CHESTER – Though it’s been years since the Civil War cannons have stood sentinel in the town common, thanks to the efforts of a handful of dedicated residents and the historical society, they’ll soon be back.
And though the armaments are still in pieces around town, the bulk of their refurbishment is now complete.
Through the years the elements took a hard toll on all of the cannons’ wooden pieces and for years now, everything from the wheel hubs and spokes to the carriages in which the cannons sit have needed replacement. Though the Boy Scouts helped refurbish them in years past, it wasn’t too long before they were falling apart again and needed to be removed.
While many complained about the diminished state of the cannons and asked that they be seen to, that effort only went so far, just moving the cannons off the green and into storage. Most recently they sat untended in the old highway garage. It wasn’t until the Chester Historical Society offered to take ownership of the project, led by president Don Brown, that things got moving.
Brown has done the bulk of the work, with support from the society and a few residents who considered it their civic duty to help out.
These days, Brown’s woodshop above his garage is largely taken up with the heavy beams and cross pieces of the cannons’ carriages as they dry and become ready for paint. He’s spent hours and hours on the project – hundreds in his estimate – with only the weather-beaten wood of the old cannons as a guide. But Brown has many years of woodworking experience, including the refurbishment of antique chairs and wagons, all of which lent to this latest project.
The wood is drying, and Brown hopes to have the cannons painted, put back together and out on the common by Memorial Day. The common is located across the street from both the Village Cemetery and Stevens Memorial Hall, in the grass in front of Spollett’s General Store.
One of the reasons the work isn’t complete yet is because of the material chosen for the beams, material chosen for its longer life. While one might find pressure treated pine or heavy oak at their local lumberyard, Brown sought out Chester’s local wood expert, Dick Lewis of Chester Forest Products, for tips. Lewis shied away from oak and instead pointed Brown towards a New Hampshire species, black locust. It dries so hard, Lewis explained to Brown, that you’ve got to work it while it’s green, if at all.
But the locust should keep the cannons’ supports in good condition for longer.
After the advice was given and the wood procured, cut and delivered, Lewis declined any payment for it, a donation of time and materials that pushed the project another step toward completion.
The most complicated portion of the project was the creation of new wheels. The wooden and steel behemoths stand at about five feet tall and weigh hundreds of pounds, and though Brown has some experience in creating wagon wheels, he was more comfortable in contracting out this portion of the project.
“I built the wheels on my own wagon and it was a humbling experience. I have a lot of respect for the work that they (wheelwrights) do,” said Brown.
A visit to a Mennonite and Amish run wheel manufacturer in New Holland, Penn., solved the next step of the project. Brown had previously worked with the shop, Witmer Coach, on a separate project and found them to be not only expert craftsmen but also scrupulously honest.
The shop initially quoted $750 per wheel, but to bring the cost down Brown offered to cut all the wood out of the old structures and clean and sandblast their steel parts. This brought the cost to the town down to $515 per wheel.
Even then, when the work went a little more easily then planned, the shop dropped the price to under $400 per wheel.
The board of selectmen initially authorized $3,200 for the project, a sum included in the current year’s budget.
Witmer Coach had a way of doing business that more than impressed both Brown and the man who volunteered his time to transport the wheels back and forth, John Colman.
Colman took on his part of the job because he felt responsible for at least part of the project after complaining many times to the powers that be that nothing was being done with the antiques.
“I felt it was part of our town and we had spent money in many areas, but we’d done nothing to fix up our common,” said Colman. “I felt obligated because I had done my share of bitching about where they were.”
Colman took the hubs and steel rims (known as tires) to Pennsylvania in September and just recently picked up the completed wheels in December. Chester resident Colin Costine gave use of his trailer for the second trip.
Colman said he was very impressed with the outfit that did the work. They welcomed him in and showed him how they worked and never once complained that he was interrupting their productivity.
The shop is set up primarily to handle the wheels off the buggies the Amish and Mennonites use for transportation.
“It was fascinating,” said Colman about the work and layout of the shop.
Brown said it was a pleasure to work with the shop, and found their honesty and openness refreshing.
So now the wheels are in town, together with the cannon and hardware in the old town garage, and the rest of the structure is in Brown’s shop, drying.
“I’m pleased,” said Colman about the project. He gave a lot of credit to Brown and his work and ingenuity for getting the project to its current phase. “I’m really looking forward to seeing them where they should be.”