchase Fred's new heir, Master Thomas Marshall Gilbert, a loving cup. The suggestion met with great favor and was instantly acted upon. Within minutes, $111.00 had been turned in and was handed to the Honorable Thomas A. Marshall with the request to invest it in a suitable trophy for his namesake. The collection was made in so short a time that many of Fred's friends didn't know of it until afterwards and were much disappointed in not being able to contribute their mite .

This cup is still in the Gilbert family. Fortunately they kept many newspaper clippings, photos and correspondence, much of which I used to write this column. A prized possession was an eight-page, hand-written letter by Annie Oakley to Fred Gilbert's daughter. She wrote it on 'June 26, 1926, less than five months before she died. The letter is historically significant as it is quite possibly the last letter she ever wrote, and it leaves no doubt that she knew she was dying. The contents of the letter appears below. It has never been published before.

Many have never heard of Fred Gilbert, Tom Marshall or others of their era. Countless great men and equally as many wonderful shooting stories have been forgotten down through the years. These overlooked souls, the contributions they made and the tales they told are a big part of our trapshooting heritage. Those who come after us will remember, but only for a while, the shooting stars and contributors that they saw or read about. Then, they too will be delegated to remain alive only on musty pages of old magazines stored in a wet basement. I'm afraid the history of our game will never be taught in public schools.

Fred "Dood" Gilbert was inducted into the Trapshooting Hall of Fame in 1969. Since then, two others from the little town of Spirit Lake, Iowa, have also been inducted: Johnny Jahn in 1976 and Bob Allen in 1982. No other town in America can boast of three Hall of Famers.

June 26, 1926

My dear little Name Sake,

Oh but I was glad to receive your sweet letter.

And you will understand when I tell you that I have been very ill for the past 3 years and 8 months. And have spent most of the time in bed since last Oct. The doctors gave me up last Jan. but I got better and sat up part of the time. But I went back again and 2 weeks ago today. And doctors told me that the only thing might help me for a while was blood transfusions. But I will just leave all in God's hands. It is our lack of faith in him that lets up go down. I have made my home with my half sister and her daughter for the past 17 months. Mr. Butler spent his winter at Pinehurst. He has not been well and has lost 15 lbs. Since the 25th of March when he returned. This climate and the water is both bad. Neither of us should live here. But I loath to leave my sister.

Now dear will you read this to your good father and thank him for the little Christmas card he sent up a year ago. Now dear I know that your heart is brave and you will rise to the occasion no matter what comes. God has spared your good father and mother for quite a time and we all must pass along to the higher life. So we must look forward to the time and be glad to meet the dear ones that awaits us. But we must not shrink backwards with sighs and regrets. We should always think forward and look upward to our dear God who loves us all and would see us all happy. That he cannot fret upon us [the rest of this sentence is unreadable]

I was delighted to hear about your dear little boy. But I love every auburn hair on the head of his little mother. Do you remember the small photo of yourself and dad taken with your backs toward the camera? Your beautiful hair covered your back to your ankles. Give your baby boy a bear hug for me and tell your father to catch the sweet sounds of the songs of every bird. They all seem so happy as they sing in the early morning just before they begin to get busy pulling the breakfast from the ground to feed their babies. What a joy to watch them.

Do write again soon and I will try to answer promptly. Stores of letters poured in after the enclosed clipping was published.

Yesterday the Dayton Game Society had their annual game dinner and outing held at the A.T.A. at Vandalia and a Chaplain in his blessing mentioned your father, Holly Heikes and myself. Mr. Squires buried his father in law yesterday.

Mr. Butler joins in love and all good wish to your self and all your family.

Always Affect.

Annie Oakley
2334 Salem Ave.
Dayton, Ohio

Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 June 2010 08:49