COLUMBIA – There’s no whining at Prairie Grove Shotgun Sports.
Just minutes beyond an unpaved road, upon a barren stretch of land, sits a wooden cabin comfortably situated upon 200 acres just east* of the Columbia city limits.
Smoke billows from a chimney. Stray dogs and overweight cats congregate beyond the entrance, eagerly greeting each customer that happens to walk by.
Once inside, a musky smell and the beady eyes of mounted animals welcomes visitors and creates a unique atmosphere. Regulars happily devour homemade beef brisket on a Thursday afternoon.
In the corner, a fireplace crackles and heats the room. It’s surrounded by tattered couches and splintered firewood, and numerous plaques are positioned beside it.
But there’s one plaque in particular, enshrined directly above the fire. The words jump out in bold, red type, screaming the commandment that guests and members are cautioned to follow.
"Thou Shalt Not Whine."
It’s a sentiment that Ralph and Mary Ann Gates live by, an all-encompassing pact that relates to their business, their life and, most directly, the sport of competitive shooting.
“There are some competitors, if they miss a target, ‘the sun was too bright, the clouds were too heavy, the wind was too hard, the temperature was a half a degree off.’ There’s always an excuse for anything other than, I mismanaged the shot,” 65-year-old Ralph Gates said, his voice stern and severe, a stone cold stare in his eyes. “I don’t believe in whining.”
He didn’t whine when he personally bulldozed and built the entrance to the shooting range in 1992, and he doesn’t whine now. Ralph Gates’ stamp has been left throughout the property, his credo instilled into patrons.
“When you’re with shooters, they say, it’s not the Indian, it’s the arrow,” a smiling 65-year-old Mary Ann Gates said. “Our former manager had a sign that said, '$5 whining charge.' And we would offer some people that. If they would like to prepay, that is perfectly OK.”
Shooters who come to Prairie Grove vary from blue-collar locals to CEOs. They come year-round, while the summer air is hot and muggy and when winter covers the fields in mounds of snow.
Regardless of the background, the sport of competitive shooting does not discriminate.
“There are club members that could write a check for a million dollars and not feel it. There are club members that can only shoot one round of skeet because that’s all they can allocate toward recreation that week or month,” Ralph Gates said. “I would almost challenge you to go sit and watch, and I would bet you couldn’t pick out which end of the scale those people are on.”
The MU club shooting team perfectly fits into the scale. Competitors range from amateur shooters to seasoned veterans, as weekly practices and yearly competitions bring them to Prairie Grove.
Ralph Gates, aside from owning the land and equipment and managing Mid America Mortgage, spends his free time mentoring the young shooters who flock to the range.
Lauren Kruse, an MU junior on the shooting team, receives tips and guidance from the Gates, who she lovingly refers to as her “Mizzou grandparents.”
“Mr. Gates has always been a supportive, unofficial coach. I think it has always been a passion of his. And Mrs. Gates is one of the sweetest women I’ve ever met,” Kruse said. “She cooks amazing food. Her pulled pork sandwiches and potato casserole … it really doesn’t get any better than that.”
But Mary Ann’s contributions are not limited to just the kitchen. She takes pride in decorating and creating a warm, comforting environment inside the cabin. Mounted animals, including deer, turkeys, hogs and rams, each carry their own personality as well as a custom-fitted Santa hat that was hand crafted by Mary Ann for the holidays.
She even managed to fashion a hat for a mounted snake.
“It was so small it fit on my little finger,” Mary Ann Gates said, laughing. “Most of the mounts here are things that wives won’t let their husbands hang at home.”
It’s the fine details that make Prairie Grove different from any other range.
Stray animals seem to gravitate toward the cabin, freely roaming the grounds as they comfortably situate themselves wherever they please.
Bowls of food and water are littered on the front porch. Doghouses act as hotels for the temporary visitors. Locals have come to name a number of the animals and have grown attached to some of the so-called pets of Prairie Grove.
“Fat Cat 1, Fat Cat 2, Long Dog, White Dog and Red Dog,” Kruse said, listing the animals one by one. “The regulars are the two really, really fat cats that you see walking around. And White Dog. She’s been at the range for as long as anybody can remember.”
“It’s pretty much the epicenter of worthless animals,” Ralph Gates said.
So far, nobody seems to mind.
In early December, along with the animals that inhabit the grounds, the 200-acre range contains deep-wooded paths, murky ponds, shattered targets and fallen trees dusted with recent snowfall, making Prairie Grove a change of pace from urban lifestyle.
“I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s just an old world atmosphere,” Kruse said. “There’s definitely a different air around shooting.
“You don’t get the hustle and bustle of big town Columbia around you. You go from inner-city Columbia to the middle of nowhere, and it only takes you 10 minutes to get there.”
Ralph and Mary Ann Gates have created an atmosphere where shooters, hungry customers and stray animals can sit back and enjoy the natural settings that occupy the range.
Any shooter, young or old, rich or poor, amateur or expert is welcomed.
Just remember, no whining.