The Olympics last week brought more attention to skeet shooting than it receives at any other time.
Skeet was invented about 100 years ago, and it has nothing to do with skeeters.
The sport evolved from a game invented in a field on Dascomb Road in Andover, a half-mile from Tewksbury. It started from trap shooting, launching clay disk targets from a spring-loaded device.
William Harnden Foster and friends Henry and Charles Davies had developed a game they called “Shooting around the clock.” They would fire at clay pigeons from 12 different positions in a circle.
When the farmer next door to the field built a chicken house, they had to cut the “clock” in half, only shooting from six stations. To this day, that is the format of skeet shooting competition.
Foster had become editor of two magazines, the National Sportsman and Hunting and Fishing, published in Boston. He ran a contest to name the shooting game. One reader submitted “skeet,” a Scandinavian word for “shoot.”
With the magazine promotion, the sport took off. It quickly became recognized as the most practical system of training in the art of shooting at moving objects.
Foster lived in Andover but his family was from Wilmington and Tewksbury. His paternal side was in the Foster family of Tewksbury. His mother was a Harnden from Wilmington, born in the old 1666 Richard Harnden house.
Bill’s grandfather, Everell Harnden, lived in the old homestead through the 1870s. About 1880, he moved to an old stagecoach tavern at Shawsheen and Main streets in Tewksbury. Everell Harnden’s friends would gather there and hunt throughout the area every fall. Bill Foster was brought up in the hunting tradition.
He was also quite accomplished as an illustrator. As a youngster, he began drawing trains and locomotives. This work gained him admission to the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston. He then studied illustration with Howard Pyle, becoming friends with N.C. Wyeth.
He landed contracts with several companies, including Oldsmobile. He created a well-known illustration of a 1908 Oldsmobile racing the 20th Century Limited.
Another client was the Parker gun company. One of his illustrations showed a man running out & firing his Parker shotgun at a hawk, carrying off one of his chickens. Many of his illustrations involved a bit of humor.
In 1908, Foster built a cabin in Freeport, Maine. Four years later, Leonwood Bean opened a store in Freeport selling hunting and fishing gear and clothing. A few years later, Foster provided the illustration for the first coor cover on the L.L. Bean catalog. It showed a hunter, decked out in L.L. Bean garb, coming face-to-face with a moose.
In 1909, Scribner’s magazine published a collection of his illustrations of flying. American Heritage republished the illustrations in 1966.
Foster signed as a crewman on a ship transporting live cattle to England. It was a rough job, but he illustrated and wrote a detailed account of the voyage.
A highly-regarded expert in several areas of field sport, he could illustrate and work with birds, dogs and guns. He authored and illustrated a classic book, New England Grouse Shooting, published by Scribner’s in 1942.
Bill Foster died while judging a field dog trials in Connecticut, on Oct. 31, 1941, just before the release of the book.
Henry Davies became a lawyer and lived in Reading. He died in 1969, the year after skeet shooting became an Olympic sport.