|The Fabulous Topperweins, Part 2|
This month's Road To Yesterday column continues with tales from the memoirs and diary of Ad Topperwein. Last month's article chronicled the early shooting years of Ad and how he and his wife, Plinky, became famous exhibition shooters for Winchester. This month's column tells more epic tales of their fabulous careers and lives.
At the turn of the 20th century, Adolph Topperwein was considered by many to be the best rifle shot in America. He held (and perhaps still holds) world records for number of aerial targets shot with a rifle. His trick-shooting exhibitions with Plinky, plus her trapshooting endurance records and major trapshooting wins, stand head and shoulders above those who followed them.
Recorded in 1950, five years after Plinky's untimely death, Topperwein's memoirs paint a heart-rending, romantic picture of their love for each other and shooting. Their employment with Winchester, performing exhibitions throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, lasted for over 40 years. Thanks to a San Antonio collector who owns some 700 pieces of Topperwein memorabilia, I learned about the life they lived on the road, famous people they met, and almost unbelievable events they witnessed. As I mentioned in the column last month, the entire collection is up for sale. It would be a tremendous addition to the Trapshooting Hall of Fame Museum. If it is sold to private collectors, it will no doubt be parceled out and disappear.
When shooting buttons off Ad's chest or cigarettes from his mouth with a handgun, she always kissed him first. On days when dangerous shots were to be performed and she didn't feel up to it, she'd say, "Daddy, let's not do this act today." He never asked her why, and throughout almost 50 years, there was never an accident.
The first trophy Plinky won in open trapshooting competition took place at Elliott's Shooting Park in Kansas City on Feb. 4, 1906. It was very cold and there was some six inches of snow on the ground, but she broke 99x100 to beat the field and win the Ed O'Brien Trophy. (Ed O'Brien was a Remington professional at the time.)
The next day's program called for a 50 live-bird contest. The top pigeon shooters in the country were there. Plinky had never seen a live-bird shoot, let alone shot at a live bird. Ad was reluctant to put up the rather large entry fee of $20, but Plinky wanted to shoot. Club owner Uncle Bob Elliott told Ad he'd furnish the birds free if Plinky would shoot. That settled it. She killed the first seven pigeons before they got far in the air. The eighth was a snow-white incomer, and it fell six feet from where she stood. The bird fluttered before it died and stained the snow red. Plinky walked off the line, and all the coaxing in the world could not make her continue. Throughout the rest of her life, she never shot a live bird of any kind again.
At some gun clubs, Plinky would shoot against the club's four best shots. Each man would shoot 25 targets, and Plinky would shoot 100. The four shooters' total score would be counted against her 100-target score. She won nearly every match shot under these conditions. At one club, the four men were exceptionally good. The first broke 24, the next 25, the next 25, and the last 23 for a total of 97x100. Plinky broke 99, missing her 91st target.
Plinky had other accomplishments besides shooting. She was an excellent cook. The Topperweins spent most of their time on the road, and Plinky enjoyed sampling the country's regional specialties. If she particularly enjoyed a meal, she'd ask the waiter if she could go to the kitchen and talk to the cook about how to prepare those dishes.
Plinky was also very clever working with a needle. It took her 10 years to finish a 12x6' tablecloth of white Irish linen embroidered with the names of all towns in which they shot during their many years of touring the country. She carried it with her on the road and would work on it nights at hotels. Ad would sketch the name of the town in pencil, and she would embroider around it.
Mrs. Topp, as she was often called, also had an excellent singing voice. Among her many trapshooting admirers was John Philip Sousa, the famous bandleader and composer. At a large trapshoot in a small Mississippi town with scant public accommodations, families took shooters into their homes for lodging (a common practice in those days). The folks who took in the Topperweins also hosted John Philip Sousa. During the evening's festivities, a guest suggested Sousa play a selection on the piano. He refused, saying he didn't feel like it. Later Plinky asked him to play, and he agreed—but only if she would sing. They picked out one of Plinky's favorites. When they finished their duet, he put both hands on her shoulders and said it was apparent she could sing as well as she could shoot, and if she got tired of shooting, she should let him know and he'd put her on the road with his band.
The Topperweins' shooting days were fast-paced and grueling. They performed each day and often traveled by rail at night to the next city. This went on week after week with scarcely a day to rest. If it rained, they shot anyway. In many Western and Southern towns, the Topperweins' arrival was proclaimed a holiday. Shops, stores and schools were closed. Sometimes in a town of two or three thousand, they drew an audience of three to four thousand as people from nearby towns flocked to see their performances.
One Southern church took advantage of their appearance by having an auction after the exhibition. Ladies of the church picked up all the targets Ad and Plinky shot: tin cans, wooden blocks, bits of metal disks, cartridge casings and shotshell hulls. The wooden blocks sometimes brought a quarter because they had a bullet hole in them, while the shell that had been shot from Ad's fingers brought 40 to 50 cents. Folks paid 10 to 15 cents for old tin cans shot full of holes. Ad's Indian head ["sketched" with bullets, one of his signature pieces; see last month's article—Ed.} went off the auction block for $10 (two sold on e-Bay recently for $2,000). The church collected more money at the auction than the Sunday-morning offering plate had received in more than a month.
