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Fitchburg still searching for Civil War cannons

By Alana Melanson
Sentinel And Enterprise / June 17, 2012
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FITCHBURG, Mass.—Decades ago, four Civil War-era cannons graced each corner of Fitchburg's Monument Park.

This summer there may not be any.

The location of two of the cannons is a decades-old mystery.

The Board of Parks Commissioners is considering keeping the remaining two indoors to preserve them, according to board President Angelo Bisol.

Currently, they sit inside one of the garages in the Department of Public Works yard on Broad Street, tucked in between trucks and equipment for safekeeping, but the parks commissioners are looking for a permanent home.

"We can't replace them," Bisol said. "In order to keep them in their original state they need to be out of the elements."

For years, the cannons were kept in the park from about April to October, and stored at the DPW in the colder months, according to local Civil War historian Stephen Twining.

Even being exposed to the elements for only portions of the year caused damage, Bisol said, because the wheel carriages are made of wood -- and prone to rot.

"It's getting harder and harder to repair them," Bisol said. "There's not a lot of people that do it anymore."

Two of the wheels were recently sent to a coach repair shop in Pennsylvania for replacement spokes and other pieces at a cost of about $1,600 to the Parks Department, according to Jaquelyn Poirier, head clerk of the DPW Cemetery Division.

The most recent repair is the third time in eight years that the wheels needed repair, she said. They were sent out to Pennsylvania for another $1,600 round of repairs in June 2010, Poirier said. In February 2004, repairs were funded by the Fitchburg Rotary Club, she said, and the DPW installed a cement slab at the park for them to be placed on.

Each time, Poirier said, a local man, Chet Martin, 81, has volunteered to restore and repaint them upon their return.

Bisol said the weight of the cannons has also been a factor in the frequent repairs.

According to an 1877 Fitchburg Sentinel article, the four cannons brought to the city in the 1870s each weighed between 1,157 and 1,195 pounds.

The four cannons, and 16 cannonballs, were originally obtained through the efforts of industrialist and Congressman Alvah Crocker in 1875.

In a November 2001 letter to the City Council, Peter Capodagli, co-owner of the Boulder Art Gallery, recalled seeing all of the pieces in Monument Park, something he called "quite an impressive sight for a young boy in the early `50s." He had been reintroduced to the cannons through his daughter's research into them at the Historical Society, which turned up a wealth of information he has since passed onto Twining in the hope that he may be able to assist in returning Fitchburg's two lost cannons back to the city.

For many years, the cannons "were hauled to the top of Rollstone Hill from where they woke the populace of Fitchburg before dawn on the Fourth of July," a Feb. 4, 1960, Sentinel article states. "They were shot off again at sunset time, setting off booms which echoed among Fitchburg's hills."

According to that article, all of the cannons were loaned that year to a re-enactment group called the Massachusetts 9th Light Artillery Battery for a Civil War centennial celebration, which offered to refurbish them at no cost. Six years later, none of them had been returned to the city, according to a June 7, 1966, Sentinel article, and there were rumors they had been split between Princeton, Holden and Winchendon. Another article later that month pointed to Barre, Bolton, Salisbury and even as far as Georgia. Former members of the re-enactment group, defunct by this time, claimed to have known of only two cannons, not four.

There were also rumors that they had been sold to the group for $1 each and had become their property, but city officials then said there was no evidence of these fees ever being negotiated or paid.

"One thing is certain," that June 24, 1966, article states. "Four cannon used to stand in Monument Park, four were loaned out, and four are still missing."

In that same article, a Charles Estano of Bolton, head of the former 9th Battery, says, "I certainly believe the cannon have served a far better purpose in the last five years than they have ever been able to sitting in a park, or ending up in a state of decay, as they were when I first saw them on the floor of an old barn."

A Sept. 15, 1966, article states the cannons had actually been loaned out two at a time, two in 1960 that were eventually returned, and another two in 1961 that were not. An Oct. 25, 1966, article indicates the two that had been found were recovered in Barre and Northborough, respectively, and in terrible condition.

Less than a week later, the case was turned over to the FBI, after police learned that the four cannons were actually "loaned" to the city of Fitchburg through an act of Congress and remained federal property. The FBI probe lasted only a few short months, however, because the legal title to the weapons was in doubt, according to a Jan. 19, 1967, article.

In March of that year, the Board of Parks Commissioners voted to take whatever steps deemed necessary by the city solicitor to bring the cannons back to Fitchburg. A June 24, 1970, article revealed one of the cannons to be in the possession of Estano, who offered to sell it back to the city for $3,000, the cost he said he incurred to refurbish it, and only under the condition that it be placed somewhere in prominence, and not in the "city piggery" he said it had been in previously.

The second cannon was said to be in the possession of an unnamed Kentucky doctor.

Little to nothing is mentioned about the cannons for about the next 20 years, seemingly having been forgotten, at least to the public.

"It just kind of got dropped, I guess," Twining said. "They didn't have the money, and I guess they thought it was going to cost a fortune."

In 1991, the cannons appear again in the Sentinel & Enterprise, the remaining two being housed in the Senior Center at that point. Considerations were being made in May of that year to loan them to the Massachusetts Military Division Museum in Natick, but the City Council dismissed then-Mayor Jeffrey Bean's petition.

According to Twining, some folks have suggested the cannons be returned to the old armory, but a 1995 Sentinel & Enterprise article reported the floor had sagged under the weight of the cannons. Bisol said the Board of Parks Commissioners would hopefully be able to decide on a place to put them over the course of their next few meetings.

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