When does a tradition become an institution? Twenty years? Fifty?
What then would you call an event that has been instrumental to its community for more than 100 years?
Part of the landscape.
But with everything this year, traditions and institutions – even those that have been around for over a century – are in jeopardy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to wreck havoc as it spreads nearly unchecked here and across the country, even as the first of the vaccines are being provided to those most in need.
The question becomes: How do you social distance at an event that traditionally is designed for socializing?
So it is with The Spokesman-Review Inland Northwest Trapshoot competition.
Started in 1918, the trapshoot celebrates its 103th anniversary this year, albeit under difficult circumstances.
The goal of trapshooting is to shoot clay pigeons out of the air with a shotgun. Each target is 4 inches in diameter and is shot out of a machine in any one of 72 angles and travel between 42-43 mph.
The eight-week winter competition, which begins on Jan. 2, invites groups from gun clubs across Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
It is facing stiff challenges – first from dwindling membership at area clubs, and now from the pandemic.
Since the actual shooting occurs outdoors, the trapshoot is inherently equipped to handle that part of the equation safely.
But the contest – which features categories for men, women and youth and is meant to be a big draw for families and recruiting members – is an excuse for the shooters to gather after the holidays and ring in the new year with amiable competition and fellowship in the local clubhouses across the region.
With the state’s restrictions on gatherings and mask requirements, clubs will adjust. Instead of swapping stories in their clubhouses, shooters will have to gather outside while maintaining 6 feet of distance – or simply hang out in their cars while waiting for their turn to shoot.
You do what you have to at times in order to maintain traditions.
“This year is particularly odd, because of this COVID stuff,” Spokane Gun Club board member John Chambers said. “We’re probably going to have to be following some different guidelines.”
He said they’ll make it work.
“Traditionally, the winter shoot, it’s more of a camaraderie-type thing,” Chambers said. “People come in after they shoot and they all sit around. … I don’t think we’ve got it actually figured out 100% how we’re going to do it.”
Traditionally a Sunday shoot, the rules of the trapshoot were relaxed last year to allow clubs to shoot Saturdays and Sundays to increase participation. That will help this year to space out shooters over the two days each week.
Chambers said for his club, the shoot is a good opportunity for all members to get involved, not just diehards.
“The point with this shoot is, there’s different calibers of shooters,” he said. “There’s the ones that like to shoot and there’s the ones that take it way more serious. So this gets the people that belong to the club. This is kind of like their shoot for the year.”
Out with the old
The Spokane Gun Club has called the Valley home since 1947, but soon – they hope – will have a new home. The 99-acre property in Greenacres where the club resides was sold to the Central Valley School District in 2018 to make way for the new high school, Ridgeline, which is scheduled to open in September 2021.
The club is closed on certain days of the week due to construction at the school site.
It’s just another part of the tradition that will be going away.
“Our clubhouse in Spokane Valley, this is our last year of shooting here,” Chambers said. “We have to be off-site by next June. This will be the last winter shoot we’ll ever have here, so we were hoping it would be a pretty big one, for the tradition and stuff.”
The sale of the property didn’t go over well with all of the membership. At one point, the school district considered condemning the property if the sale didn’t go through.
“A 126-year-old club – the oldest club west of the Mississippi – is going to close if we don’t take the offer,” club president Robert Thornton said at the time. “There won’t be enough money left to move the club and it will fail. If we take the offer, we will have money for a new, bigger club than we have now.”
Eventually, a majority of the membership voted for the sale.
“I think (the reaction) was mixed,” Chambers said. “Eventually, I think all gun clubs will get forced out (of suburban areas). It’s just the way it is. It gets harder and harder.”
A new home?
After the initial shock of being forced out, the club was able to find a 452-acre parcel on the West Plains to relocate.
But even that hasn’t been easy. For two years, the club has been dealing with county and local commissions to meet requirements of those jurisdictions, and now it finds itself party to litigation from groups that don’t want the club located there.
