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Kickapoo Ringers are bringing back something old with something new
SOME OF THE KICKAPOO RINGER members who were instrumental in making the sanctioned horseshoe pit project happen are shown under their clubhouse sign. Shown from left are Jack Heisz, Robert Lee, Jim Maybee Jr., Tom Spratt, Jim Maybee Sr., Bun Carley, Paul Heisz, and Russ Brockway.

GAYS MILLS - It was a steamy, but proud day, on Friday, June 29, when a dedicated group of horseshoe pitchers from the Gays Mills area gathered. The local group was celebrating the completion of their horseshoe pits near the Log Cabin Village, which are National Horseshoe Pitchers Association (NHPA) competition-sanctioned horseshoe pits.

The project has been a year in the making, and has been achieved with the help of lots of well-wishers and volunteers, and a grant from the National Horseshoe Pitchers Foundation (NHPF). The Kickapoo Valley Ringers now have their own permanent, sanctioned six-pit facility in Gays Mills.

The NHPA is a federation of sixty (60) charters in the United States and Canada, which strives to promote and organize the horseshoe pitching sport and to standardize the rules, equipment and playing procedures.

Locally, official sponsors of the facility include the Village of Gays Mills, the NHPA, the NHPF, Prairie Ready Mix, Brockway Trucking, Jim Showen, Halver’s Town Tap, BAPI, Greener’s Corner and J&Js on Main.

Something new

The Ringer’s new six-pit court has been constructed to meet the requirements to be a “full court sanction.” These are permanent, in-ground courts. Any sanctioned league or tournament may be contested on these courts.

“Having this state and na-tional-sanctioned horseshoe facility is absolutely fantas-tic,” said Robert Lee, the local barber and horseshoe afficianando. “I never dreamed that this could happen. Now our tournament results will be in the official state and national record books. Russ Brockway and members of the local club deserve lots of thanks for making this happen and helping to keep this tradition alive in our community.”

Robert Lee is one of the founding fathers of the Gays Mills Horseshoe Tournament tradition, along with his father Elmer Lee, Amel Oppriecht and Maurice Sanborn.

Two other avid players that helped to build the Kickapoo Ringers Horseshoe Club that grew out of the Apple Festival Tournament tradition were Arvid Burkum (deceased) and Jim Maybee.

In addition to the newly constructed pitching courts, the club has also built a shelter, which, in part, came from moving the old shelter from downtown in Lion’s Park.

“It was Jim Maybee Jr. and Jack Heisz that tore down the old shelter,” Bun Carley remembered. “They used the materials to build the new one.”

“We had to pull out all those darned nails,” the soon-to-be-94-years-old Jack Heisz remarked.

“It was a helluva lot of hard work to make this happen,” Paul Heisz added.

The new shelter sports a beautiful large sign denoting it as ‘The Kickapoo Ringers Horseshoe Club’ shelter, and also a smaller sign inside that reads, “You’re never too old to play horseshoes.”

The group is hoping to raise funds for a placard listing all the people and groups that helped to make the new facility possible. Donations can be sent to the club care of Jim Maybee, at 207 Watermelon Way, Gays Mills, WI, 54631.

“We’re really thankful to Russ and the many volunteers that made this happen,” Bun Carley said. “It’s up to snuff, and available to everyone, from competition players to just friendly pitching, and it meets the national standards.”

In addition to planned tournaments on Saturday, July 7 during the Stump Dodger Bash, and during Apple Festival in September, regular Wednesday night “pitching for fun” will resume starting Wednesday, July 4, at 5 p.m. There might event be another tournament in August, so stay tuned for more information.

July 7 Tournament

At the July 7 Tournament being held during the Stump Dodger Bash, many officials from the Wisconsin Horseshoe Pitching Association (WHPA) will be on hand to observe and help with digital scoring of the event. Those individuals include Fred Lane, Marketing and Publicity Director; Dave Volz, Webmaster and candidate for First Vice President; Kevin Brekke, Second Vice President; Jimmy Paulson, Editor of the WHPA newsletter. Russ Brockway has been appointed as the WHPA Historian.

