Eighteen years ago, Rusty Darby and some hunting buddies were scratching their heads trying to come up with a fundraiser for their kids' school, something other than selling doughnuts or washing cars.
Darby had a large farm near the border of York and Chester counties and a lot of friends who liked to shoot sporting clays, and – BOOM – the High Cotton Classic was born.
For the uninitiated, shooting sporting clays has sometimes been called “golfing with a shotgun,” as the shooters move to several locations with different terrain that requires various styles of shooting. Sometimes the clays will be slung low and fast; other times, in a high arc, simulating a bird's flight.
The High Cotton Classic – now in its 18th season – has become one of the premier sporting clays events in the Southeast and has raised an amazing half million dollars for schools in York and Chester counties, as well as for the Boys Scouts, American Red Cross and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Last year the group gave $45,000 to local charities.
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This year's all-day event on Saturday has already sold out for the shooters – about 240 people have shelled out up to $275 apiece to shoot up to 100 clays in a “friendly competition” staged over more than a 100 acres of beautiful, rolling pastures, woodlands and lakes.
It also includes a hamburger lunch and a down-home, pulled pork barbecue dinner.
And if you're not a shooter, you can still come and partake in the outdoor camaraderie – $10 for lunch; $20 for dinner.
“We had no idea what we were getting into, that it would ever become this big and popular,” said Rock Hill dentist Bill Cranford with a laugh at a recent High Cotton “board meeting.” Cranford had to raise his voice over the cacophony of more than 50 shotguns being fired into the cotton fields surrounding the High Cotton “Clubhouse” – a weathered white sideboard farmhouse.
“That first year, I think we took in maybe $1,200 and cleared $600, which we gave to the school,” Cranford said. “And the funny thing is that this is not just a bunch of professional competition shooters. I bet 90 percent are just occasional skeet shooters who maybe go dove hunting a couple times a year.”
Darby and Cranford refer to the event as “part revival, part fraternity house pig picking.”
And they're right; these guys have good times doing good deeds.
They eat good, too, at their planning meetings – back loin barbecue ribs slathered in a sweet mahogany sauce one night, and Frogmore Stew with fresh Beaufort Island creek shrimp another night.
As I drove up to Darby's High Cotton Farm – about four miles south of Historic Brattonsville – I thought that I had not heard that much gunfire in one place since I'd sat in on a battle scene during the filming of “The Patriot.” Then I realized I was at the same place.
“Yes, a good bit of the movie was filmed right here in our fields,” said Darby, whose family has been in Chester County since 1776 – and Darbys have grown cotton on this land since 1886.
“We started the High Cotton Classic to raise money for Westminster Catawba Christian School – at the time their library could about fit on a pushcart.”
Darby said that initially they gave money to the school to be used for science and math programs – Westminster has even named a science lab in High Cotton's honor.
Over the years, the program has expanded to include other schools such as Northwestern, Rock Hill, Lewisville, Fort Mill, Clover, Chester and York Comprehensive high schools.
The program has expanded to the point that the organizers have had to limit the number of shooters – so that it can remain a high-quality, properly managed sporting event.
In 18 years and hundreds of thousands of shots being fired, no one has ever been injured by a gun. The organizers say that safety is paramount – all shooters must be 18 or older, and children are not allowed to attend the event.
The program has spun off a half-dozen similar sporting clays events around the Southeast, and they have even launched a popular line of High Cotton sportswear at their Web site: www.highcot tonclassic.com.
But one unexpected benefit has been a thriving youth “trapper” program in which a cadre of about 65 teenage boys are trained in gun safety, sportsmanship and manners to work at the event as volunteers – unofficial High Cotton ambassadors and the guys who sling the clays from spring-loaded throwers.
Some of the former trappers are now adult shooters, like 25-year-old housing contractor Tyson Haefele of Rock Hill. He started as a trapper when he was 10.
“It's fun, but you have to be serious about gun safety and working with all the people who come to shoot,” he said. “I learned a lot out here about what to do and how to act responsibly. Plus, we're doing it to help a lot of worthy causes in our communities.”
Jimmy Stegall has been coming to High Cotton for 17 years as a shooter and volunteer.
“I've seen this trapper program help turn young boys into responsible men,” Stegall said. “You might not think it's a big thing to get a teenager to look up at a man with a shotgun, give him a firm handshake, look him in the eye and tell him what to do, so we can run a safe program here … Sometimes I think what we do with these young boys is as important as the money we raise.”