In downtown Chicago, the intersection of Madison Avenue and State Street is the heart of the city. It is the dividing line between the north side and the south side, it separates the city east and west, and it has been the meeting place for reuniting veterans, blind dates, and Christmas shoppers. The tall buildings create a canopy that keeps the intersection in the shade for a good part of the day. In the shadows, people scurry from corner to corner, one side of the street to the other. Cars, cabs and buses all speed up and then come to a quick halt to let the herds of pedestrians go by. Although it lacks trees, rolling hills, and a quiet stream, downtown is a wilderness, but not the kind a traditional bowhunter would appreciate.
If you were to head west on Madison a few miles, you would be out of the city and into the urban suburb of Forest Park. There, next to a bar named O’Sullivan’s and across the street from a Starbucks and a yoga gym, you will find an archery shop that is steeped in tradition and has been serving the traditional bowhunter for sixty-six years.
Custom Archery first opened its doors in 1948, on a then-quiet street in the blue collar community of Forest Park, Illinois. The first owner, Don Schram, was a well known traditional bowhunter and was given credit for his knowledge of concealment while hunting antelope out west in open country. His advice on using quick set up blinds produced many point blank shots. In 1964, up in Iron County Michigan, Don took a 421 pound black bear with a 70# bow at a distance of 12 feet. Don Schram was also one of the founding members of the Pope and Young Club. He attended the organizational meeting in Grayling, Michigan back in 1960 and was photographed with other bowhunters such as Glenn St.Charles and Fred Bear who sat in on those first meetings. Custom Archery came into existence when Fred Bear made Don a regional salesman and distributor for Bear Archery.
One of Don’s archery instructors now owns the shop. Terry Pryor has been in charge of Custom Archery since 1993. A friend and hunting partner to Mr. Schram, Terry has seen the business grow in the last couple of years. “Hollywood,” said Terry. “With films like Hunger Games and Brave, archery has become very popular, especially with kids.” Custom Archery has three instructors working in the shop, and a never-ending list of students to teach.
“Don would close the shop the first week of October,” explained Terry, “but I keep it open year round.” The store really gets busy in July. “It seems once the fireworks from the Fourth of July are over, everyone gets ready for bow season.”
The shop hasn’t changed much in thirty years. Rustic paneling covers the walls, the floor is worn, and the hunters in the old pictures on the wall are all wearing vintage camo and flannel shirts. When you walk into the shop, you don’t just see it, you feel it. Tradition. You will see a community of traditional bowhunters dedicated to the promotion and improvement of their craft. You will feel welcomed by the staff, with a willingness to share their experience and show their expertise.
“I love traditional archery,” proclaimed Terry. “It is a year-round sport, with the practice and the muscle memory.” On Wednesdays, the shop is dominated with traditional archers lined up shoulder to shoulder, sending cedar shafts 20 yards to the targets. It is a friendly, helpful crowd. I was shooting there one time, when two younger guys–in their twenties–were on the range with rented gear. They shot a bow only a few times in their lives. They understood what part of the arrow was dangerous and how to use the recurve, but that is where it ended. I am an instinctive shooter, and at times I shoot with a pretty good cant to my bow. I am very average when it comes to my accuracy, that’s why I am there shooting. Even with my paper plate groupings, the new guys asked me a few questions. I answered back with, “I concentrate on the target, keep both eyes open, pull back to the corner of my mouth, and keep all three fingers under the nock.” The guys were grateful, and took my advice.
A half hour later, two competitive recurve shooters came to the range. Their long stabilizers and narrow carbon arrows looked very different from what everyone else was holding. Of course, their groups were much tighter than mine. This, in turn, brought the new guy asking them all of the questions. They answered with, “You need to concentrate on the arrow point, find your dominate eye, pull back to your ear, and you should use a release.”
The new archers looked at me with disappointment in their eyes, as if I had lied to them. Thankfully, the competitive guys bailed me out and explained the difference between gap shooting and instinctive shooting. The new guys looked relieved, but soon figured out they had a lot to learn, as all of us do in archery.
In many ways Custom Archery is an oasis in the middle of a concrete desert. Once inside the shop, the noises from the busy street outside are silenced, the air is calm, and the mood slow. The dark wooden walls swallow the bright lights of the metropolis, and the mounts hanging throughout the shop tell the stories that bowhunters of the past have long forgotten. Sixty-six years have passed since Custom Archery opened its doors, and the doors are still open for the novice archer and the bowhunting enthusiast. If you see Terry, be sure to say hello. He will tell you that he is too busy to talk, but if you wait long enough, you will find that forty-five minutes have gone by and Terry did all of the talking. All you need to do is sit back and listen.