Michael McCleery, publisher of the Commonwealth Journal, is a native of Ohio. He has been here a little more than a year.
During a casual conversion one day last week, Jeff Neal, our managing editor, was telling McCleery about The Great Pigeon Shoot of '89 in downtown Somerset. He couldn't; well he didn't believe it. Neal called Editor Emeritus Bill Mardis to verify the pigeon story.
It really happened. Thirty years have passed since Mardis, then managing editor, and Neal, then Sunday sports editor, directed a news staff huddled in the Commonwealth Journal newsroom as sharpshooters from roofs of downtown buildings blasted a festering pigeon population with shotguns. It sounded like a war zone.
Carrol Estes, then community development director for Somerset and Pulaski County, organized the pigeon shoot. He remembers the event didn't sit well with everybody, particularly bird lovers. "My family was threatened ... I got all kinds of threats," he recalled.
Pigeon population in downtown Somerset, estimated at 4,000 birds, was unbelievable. There was pigeon poop everywhere, splashed on sidewalks, awnings, lamp posts; like whitewash. Merchants were demanding something be done. The Masonic Building and Goldenberg Furniture Store complex were favorite pigeon roosts.
"We tried everything, trapping, poison, programmable sounds to deter birds from large open spaces, nothing worked really well; we even talked about birth control," Estes said. Trapping and poisoning had reduced the pigeon population about 1,000 but another 3,000 unwanted birds still swarmed downtown.
Estes said he realized something must be done when a small child in Nicholasville died from histoplasmosis, a type of lung infection caused by inhaling Histoplasma capsulatum fungal spores found in soil and in droppings of bats and birds.
The community development director got permission from Somerset City Council to conduct a pigeon shoot. Actually, there were two shoots, the first on Sunday, March 12, 1989 and a sequel, Saturday, March 18, 1989. Police blocked all traffic from downtown, but a few observers and protesters got through.
Twenty-one local men, stationed atop downtown buildings, including the Commonwealth Journal, fired 2,625 rounds on that Sunday afternoon, killing between 500 and 600 pigeons. On average, they said one pigeon fell for every five shots. Blazing shotguns created what seemed like lightning and thunder on a hazy but partly clear Sunday afternoon.
The pigeon shoot created quite a stir. News helicopters from Lexington and Louisville circled overhead, the air was full of floating feathers, like snow, and dead and injured birds clogged building gutters and littered streets. Birdshots rained on Fountain Square like sleet during the three-hour shoot. Sharpshooters had to quit early to keep from disturbing Sunday night services at local churches.
A second pigeon shoot was set for late the next Saturday to rid the downtown of more pigeons as they came in to roost. By this time protesters here and across the state had organized in an unsuccessful effort to stop the second shooting.
The late Sibyl Randall, a retired school teacher and bird lover, picked up injured pigeons during the Sunday shoot and showed her bloody hands to photographers. She said the community "should be ashamed."
Randall and a lot of locals fed the pigeons. Courthouse workers could tell when the Circuit Judge R.C. Tartar walked from his apartment on Vine Street to his office. Pigeons swarmed around the judge; his hand full of seeds for the birds. Judge Tartar was not on the bench when the pigeon shoots occurred. He would have stopped it, point blank.
Somerset's final pigeon shoot killed between 200 and 300 birds. Protesters were barred from downtown during the Saturday shoot, but it didn't quiet criticism of the event. Somerset for a time was labeled a "redneck" town, among other things.
The event did generate a bit of levity. An enterprising receptionist at the Commonwealth Journal dug through some old recipe books and came up with a recipe for pigeon pie. It sounded tasty but apparently nobody made the pie. By dessert time, pigeon shoots had created so much ruckus eating a pigeon would have caused indigestion.
Time changes everything. Today, there are a few pigeons in downtown Somerset, not many; the birds certainly are not the problem they were 30 years ago.
A lot has happened downtown since the infamous bird shoots. Millions have been spent on revitalization, including the Virginia Theater, but Gene Autry with his smoking six gun atop Champion, his trusty horse, never created the excitement of The Great Pigeon Shoot of '89.
Now retired, Estes was asked if he were still community development director, and if there were a pigeon problem, would he stage another shoot.
Estes laughed. "I just really don't know," he said.