An exhibit at the Yellowstone County Museum celebrates the life and achievements of expert marksman Tom Frye who lived in Billings during his retirement.
Frye was born and raised in Ohio and during World War II he became a gunnery instructor in Florida. After the war, Frye improved his sharpshooting skills and eventually be became an exhibition shooter for the Remington Firearms Company. He also went on to achieve a variety of world records for his marksmanship. He also created artworks by shooting through sheets of metal and paper. Frye died in 1982 but some of the images he created by firing a gun are now on display at the Yellowstone County Museum near the Billings/Logan Airport.
"We show the development of his artwork, how a lot of work really went into these silhouettes as we call them," said museum curator Kathy Barton. "He could shoot them out one bullet at a time. Freehand you could say, just out of photographic memory."
Eighteen of Frye's images are displayed at the Yellowstone County Museum.
He created advertising, signs and logos for some Montana businesses. Frye was fond of silhouettes of Native Americans "much like the bust of an Indian found on those old buffalo nickels," Barton said.
She stood in the museum's exhibit hall as she explained the different styles Frye used to create a series of four Indian heads.
Barton pointed to one head and described Frye's technique: "We have an Indian facing in profile to the left. He's wearing a headdress and it has six feathers on it. The headdress has a medallion over the ear and a fairly long headband here," said Barton.
The other Indian silhouettes in Frye's series look slightly different. Each has a headdress with more feathers than the last one and Frye designed the eye in each profile with a variety of shapes.
The Frye exhibit also includes silhouettes of the popular Muppets Bert and Ernie. "I grew up loving Sesame Street as a young boy," said Yellowstone County Museum Director Matthew Fesmire. "When I saw we had the Bert and Ernie pieces that was just exciting!" he said.
"The Muppet silhouettes show that Frye had a sense of humor," Fesmire said. "He even glued fake fur on Bert and Ernie's heads."
Curator Kathy Barton explained that Frye also was hired to do some sharpshooting work in film. "His skills showed up in some great old movies including 'Spencer's Hill' a movie starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara" Barton said. "It was filmed at the Grand Tetons" Barton added. "They would hire expert shooters to be on set and actually fire at targets that were on camera while the actor pretended to fire," Barton said. "They were actually live rounds flying around on Hollywood sets, and I don't think that would happen anymore," she said.
"Frye had a great relationship with Billings," said Tim Price, who's written a book about Tom Frye. "Frye loved Billings, and Billings loved him back." Price's book "Shooting for the Record: Adolph Toepperwein, and Sharpshooting's Forgotten Controversy" examines Frye's relationship with fellow exhibition shooter Adolph Toepperwein, who also created images by shooting through metal and paper targets.
"Adolph Toepperwein, before he was a gun shooter he was a cartoon artist," Price explained. "He was very gifted with his hands. So, there was this dominant gene of good hand-eye coordination, and Tom Frye had it as well. Frye's father was a draftsman and his mother was a hand maker of fine women's hats. Artistry ran in his family," Price said.
While Toepperwein and Frye were friends, the two also had a competitive relationship. In 1959 in Reno, Nevada, Frye broke Toepperwein’s sharpshooting world record after Frye fired at 100,000 hand-thrown wooden cubes. Frye only missed six of the wooden blocks. Toepperwein later wrote a letter to Frye congratulating him.
"Toepperwein also seemed to use that letter to accuse Frye of cheating," Price said. "Somebody goes out and shoots more than 100,000 little wooden blocks with a .22 caliber and they're not much bigger than a little alphabet block, that's amazing" Price said. "I think he was commending Tom Frye for going after this, he know what a physical grind it was, but at the same time he (Toepperwein) never felt like his record was broken," he said.
However, Frye may be best known for his artworks. The Tom Frye exhibit continues at the Yellowstone County Museum through the end of the year.