by Bettie K. Swilley
Near the charming lakefront city of Mount Dora stands a building of rough cut cypress, situated off Old U.S. Highway 441. The parking lot is filled with pickup trucks. Inside is an outdoorsman’s paradise and over a century of history. Antique firearms and pictures of famous mountain men and frontiersmen hang from the walls. The shop stocks hundreds of guns and endless hunting and law enforcement supplies. The A.W. Peterson Gun Shop has been a part of Mount Dora’s landscape since 1953, when Leighton Baker relocated the business from Denver, Colorado, but the store’s history dates all the way back to late 19th century.
Axel Peterson came to the United States in 1877. Although he had little formal education, Peterson was good with his hands and with tools. He worked with his brother at the Sweden Tribune in Chicago as a typesetter for two years. But Peterson did not desire to live the city life. He had heard the stories of the bountiful wild game and hunting of the American West and wanted to be a part of it. Peterson embraced adventure and set out for Colorado. He arrived in Denver with ten cents in his pockets and the determination to live out the American dream.
Peterson found work with a German key maker and gun repairman. The shopkeeper recognized his high skill as a craftsman and his hard-working nature. A hunting trip with J. P. Lower landed Axel a job as a gunsmith in Lower’s shop, where he worked and saved his money. In 1886, Peterson was able to open his own business, A.W. Peterson Gun Shop, which he operated until the day of his death.
A gifted craftsman, Peterson made many of his own machines. He built scopes for target rifles, invented the bottom ejection principal in pump action guns, and designed many accessories that are still used today. He built up his reputation and his business flourished.
In 1904, Peterson partnered with George Schoyen. Schoyen was popular for his barrel-making abilities, so his name went on them, while Peterson was credited for the scopes. In 1916, Schoyen died and Peterson once again became sole proprietor.
With his reputation as a gunsmith solidified and business booming, Axel Peterson had time to enjoy the great outdoors. He had always loved hunting and scheduled many trips with famous Indian scouts and mountain men, many of who had come to him as customers and grown into friends. These men included Harry Pope, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Col. Dick Rutledge, “and Mountain Charlie” Stobie. Peterson was also a top rifleman, winning several competitions in his lifetime.
A.W. Peterson’s later became known as A.W. Peterson and Son, as Axel’s son, Roy, also became a topnotch gunsmith. Axel enjoyed his passion until his last day of life. On July 24, 1946, he died in his shop, building a .22 Ballard for a customer in Lousisiana. His son continued to operate the shop, but died four years later. The store was purchased in 1949 by Leighton Baker, who was working as a gunsmith instructor at the Colorado School of Trades in Denver.
Leighton Baker shared Peterson’s love of gunsmithing, firearms and the outdoors. Baker haunted the trails of the old West, chronicling the life of Jim Baker, a forgotten frontiersman and leading trips of American Mountain Men. He took long distance canoe trips in the Arctic and led expeditions through the jungles of South America.
In 1953, Baker moved The A.W. Petersons Gun Shop to Mount Dora, Florida. The business still thrives today, in the rough-hewn cypress wood building that Leighton Baker constructed himself. Baker’s sons, Carey Baker, Steuart Baker and Roy Baker, along with family friend and minor partner, Jerry Voorhees, own and operate A.W. Peterson’s Gun Shop today.
Senator Carey Baker remembers growing up as the son of a gun store owner. Helping at the shop was a part of his daily chores. “We lived behind the shop. I’d sweep the floors, empty the trash cans, wipe down the glass. I have incredibly fond memories of my business, even as a child,” says Baker.
Leighton Baker instilled a sense of service and community in his sons. He was an Infantry officer in the U.S. Army in World War II. Carey and Steuart followed their father’s footsteps in service to the United States. Steuart served 24 years in the Army. Carey has been in the Florida Army National Guard since 1981 and currently serves as a First Sergeant.
Politics also run in the family. In 1962, Leighton was elected to the Florida House of Representatives for Lake County. He was a staunch champion of the sportsmen’s cause while in office, instrumental in the passing of five bills in opposition to the anti-gun faction. “Politics are a daily discussion at the gun shop. Conservative politics are generally the discussion of the day,” says Carey Baker. Nearly forty years later, he was elected to Florida’s House, and was re-elected for a second term in 2002. Amidst his second term, he was deployed to Iraq as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Baker was the first state or federal elected official to serve bravely in the operation while in office. His colleagues tied a yellow ribbon around his chair until his safe return. He won the 20th district seat in the Florida State Senate in a special election and was reelected to full terms in 2006 and 2008. While in the state senate, he has proudly cosponsored virtually every pro-gun bill that has been brought forward. He says, “It’s a great feeling to know that 100 years from now, Floridians will be able to enjoy their rights to own guns and hunt on the land that was set aside, and that I took part in that.”
And 100 years from now, the historic A.W. Peterson Gun Shop will still be a thriving business and a place where sportsmen can gather and exchange stories of the great outdoors and talk politics as they have for over a century.
A.W Peterson Gun Shop
4255 W Old US Highway 441
Mount Dora, FL 32757
Author bio blurb here.