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First sanctioned horseshoe game coming to Gays Mills
PLAYING HORSESHOES is as American as apple pie, and a venerable tradition here in the Kickapoo Valley.

On Saturday, July 1, Gays Mills will see its very first sanctioned horseshoe game at the pits located at the Log Cabin Village Park.

Pitching horseshoes got a humble start in Gays Mills, when a few fellows decided it would be a good idea.

“Before we put pits in behind the shop, I don’t think there were any in town,” local barbershop owner Robert E Lee told the Crawford County Independent.

Some 40 years ago, Robert along with fellow horseshoe enthusiasts Morris Sandborn, Amel Oppriecht, Thorvald Peterson and Dutch Heisz decided together and put a few pits back behind Lee’s barbershop on Main Street in Gays Mills.

“I knew that Morris pitched horseshoes in Richland Center,” Lee recalled. “So when I told him I was interested in putting some pits in behind the shop, he was really gung-ho about it.”

From there, Lee continued to gather his crew of helpers. Oppriecht helped to set up the two pits to be perfectly squared and they were able to get Prairie Sand and Gravel to donate concrete.

“They were done just perfect,” Lee noted with a touch of pride in his voice. “Dutch cut out all of the horseshoe stakes out of tie rods, and we got a hold of some railroad ties. We planted the stakes just perfectly so they didn’t wobble all over.”

As the saying goes, “if you build it, they will come,” that definitely came true for the pits behind the barbershop.

“Some of the old timers who used to like to play heard about it,” Lee said. “So it became a thing to pitch a game after your haircut.”

Lee noted that Thorvald Peterson was his most consistent customer who came to play.

“He would take his hat off and fire it into the corner and say ‘I want a haircut and a game of horseshoes!’”

The informal gatherings carried on like that until Apple Festival of 1977.

“We tacked up a little sign about an open horseshoe tournament in town and the roster just filled up,” Lee said. “We pitched Saturday and Sunday, and everyone just had a great time. We were encouraged to add more pits so more people could play.”

Eventually the modest space behind the barbershop grew into an eight-pit pitchers dream between the two lots on Main Street.

“It continued that way until about 1990 or 91,” Lee remembered. “Due to a sewer collapse on the lot behind the barbershop, two of the pits had to be dug up, the weather continued to be uncooperative and we couldn’t get them back in so we worked to find the pits a new home.”

For a period of time, the pits were located in the Lions Park, but eventually were relocated to the Log Cabin Park where they can be found today.

Thanks to the help of area sanctioned player and passionate pitcher, Russ Brockway, the pits were recently granted a one-year conditional sanction.

This sanction will allow sanctioned players to pitch in the Kickapoo Valley Open, which will be held on July 1. The entry fee for the sanctioned event is $20. You can contact Brockway with questions or to register at 608-379-4948 or by email at

“It will be the first-ever sanctioned tournament in the pits,” Brockway said. “It’s a little different than regular horseshoes, the scoring is a little different and it’s kept track to be turned into the national statistics.”

The current sanction at the pits in Gays Mills is only for this year. Brockway hopes to secure a grant, which would help with the necessary updates to ensure that the sanctioned status can be here to stay.

“We need to do some improvements like have a concrete walkway and more fencing added,” Brockway noted.

Spectators are welcomed to stop in and check out the tournament and enjoy learning a little bit more about sanctioned games.

“If everything works out, we hope to add more pits in the future to help with some relief for the Apple Fest Tournament, because that one is really a marathon!” Brockway said.