Plinky's trapshooting was done mostly in competition, and she shot registered and unregistered targets in all kinds of weather. When not competing against local hotshots, she was shooting against the best professionals in the country. Her favorite position in a squad was Post 1.
Shooting against the clock was popular in those days, and records were kept on how long it took to break a certain number of targets. Big bets were made by the always large audiences who witnessed those events.
Shooting a 7 1/2-lb. Model 97 Winchester trapgun for over three hours straight was more than most men could handle, but her German stubbornness prevailed. On Nov. 11, 1916, at Montgomery, Ala., she shot at 2,000 16 yard targets, breaking 1,952 in five hours and 20 minutes. Her average of 97.6% established a new record. Actual shooting time was three hours, 15 minutes (25 targets shot at in less than 2 1/2 minutes), but time was lost unpacking targets and repairing the trap after only 300 birds. Her longest run was 280.
A large crowd was present, and a lot of money changed hands among the spectators. One unbelieving soul bet $100 that she would never shoot 2,000 shots, and then to cover himself, he bet another $100 that her score in the second thousand would be less than that in her first. He lost both bets, as her score in the second thousand was two better. At the time, this was the largest number of trap targets shot at and broken by either man or woman in a single day. It might still be a women's record.
She used one Model 97 Winchester trapgun, which was cooled off after every 25 shots by dipping it in water. Plinky never shot with a coat or gloves, regardless of the weather. A blister formed on the palm of her left hand during the marathon shoot. After 1,000 shots, her entire palm was a solid blister, and it broke open. The shooting stopped, and a doctor bandaged the hand. After a half-dozen shots, she tore off the bandage because she said it worried her. She shot the rest of the targets with her hand raw and bleeding. When she finished, the doctor again treated her hand. It was three weeks before she could remove the bandage and begin to shoot again.
While touring through east Texas, the Topperweins stopped at a little town around noon. Though a relatively small community, Winchester wanted them to put on an exhibition there anyway. The small town was packed with people, horses, buggies and wagons as persons from all around the surrounding countryside were attending a murder trial. While eating lunch at the only hotel, the judge and prosecuting attorney were introduced to the couple. They inquired what time the Topperweins were going to shoot and learned that the trial would not be over before the exhibition began. Ad and Plinky were scheduled to leave on the five p.m. train in order to shoot at the next town the following day. It would be impossible to delay the exhibition until after the trial was over.
The judge returned to the courthouse after lunch, rapped on the bench with his gavel, and told the crowd that due to matters of which he had just learned, it would be necessary to adjourn until 10* o'clock the following morning.
Attorneys for the defense, the prosecutor, the jury, witnesses and spectators all moved to the shooting grounds, where they enjoyed the exhibition.
The Topperweins shot on a baseball diamond directly behind the town jail. While they shot, the defendant in the murder case (along with several other prisoners) watched the show from the barred cell windows on the second floor. This could happen only in Texas! (The result of the jury's verdict is unknown.)
The Liggett Company asked the Topperweins to perform at a large druggists' convention near Boston. More than 2,000 Rexall druggists were present. Mr. Liggett was well acquainted with Winchester officials from the home office. He was also a personal friend of Calvin Coolidge, the President of the United States at the time. He invited Calvin and Mrs. Coolidge to watch the show. Ad was told to hold up the exhibition until the Presidential yacht arrived, which was announced by a cannon shot.
The weather looked bad. Heavy clouds and wind predicted a storm soon to break. Ad and Plinky, anxious to start before the weather set in, had just about given up on the presidential party's attendance when President and Mrs. Coolidge arrived and took front-row seats.
The Topperweins went through their regular shooting routines. Every time they glanced over at the President, he looked like a stone statue and quite bored; at one point, they thought he was asleep. Nothing could arouse old Calvin's interest. Mrs. Coolidge, on the other hand, was over-enthusiastic and applauded everything they did.
Near the end of the show, Ad used his shotgun to fire at hand-thrown eggs. He tossed two, three, four and five eggs aloft, breaking them all before they hit the ground. For a climax, he laid his shotgun on the ground, threw an egg, ran 50 feet to the gun, picked it up and broke the egg before it hit the ground. Only then did Calvin show any interest—he finally applauded.
After the exhibition, the Topperweins were introduced to Mrs. Coolidge and the President. She was very pleased with the show, saying it was the most wonderful thing she had ever seen. The President was less than enthused. After complimenting them on their shooting, he told Ad it seemed to be "a terrible waste of eggs"!