Gays Mills Village President Harry Heisz is allowing the village to provide bleachers for the tournament, and there will be food and beverages available. The ‘Kickapoo Valley Open’ Tournament classes will start at 9 a.m., 12 p.m., and 3 p.m. The entry fee is $20, with a maximum of 36 entries and no junior or cadet classes.

“Gays Mills has become a ‘horseshoe pitching hub’ for 100 miles around,” Brockway noted. “We have people signed up for the tournament from Iowa and Minnesota, as well as all over Wisconsin.”

Wednesday fun night

The Wednesday night pitching sessions are a great way for youth and inexperienced adults to dip their toes into horseshoe pitching.

“Wednesday nights are really friendly and easy-going” club member Tom Spratt said. “The games are non-judgmental and not at all hyper-competitive. We love to have new folks join us, and you’re never too old or to young to play.”

The Wednesday night games are an ideal way for a young pitcher to get invaluable mentoring from the many experienced players, as well as a good dose of local history. This horseshoe-pitching club is one of the very finest and most venerable of Gays Mills traditions.

“There’s no money involved,” Jim Maybee said. “We just draw for partners, and play for fun. Come on down!”

NHPA specifications

According to NHPA rules for a ‘Full Court Sanction’ facility, the rectangular playing area of the court is six feet wide and forty-six feet long, with an additional two feet of buffer zone, along each side and behind each pitching box for safety reasons. All surfaces within the area must be level.

For safety reasons and to minimize distractions in a ‘Side-By-Side’ court layout, the stakes of adjacent courts must be no closer than ten feet apart. The pitcher's box is a six-foot by six-foot area at each end of the court. The pit is a rectangular area filled with the “pit substance” into which the shoes are pitched. In the case of the Kickapoo Ringers’ facility, the material in the pit is sand. There are also specifications for different types of pitching platforms such as ‘full distance’ and ‘short distance’ platforms.

The stake is the target at which the shoe is pitched. Stakes are positioned in the very center of the pitcher's box, on the court's lengthwise centerline, with a minimum of 21 inches from the stake to the front and back of the pit substance. The distance between stakes is 40 feet. Stakes are one inch in diameter and made of cold-rolled steel, mild iron, soft metal, or NHPA-approved synthetic material. The top of each stake must be no less than 14 inches and no greater than 15 inches above the level of the pitching platforms.

Foul lines are defined by straight lines extending across the full-distance and extended platforms, and are placed perpendicular to an imaginary line between the stakes. The 37-foot and 27-foot foul lines are measured from the front of the opposite stakes. A single, 20-foot foul line is marked on each platform at the exact mid-point between the stakes.

Last, the air space above all courts must be free of all natural or man-made objects such as tree limbs, wires, etc. for a height of at least twelve feet above the playing area.

Complete court specifications and rules of play can be found at

Something old

Although horseshoe pitching is a longtime favorite activity in the Gays Mills area, with many folks having pits in their yards, it really got going as a community passion out in back of Robert Lee’s barbershop.

“It all started with ‘Robert Lee’s Invitational Horseshoe Tournament’ out in back of his main street Gays Mills barbershop,” club mover and shaker Russ Brockway said.

“I knew when I opened my shop in Gays Mills that I wanted to have horseshoe pits out back,” Robert Lee explained. “It is a nice, old-fashioned activity and I wanted to do my part to keep this country tradition alive.”

Robert Lee worked with his father Elmer Lee and Amel Oppriecht to construct the first pits. The concrete was donated by Prairie Sand & Gravel of Gays Mills.

“Amel was a mason, and he had incredible technique and skills to lay those pits out behind the shop perfectly,” Lee remembered.