“We’re across the road from a cemetery out there,” Chambers said. “Those in the neighborhood filed a suit against us and they didn’t prevail in Spokane County so they appealed it to Lincoln County and Davenport to try to stop us.”
The final hearing on that litigation is scheduled for late January. The lawsuit has delayed plans to build the new clubhouse and shooting ranges up to six months, Chambers said, which could prevent the club from participating in next year’s shoot.
“We won’t have our new club built yet,” Chambers said. “We will be homeless.”
Building from within
Chambers, one of the older members of the club, first learned to shoot trap in order to enter The Spokesman-Review event. The club hosts several shoots during the spring and summer, but the paper-sponsored shoot in the winter allows clubs to compete against others in the region.
This year, due to COVID restrictions, the club hosted one two-day shoot in September for the entire season. The shoots help provide funds to keep the club going.
“It’s kind of a cool tradition,” he said of the trapshoot. “I think the participation has been down some.
“The old days, the farmers would come out and bring their wife and kids for the day. But now kids want to play video games and unfortunately traditions change.”
While there’s been an uptick in participation in shooting sports for women and youth, overall membership in gun clubs is down in many areas, including Spokane and places in Eastern Washington. With lower numbers, and the relocation, and now the pandemic, Chambers is resigned to things being different with the club for the foreseeable future.
“You just move on,” he said. “Things change, you know.”
Link to the past
John Weber, 75, is a member at the Spokane Rifle Club, established in 1916 and located along the Spokane River just north of Riverside State Park. Weber has been participating in the trapshoot since 1956.
“Well, not every year,” he said. “There were some years in the ’70s, when I was busy raising kids and raising Boy Scouts and the rest. It hasn’t been continuous, but every year I’ve been able to, I did.”
For Weber, it’s a link to the past.
“I know what it means to me,” he said. “I can’t say what it means to everybody.”
Weber’s father, Eugene Weber, was born and raised in the Odessa area and would shoot at the gun club there. He participated in the shoot almost from its inception.
“There was a picture of him trapshooting in Odessa in 1921,” John Weber said. “He would have been about 18, maybe 19 at the time.”
After John Weber was born, the family moved to Deer Park – which didn’t have a club at the time.
“He wanted to find a place to shoot,” Weber said of his father. “The closest that made any sense for us to use was to go over to Newport.”
As a youth, Weber started out shooting .22s. As soon as he could handle the bigger shotguns he took up shooting skeet and trap.
As an adult, Weber joined the Spokane Rifle Club and has shot there since.
Weber has seen a lot of change in demographics of the club membership over the years. As the chairman of the shotgun division for the rifle club, he’s there every week.
“I run the operation at the shotgun house every day that we’re open,” he said, adding he doesn’t shoot every week anymore, citing back and leg pain.
He said the club is dealing with the pandemic as best as possible.
They limit clubhouse access to five members at a time with masks mandatory, and access to the range has been reduced to members only for the time being.
“The guys have figured out they can stand in a circle outside and stay 6 feet apart with separation with their masks, if they’re so inclined, while they’re outside,” he said.
Weber is proud to be a part of generations of shooters that have participated in the shoot.
“I know that for myself – my father wasn’t alive when my son started shooting – but when my son had his older son and he got to an age where he could shoot, there was one time where all three of us were on the same squad.”
“I look back on that picture my dad was in in 1921,” he said. “And here we are coming into 2021. People have been participating over that whole 100 years – or more.
“They’ve enjoyed it enough that they’ve passed it down, fathers to sons on to their sons and maybe even into the fourth generation.”
Weber reminisced about getting the Sunday paper with the previous week’s scores and heading to the range to try to best the competition.
“Did my 24, was it good enough to make the paper?” he said. “Everybody that shot (the top scores) would have their name listed.
“That was one of the highlights of the paper for me growing up. That and the comics.”
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