In all the years of traveling the country and shooting at many of the same places, Annie Oakley and Plinky met but a single time. The Topperweins were booked at a hotel resort in Portsmouth, N. H., called Wentworth-by-the Sea (it's still there but is now a Marriott). Annie Oakley and her manager/husband Frank Butler had been there for some time, giving trapshooting instruction to ladies staying at the hotel. Their contract expired a week before Ad and Plinky were scheduled to perform, but when they heard the Topperweins were coming, they stayed an extra week.
It was raining during the day of the exhibition, but the grounds were filled to capacity. Plinky first shot 100 targets from the 16-yard line in a squad with the best local trapshooters. She broke 96, which Ad considered excellent under the conditions. By the time the trick shooting started, it was really pouring. Both Topperweins were in top form that day and scarcely missed a shot. Annie and her husband watched the complete show. After the final shot, Annie ran over to Plinky and said excitedly, "Mrs. Topperwein, you're all wet! Your clothing is soaked. Please come up to my room, and I'll fix you a cup of tea. You can dry off, and we can talk."
According to Ad's memoirs, Plinky was in Annie's room for an hour or two. Plinky told Ad that Annie said she was the greatest shot she had ever seen, and she wished she were younger so the two could team up. Frank (Annie's husband) had told her about Plinky's shooting, but she said she saw things that she never imagined could be done. "I didn't think it possible for any woman to do shooting like you did!"
Though Plinky and Annie corresponded over the years through postcards and Christmas greetings, they never met again.
One of Ad's favorite stories about Plinky took place in one of the best hotels in New Haven, Conn. They had arrived late and had little choice of rooms. About two a.m., Plinky woke up, screaming that there was a rat in their bed. Ad tried to convince her she was dreaming, but about 10 minutes later, he realized she was right. He jumped out of bed and turned on the light in time to see the rat scurry along the wall to an opening in the floor made for a gas pipe. When they demanded another room, the night clerk informed them there were 1) no rats in the hotel and 2) no more rooms available.
Plinky took out a .44 Russian Smith & Wesson revolver that they used in the act, turned on a light, and waited for the rat to appear. The whole thing seemed kind of funny to Ad, but he wanted to show the smart-aleck night clerk that his hotel did indeed have rats. It wasn't long before Mr. Rat reappeared, and Plinky shot him right in the middle. The .44 bullet made quick work of the rat, and in the small room, the shot sounded like a cannon. Immediately people woke up, and doors began slamming. The night clerk appeared at their door in a matter of minutes, wanting to know what the shooting was about. Ad said they'd shot a rat. The clerk again said there were no rats in his hotel. Ad used a newspaper to wrap up what was left of the rat, opened the door about six inches, and said to the clerk, "Now you take this downstairs, examine it, and see what you think it is." Then he slammed the door in his face. Plinky sat in a rocking chair the rest of the night holding that .44 Russian, but no more rats appeared, as Ad had used some towels to plug the hole.
The morning after all this, a chambermaid told them there had been vacant rooms on their floor; the night clerk was just too lazy to move them. The hotel proprietor, red-faced with anger over the previous night's shooting, threatened the Topperweins with arrest. Ad told him to do what he had to do but reminded him that he was an employee of Winchester and that the reporter for the local paper was a friend of his. Topperwein assured the proprietor that folks around New Haven would find a newspaper story about rats in the hotel quite amusing. There was an immediate change in attitude and a halfhearted apology. He changed their room to a first-floor suite and couldn't do enough for them throughout the rest of their stay.
During World War II, Plinky and Ad performed exhibitions for hundreds of thousands of soldiers at basic-training camps throughout America. Ad was now in his 70s, with Plinky 11 years his junior. He could still stand on his head and break clay targets in the air or do three somersaults and hit hand-thrown wooden blocks with a rifle. But the strain of some 40 years of hectic travel caught up with Plinky. In early January 1945 she suffered a heart attack, and on the 20th day of the month she died.
A Winchester-Western employee newspaper from East Alton, IL., summed things up well when it said, in part:
"The world's greatest woman shooter isn't with us anymore. She passed away quietly in San Antonio, her only regret that she would be parted temporarily from her beloved 'Daddy.'
"Perhaps people may forget that Mrs. Topperwein once broke 367 clay targets in a row; that she broke 200 straight 14 times and 100 straight on more than 200 occasions.
"But not a living soul who knew 'Plinky' will ever forget her great warm heart, which she wore openly on her sleeve in adoration of her accomplished husband. And nobody will forget her ready wit, her firm handclasp, her cheerful voice, and the way her eyes crinkled in the ever recurring smile."
Ad took Plinky's untimely passing extremely hard. To make matters worse, shortly after her death he began to have trouble seeing well. Doctors predicted glaucoma would eventually cause blindness. Years of shooting had also affected his hearing, but he continued to keep an upbeat attitude. Ad was active with the shooting fraternity for 17 years after Plinky's death. He taught shooting to youngsters even though he was virtually blind. Gun writers of his day often came to visit, and he'd tell them about the old days on the road for Winchester. He walked three miles a day until he was 92 years old. The end finally came on March 4, 1962, and with it ended an era in America that most of us can only visualize.