The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Outdoors

March 4, 2012

Cross: Wells Gun Show more than just guns

ST. PAUL — Way back in 1960, the Remington 870 was just 9 years old, one could still buy a spankin’-new Winchester Model 12 and a new, Belgian-made Browning A-5 complete with a ventilated rib could be had for a lot less than $200.

And members of the newly formed Wells Rifle and Pistol Club were putting their heads together to come up with a way to fund their new organization’s activities.

According to Norbert Sonnek, who has been a club member for more than three decades, the organization was formed after dwindling membership and waning interest in the Wells Sportsman’s Club prompted that group to dissolve.

After inheriting the defunct club’s property and remaining assets, Rifle and Pistol Club members hit on the idea of holding a gun show every spring.

Now, more than a half-century later, the event continues as one of the largest and longest running firearms expositions in southern Minnesota.

“There were just eight tables at the first show, which was held in the community building,” Sonnek said.

The show quickly grew too large for that venue and moved to the local high school gymnasium where it continues to be held.

“This year, we’ve got 360 tables and over 40 on the waiting list to get in.”

Setting up for the big show usually is a pretty smooth operation.

“After 52 years, we’re a pretty well-oiled machine,” said longtime club member John Vee. “About all there is to do is help exhibitors set up when they start arriving at 4 p.m. Friday and then help them pack up at 8 p.m. Sunday.”

But things weren’t running quite so smoothly back in 2001 as the local gun club queued up for the long-running show.

According to Sonnek, a newcomer to the south-central Minnesota community took offense at the long-standing tradition of having a gun show in a school building.

“Guns” and “school” together are just the kinds of buzzwords that gain media attention and in no time, the club found itself in the unaccustomed and uncomfortable glare of controversy as reporters from newspapers and television stations reported on the show.

The dust-up eventually came to involve celebrities Rosie O’Donnell and Tom Selleck, said Sonnek.

O’Donnell is an avowed anti-gun crusader and Selleck, a gun enthusiast and life-long National Rifle Association member.

“At the time, Selleck had been a guest on Rosie’s show to discuss the gun issue and she was into him pretty good,” he said. “‘Guns kill people,’ Rosie told him and he said, ‘Yeah, like spoons make you fat,’ before walking off the show,” Sonnek said.

The person who had raised objections to the gun show venue claimed she had contacted O’Donnell and that celebrity was planning to show up in Wells to protest the event.

“Word somehow got back to Selleck and he called me,” Sonneck said. “He told me who he was and I said, ‘Right, and I’m Genghis Kahn.’”

“He finally convinced me he really was Tom Selleck and gave me his cell phone number,” Sonneck said. “He said ‘if you find out O’Donnell’s really going to be there, give me a call and I’ll be out on the next flight.’”

In the end, O’Donnell never showed and Sonnek never made the call. The annual gun show came off without a hitch.

Sonnek said his wife remained skeptical about whether it really was Selleck who had called. “I finally wrote him a letter. He got it and wrote back saying it really was him I had talked to. He even sent an autographed picture for my wife. She’s still got it.”

The publicity over the brief dust-up actually paid dividends.

“In most years, we have about 3,000 to 3,500 people come to the show. That weekend we did 6,000 and the next year, 4,200. We have a lot of community support,” he said.

While firearms are the main attraction, the event has gained quite a reputation for the food the club serves during the show.

Vee said members have been busy preparing some 250 pounds of beef, 60 pounds of pork, 10 turkeys, 50 pounds each of sausage and wieners, and the crowning glory — more than 200 handmade pies — to feed show goers next weekend.

“Some people call us the Wells Pie Show now instead of the Wells Gun Show,” Sonnek said.

Proceeds from the event are used to fund club activities including Youth Firearms Safety and 70 percent is donated to several community causes.

Hours for the show are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at the United South Central High School in Wells. Tickets are $5 for adults. Kids age 14 and younger are admitted free when accompanied by an adult.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at jcross@mankatofreepress.com.

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