Sunday, May 9, 2010

Search for Secrets of A Sunken Cannon - 78

Upon the death of Walter Tompsett of Cannonsburg, Michigan in 1885 the entire community became the ultimate secret society. Nobody talked to anybody they met on the streets of the tiny hamlet. Since then the town has pretty much stayed the same for 125 years. Just three current businesses owned by Don Kurylowitz, the Post Office, Cannon fire station and the Cannon Township Historical Museum open 2-4 Sundays.

Cannonsburg houses and everywhere else are more than places to hang out a shingle, live, eat, sleep, raise children like rabbits, rabbits, too, wheat, strawberries, cherries, etc. To keep the little woman happy means changing, remodeling an old house or adding some new conveniences to keep up with the Joneses, but old houses, too, can be museums of past history. Lots of things get buried under layers of paint, plaster, wood, linoleum, wood flooring, roofing, aluminum and vinyl siding or things buried between insulation and exterior walls. Attics, crawl spaces and old basements can be treasure troves.

Things sometimes get shoved inside old pocket doors, walls and floors or tacked and forced into splinters of wood. Legends get written on ceiling wood or on studs. Some are cherished items owned by dads hidden from wives and children or hidden by children who were told not to touch dad's tools. Special lost items are forgotten by old men until a remodeling contractor or handyman demolishes walls to upgrade the old homestead. A prime example is the hit TV show called "If Walls Could Talk" on cable or dish networks on HGTV. It's amazing the history that had been scribbled in pen and pencil inside walls, the treasure trove of artifacts and caches of lost coinage and photos tucked away for safe keeping and never retrieved by past owners.

Old houses all across America have ancient lives that show periods of prosperity with additions or alterations of neglect over many years. Structures have withstood the violent times, weather and maladies of living. My wife once lived in an old drafty farmhouse. She wished her parents weren't so poor and yet as a young girl she hated swallowing pills. She kept them between her gums and teeth then spit them into a hole in the plaster lathe wall. The taste of melting pills tasted awful, but she didn't swallow them.

Old Indian Joe Cizaukas, the Lithuanian immigrant, who owned the Christmas tree plantation at Pickerel Lake north of Townsend Park prior to his death in the mid 1980's hid his personal fortunes in the walls of his old farmhouse for safekeeping. He constantly buried his Christmas tree profits in Mason jars outside on the farm, because he didn't trust bankers and said the day was coming when the banks folded. He was a visionary with a piercing vision of the future. He squirreled away his treasures in his private rainy day bank. Bob found...

Bob found that landscapes of the past are ultimate jigsaw puzzles where time scatters the pieces, but together as a team we used our gifts of imagination to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary for dissecting the layers of past life. Knowing this doesn't guarantee faster results or successes. It takes a leap of spirit to keep focused.

Bob got the surprise of his life. He found the cannonballs not on the Schoomaker/Augustine property or anywhere near Bob Alcumbracks first big dig site, but deep in the woods behind La-Em-A-Land Mobile Home Park owned by his stepfather. The cannonballs of Bob's dreams were found inside the second story floor of the old James Thomas residence that was being remodeled in 1988. Fred Thomas was single in 1885 and lived in the Thomas residence with his father John.

Bob being a skilled carpenter was summoned for his expert advice by some younger carpenters beginning work at the old Thomas house. The remodeling and demolition of wall yielded a significant discovery. Carpenters were puzzled by the noises inside a wall and ceiling joists when struck by hammers. After pre-cutting a hole in a bearing wall with a reciprocating saw they used sledgehammers to bust out the wall, but noises heard inside were hopping or clacking into each other like poolball noises and it had them worried. The men wanted assurance from Bob that the house wouldn't collapse when a portion of the wall was removed. Before removal they braced the wall with additional studs.

The carpenter slugged the wall again, the wall collapsed with a crash and "clunk, clack, clunk" several small cannonballs rolled out of the second story floor. The heavy little 1.41 pound balls were made of iron and had the men been underneath them when they fell they could put a knot on the old bean and give them a concussion or break a foot. Bob's eyes glistened because he now had proof of the cannon's existence.

Cannonballs are to cannons, what slugs and bullets are to guns. The projectiles provide the ballistic and forensic evidence of a weapon leading to its identification. The size of the cannonballs shortened the length of the cannon by more than 50% before the third big dig started. This was Bob's first solid clue to the cannons actual size leading to its identification as being fired from a pre-1643 small calibre cannon. But, was it from the Cannonsburg cannon? We had no reason to doubt it wasn't, but why go on the assumption it wasn't.

These cannonballs showed their advanced age. They were well oxidized for over 103 years, the powdery red rust of iron came off on Bob's fingers and hands. The balls were 1.87 inches in diameter. That was half again size smaller than the 6-pounders which had a 3.67 inch bore. Cannonballs are usually thirteen one hundreths of an inch smaller than bore size. The cannonballs discovered in the Thomas house we believed were keepsake items placed in the second story floor prior to the 1880's. Probably when more space was needed for the Thomas household. These small cannonballs were unrifled and never shot from a cannon.

It would stand to reason that these cannonballs could have been squirreled away when live firing ceased. My research indicates that James Thomas probably did, but why would he make cannonballs for a larger cannon if not the Cannonsburg cannon? In James Thomas' secret life he was a blacksmith shoeing horses, wagon wheels, etc. and could have made molded cannonballs for the celebratory cannon in his blacksmith repair shop. He set himself up as the village's first blacksmith in 1867. Other blacksmiths existed off Five Mile and Honey Creek and in the Imperial Mill's area.

James Thomas as a remembrance of his better days fired the cannon and put the iron cannonballs in the first story ceiling as personal keepsakes. Bob had no reason to believe they came from a different cannon and to suggest the opposite would doom or stop further searching and esxcavations. Bob erred on the side of caution and I never stopped investigating other clues.
I felt it was prudent to think the cannonballs were Jame's keepsakes. He sold his shop in the late 1870's. Surely he would have hid the cannonballs in the floor after the terrible accident that claimed Tompsett's life. Area population in the Cannonsburg was increasing, but nothing has ever been found in the annals of community history that tells when the town elders stopped cannonball firings.

Bob always assumed the cannon was being fired eastward from atop the hill where Cannonsburg Elementary School is today. He searched the hillsides towards Schipper, which was still owned by Le Grand Cannon and John Ball in 1855. In the mid 1880's it was owned by James Nesbitt, but Bob never found any cannonballs. Bob didn't know they could have been firing leaded stones, but none were found. George Inwood, a stonemason by trade would know exactly where to find good round stones so James could add some lead.

What my research found was that the old folks in Cannonsburg said each shot echoed loudly, the business windows shimmering and people down in the village saw huge bellow of white smoke. They reported it was an "awesome" blast, but in order for the windows to rattle and quiver and see the smoke, the cannon had to be pointing either in westerly or northerly directions. They couldn't have been just firing it to listen to echoes or hear it go "BOOM!" They had to be within sighte of a distant target. Bob said he didn't entertain the thought the were shooting other than eastward. Echoes are loudest in the direction of muzzle bore.

James Thomas stashed the cannonballs so those in the future had some physical evidence of the cannon's heritage. For what purpose would Fred Thomas hide and keep the cannonballs location secret after the cannon had killed Tompsett? It was plausible Fred, his father John or grandfather James didn't want to tear apart the floor to find them. Wouldn't you think as a daily remembrance after the tragedy it'd make you depressed and sadder just knowing that the cannonball evidence was hidden in the floor. The cannon killed a friend on Independence Day 1885 so why put the cannonballs into the floor for keepsakes after the tragedy?

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