Cannon fire still echoes at competitions, ceremonies
What a story the “old girl” would tell if she could talk. She is as sleek and trim as the day she was manufactured in 1853 and through her 160 years of existence, this federal six pounder cannon has made its way all over the country. She was used against American Indian uprisings in Wisconsin and Minnesota, it’s thought she might have made her way into the Union army during the Civil War and at one time, she was a prized possession of Captain Andrew Tainter, a lumber baron who lived in Menomonie and built a magnificent theater in honor of his dead 19-year-old daughter.
The members of the Eighth Battery Wisconsin Veterans Light Artillery know a lot of history about this cannon. Dick Fritz, a member of this group, has had the distinct honor over the years of firing off this unique piece of artillery. “Every time I get to shoot this cannon, I feel honored,” he said. “It is quite a privilege to have this cannon in our care.”
It took some research to find the old girl. That was done by Larry Hicks, also a member of the battery, and a veteran of the Vietnam War. The battery, which numbered about a dozen men back in the early 1990s, had always enjoyed shooting black powder. “But what we really wanted was a cannon,” said Dick.
“We had seen reproduction cannons fire, but we had our minds set on a real one.”
So Larry started to do a little research to find an authentic cannon. He did find out the weapon was made in Chicopee, Mass., by the Ames Foundry. “They’re still in business today,” said Dick. “They make windmills and shovels.”
Research on the cannon done by Larry and the group reveals an interesting history. This particular gun was the smallest weapon made for field artillery. It has a bronze, smooth bore barrel. They were called six pounders because that’s the size of ammunition they could shoot. There were only several hundred made. “The serial number on this cannon is 426,” said Dick.
By 1861, these cannons were obsolete. A few years before it had been discovered that rifling the barrels could make artillery more accurate; however, these cannons were commonly used during the Civil War, usually by Confederate troops. “The South really didn’t have any way to manufacture artillery,” said Dick. “So they got cannons that were already in circulation.”
After the Civil War was over, President Lincoln ordered the cannon to go to the Menomonie militia. The cannon was under the command of Captain Andrew Tainter, a lumber baron who headed the militia.
Captain Tainter later decided to keep the cannon and displayed it at the Tainter Theater in Menomonie. He had this theater built in 1889 in remembrance of his daughter, Mabel, who died of appendicitis at age 19.
Then in the 1930s, some kids decided to fire off the cannon down the main drag of Menomonie as a prank. “There was a lot of damage because they loaded it with rocks,” said Dick. “The blast broke out a lot of store windows.”
City fathers decided the best way to make the cannon safe was to fill the barrel with cement. Then it somehow found its way to the armory in Menomonie. There the gun went into disrepair, gathering dust, and all the wooden parts rotted away.
In 1989, a grant was procured from the Phillips Plastics Company and students from UW-Stout restored the cannon, including removing the cement from the barrel, making it functional again. From there, it ended up at Camp McCoy near Tomah, the toy of a colonel who was stationed there. That’s where Hicks tracked it down. He determined the rightful owner of the cannon was the Tainter Theater, and the battery was granted custody of the cannon in 1999.
Since that time, most of the members of the Eighth Battery Wisconsin Veterans Light Artillery have all learned how to shoot this piece of artillery that takes six men to safely fire. There’s the powder monkey, who is in charge of carrying the gun powder and ammunition to the cannon; a gunner who aims the cannon; load crewmen, who pack the ammo and the powder into the barrel; and a man of higher rank who instructs these artillery personnel when and where to shoot the gun.
These days, the cannon is used in many Memorial Day celebrations. For instance, it was fired off (blanks were used) at the Cassian Memorial Day remembrance at Union Grove Cemetery. The battery also takes it to schools to educate students on what Civil War artillery was about. And they also enjoy firing it at black powder competitions. In fact, not too long ago they had a competition in Findley near Necedah. There is a firing range there where pilots practice shooting from jets.
Here the military has placed old tankers, Jeeps and other wartime vehicles to use as targets. “We had fun shooting at Jeeps and tankers,” said Dick. “By the time we got done, they looked like Swiss cheese.”
The cannon will be fired off again this summer. The Eighth Battery will be competing in a shoot in Boscobel. They load and fire the cannon at a cardboard target and the team with the most accurate number of holes in the bull’s eye wins.
While the excitement of firing off the weapon has never dimmed for Dick, Larry and other members of the Eighth Battery Wisconsin Veterans Light Artillery, the future looks unsure for the old girl simply because it seems younger generations don’t have much interest in carrying on the tradition of the cannon. “Well, we’ll keep taking it places like schools and competitions as long as we can,” said Dick. “But we aren’t youngsters. We need younger people to become interested in this type of history to keep the tradition of the cannon alive.”