The Grand American and Perely Gates
Every August they come, as they have over 100 years. The tall, the short, the rich, the poor come in pickup trucks from the wheat fields of Kansas and the steel mills of Pittsburgh, and in motor homes from the oil-rich Southwestern states. And they came from the financial houses of New York City--all to compete in a mental and physical struggle behind little buildings called traphouses. They call it the Grand American, and I tip my hat to the man who named it. For it is grand, and it is American. Only here can a millionaire with a $15,000 shotgun be put in his place by a high school dropout with an 1100 held together by electrical tape. Only here could one target mean the difference of always being remembered or never being remembered.   And they come for different reasons. Families take their only vacation of the year to be with folks they see only once a year. Dreamers would like to believe that when the big shootoff for the Grand American Handicap is held, they’ll be there, under the lights, standing between two All Americans. And there are those who come just to shoot one or two good scores. That would be reward enough for them. The schemers and the chiselers come too. But I don’t know why. And their names—unusual isn’t the correct word, but I can’t think of a better one. Only trap shooters could be called, “Sparrow” Young, “Possum” Killam, Perley Gates, Twinkle Pringle, Emma Wetleaf, Robin Hood and Bullets Galore. The old average books speak for themselves. These names once appeared on scoreboards. What makes the Grand American so great is the fact that something unusual or different happens most every year. I’ve been to over fifty of them and always drive home thinking about a certain incident I didn’t expect to see, or watching a shooter win who wasn’t supposed to. But it was always like that. Always different. The 1915 Grand at Chicago was held in Grant Park, practically downtown. The shooting could be heard in all the nearby buildings. A record number of 828 shooters competed over traps facing Lake Michigan. But there was a problem. No one could eat. Upon arrival, the old Interstate Trapshooting Association learned there was an ordinance against selling anything in the park. Shooters wandered up and down unfamiliar streets, often missing their squad in search of nourishment. At one time, park police put Bill Moore, the old Sportsmen Review (forerunner of Trap & Field) under arrest for selling subscriptions. The Grand moved to St. Louis in 1916. A colorful character from Milwaukee, who was just a so-so shooter, started to tell folks a month or so ahead of the big shoot that he was going to win the Grand American Handicap. Folks didn't pay much attention as he never had won anything important in the past. Things got more than ridiculous when Capt. Jack Wulf bought a new Panama suit, had his picture taken, and started handing out autographed photos. He thought people would like an autographed picture of the 1916 Grand American winner even though the shoot was a few weeks away, They laughed at Capt. Wulf for days, but no one was laughing when he broke 99x100 from 19 yards and won the event that he predicted he would.Henry J “Hank” Pendergast of  Phoenix, N.Y., was one of the East’s top shooters some eighty years ago. He was still shooting when I started in the late forties.

Old Hank had a terrible thing happen during the 1918 Grand American Handicap. The big event was back in Chicago, but entries were down due to the war in Europe. Pendergast broke 97x100 from 22 yards (23 yards was the maximum in 1918). The score held up until late in the day when J. D. Henry, a barber from Elkhart, Indiana tied him. Henry was shooting from 16 yards (in the old days poorer shooters often shot handicap events from the 16 yard line). The barber from Indiana had an 80% average at the time, and Pendergast was the big favorite to win the shootoff.

The moving picture business was in its infancy in those years, but two or three men wearing their caps on backwards showed up for the shootoff with noisy cameras. Pendergast was standing six yards further back than the barber in the shootoff, and midway through, each man was down one. As Pendergast raised his gun to shoot the first target from Post 5, the cameras started to grind away no more than two feet from his ear. He missed the next two targets and eventually lost the big title by a single bird.

My father said that old Hank would never go to the movies after that day, even after they became popular.

Grand American stories wouldn’t be complete without the tale of Perley Gates, a barber from Bennington, Vt.

Perley shot registered targets throughout the 50s and early 60s. No man alive or dead ever loved to shoot more. They say his poor wife divorced him as he spent every dime he made from cutting hair on trapguns or shells, or going to shoots. Perley could be shaving someone, and if the gun club called and said they were shooting doubles, the customer sat there, lather and all, until Perky got back.

He saved his money for years to go to the Grand American just one time. It was unbelievable to Perley that a place existed where you could shoot singles, doubles and handicap for over a week. Finally, he figured he had saved enough for a round-trip plane ticket, hotel, meals, plus shell and target money to shoot the complete program at Vandalia. Playing any purses was out of the question.

The second or so day at the Grand, someone asked him if he was going to Camp Troy for the night jackpot shoots. This was a small club about ten miles from the Grand that held events under the lights, every night while the big shoot was going on at Vandalia.

Perley hadn’t heard about Camp Troy. Now he was really in heaven. He could shoot all day at the Grand and all night at Camp Troy. Trouble was, he hadn’t budgeted for night shooting, and money was tight. He solved this problem quickly by selling his plane ticket home. After all; it wouldn’t be hard to find some New England shooter who could give him a ride back to Vermont.

About the time the big-money handicap events were starting, someone asked Perley why he wasn’t playing the money They reasoned he was a short-yardage shooter and an unknown—just the type of person who goes out and wins the Grand American Handicap. And historically it had been won by a barber on more than a few occasions.

So Perley got to thinking. Suppose he did win one of the big handicaps, and he wasn’t playing the purses or optionals. He’d lose thousands and worse yet, be the laughing stock of all the New England states. But he didn’t have the money to play any purses either!

The answer came quickly. There was only one more doubles event left on the program, and he didn’t care if he shot it or not, If he wasn’t going to shoot any more doubles, why did he need his doubles gun? So Perley Gates sold his nice Winchester Model 21 and with the money played the complete program for the last three days.

He never broke in the nineties. His money was gone; his Model 21 was gone; and his plane ticket home was gone. But there was good news, too. Howard Peterson, a Vermont shooter who had just bought a new Cadillac, told Perky he’d give him a ride home.

The story doesn’t end here. Good Samaritan Howard Peterson couldn’t begin to believe what lay in store for him taking Perley Gates back home. Howard told everybody what Perley did. All New England knew in a matter of months.

“We left the grounds fairly late on the last day following the Vandalia Handicap. I was driving. Perley kept saying he’d like to drive straight through. I didn’t know at the time he had no money for a motel, but I should have suspected because he didn’t eat when we stopped for gas. After about three hours, I got tired, and Perky took over the driving.

“I laid down in the back seat and went to sleep. I don’t know how long I slept, but I awoke to a terrible burning smell, and the car was sort of lunging. I asked Perley what was wrong, but he didn’t know. He just said it had been acting sluggish for the last hour or so. Well, it didn’t take me long to determine what was wrong. Perley had never taken the big Cadillac out of first gear! Luckily, we made it to a gas station, but it was closed for the weekend. The clutch and transmission were gone. Four days later new ones arrived, and we started east again. Perley said he was sorry, I was afraid to ask him if he had a driver’s license. I doubt he did.”

Neither Perley Gates or Howard Peterson ever attended another Grand American.

Everyone is remembered for something. Sadly, Perley Gates spent hundreds of days at gun clubs, but he’ll always be remembered for what happened to him coming home from one. And in a sense, that’s too bad.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 June 2010 13:33