Robert Lee’s First Invitational Horseshoe Tournament was held on Thursday, July 21, 1977 behind Robert’s Barber Shop in Gays Mills. Maurice Sanborn’s regulation horseshoes were used for the tournament, and Robert’s father, Elmer Lee, helped to construct the courts, along with Francis ‘Dutch’ Heisz, who welded and anchored the stakes, which were donated by Bill Baker.

In 1993, the area had a very rainy summer and a combination of high water, and then the collapse of the sewer behind the barbershop resulted in the club losing their horseshoe pits.

“We were faced with the Apple Festival Tournament approaching without a facility,” Lee remembered. “It was Jim Maybee, more than anyone else, that took charge and found us our temporary new home down in Lion’s Park, near the Congregational Church. The problem was, that location was prone to flooding too. Now we have a nice, permanent location for the pits that stays high and dry.”

“After all those setbacks, Maurice Sanborn and I had to get the pits moved before Apple Fest,” Jim Maybee remembers. “We built eight pits by the ice skating rink, and everyone liked having the tournament there. It was right downtown, and lots of people would stop by to watch.”

Maybee said that eventually the pits had to be moved from that site to one further over in the Lion’s Park because of flooding.

“After rebuilding the pits two times, I just decided to find a place for them up on high ground,” Maybee said. “I talked with Jimmer Chellevold and we were able to move the pits to their current high and dry location near the Log Cabin Village.”

Many thank yous

Russ Brockway and the Ringers have a long list of thank yous for the many individuals that have made the Club’s dream become a reality.

“The first year after we got the go-ahead to move to the Log Cabin Park, we got the shelter built, installed the sign in time for the 2017 Apple Festival Tournament, and created some temporary pits,” Russ Brockway said. “Then, Travis Williams got the sanctioned court facility started with clearing the old pits out, and the shoveling began.”

John Blado removed all the old concrete before construction of the new pits started. “He used the pieces of concrete to do some landscaping around the outside of the pits,” Brockway remembered.

Several Kickapoo Valley Ringers members were on hand throughout, with Paul Heisz being the ‘backbone’ of the effort, according to Brockway. Tom Spratt, Rick Swenson, ‘Old Crow’ Jim Maybee, Jack Heisz, and Bun Carley helped to install the forms where the concrete dividers would be poured. Robert Lee was unfailing in lending us encouragement to keep going with the project.

“Installing the forms took over 1,300–square-feet of 2”x4” lumber, and more than 20 pounds of screws,” Brockway said. “When the concrete was poured, the forms held 10 yards of concrete donated by Prairie Sand and Gravel.

Pouring of the concrete was done by Rich Brockway, Bob Brockway and Russ Brockway.

“The three of us got started with the pour. It was a pretty daunting task. Then, out of the blue, Ed and Billy Heisz showed up and jumped right into the effort,” Brockway said. “And then, ‘Young Crow’ Jim Maybee Jr. and Bun Carley showed up, and I’d have to say that with all that help, it went very well.”

Brockway remembers that throughout the process, the club had help from Jim Showen with a skid steer, and Jimmer Chellevold with a tractor and bucket.

“Jimmer lent a hand with the bucket so Paul Heisz could move even more dirt,” Brockway said. “Boy, we sure did a lot of shoveling!”

Brockway got materials to Paul Heisz, who then built the backboards in his garage.

“Those are probably the most solid horseshoe pit backboards ever build,” Brockway said. Heisz also made the scoreboards for the Wednesday night league.

“The scoreboards for the sanctioned tournaments were donated by Bun Carley,” Brockway said. “The boards were salvaged from the ‘Arena Pits,’ along with three stakes. Bun also made the stakes for three more pits with his jig, and installed all the stakes to perfection.”

Brockway and the Club are obviously very proud of their new facility, and extremely thankful for all the members of the community that pitched in so generously to help make it happen.

“So many people chipped in and lent a hand when they could, I just hope I’m not forgetting anyone,” Brockway said. “The pits are ‘top notch’ and they are now ready for many years of use. I’m just glad to have been a part of it – it’s like being a part of a book.”