CHESTER – The center of town was closed down on the Monday morning of Memorial Day as the local historical society recalled the Civil War with period dress and the firing of the town’s twin Civil War era cannons.
Chester police shut down the road as residents crossed from the Lions Club’s traditional Memorial Day ceremony to the town common, site of the town’s Civil War Memorial and its refurbished cannons. The green was filled with more people than it’s seen in years, the Lions Club’s service seeing a similar turnout.
The draw for many were the cannons, field pieces that have stood sentinel on the green since the early 1900s. Because they are out in all weather, they periodically deteriorate and need refurbishing and this time around, led by president Don Brown, the historical society took on the work.
Last year Brown began rebuilding the cannon’s caissons and finding a place for the wheels to be remade. With the help of many volunteers, the work proceeded. When it came time to refinish the actual cannons, a stroke of luck came in through the historical society’s doors with Windham’s Forrest Garvin. Garvin, a Civil War buff and cannon connoisseur, offered to take on the task of sandblasting and painting the barrels and because of the interest he took in the job, went so far as to make the pieces fire-able again, getting the long sealed breaches open and rebuilding necessary components.
On Monday, Garvin and Brown stood in Civil War uniforms to rededicate the weapons with a bang – actually, with many bangs.
Other members of the society were dressed in period clothing as well, including Don’s wife, Jackie, in a blue dress and bonnet.
Brown spoke about the project and gave a brief history of the cannons and how they came to be in Chester. After the Civil War memorial was built at the turn of the previous century, residents thought it needed a companion on the green and the town was successful in securing two Navy surplus rifles. Though usually called cannons, the pieces are officially rifles, as they have rifled barrels. After a few more years, the town secured caissons from the Charlestown Navy Yard and soon after, on Decoration Day in 1907, rolled them out for the first time onto the green. Decoration Day originated after the Civil War to commemorate both sides’ dead, and later became Memorial Day.
Brown said it was fitting for the cannons to be rededicated this Memorial Day.
Brown spoke about the mission of the historical society in preserving and sharing the town’s history and said the cannons offered a great opportunity to do so.
Brown also pointed to the Civil War Memorial and urged residents to take a look at the names engraved there. Many are family names of those who still live and are active in town.
He said that as far as he knew, the cannons had never been fired at anyone in anger, and that despite the toll cannons just like Chester’s twins took on the battlefield, it did not diminish for him the specialness of the pieces. They’re a wonderful piece of history and Chester is lucky to have them, said Brown.
As part of Monday’s presentation, Brown thanked and gave special gifts to people instrumental in getting the cannons back out. Brown turned the spokes of the old cannon wheels into pens to give them as gifts.
Dick Lewis was thanked for his donation of black locust lumber for the caisson. John Colman was thanked for dropping off and picking up the wheels in Pennsylvania, where they were rebuilt by Amish wheelwrights. Colin Costine was thanked for the donation of his trailer for one of the trips. Aaron Mansur was thanked for his trailer as well as for welding the supports that will keep the cannons off the ground in their new place on the green.
Richard Hazelton was thanked for the information he provided about the history of the cannons during the rebuilding process. Gen and Herb Rowell were thanked for their knowledge of town history and their willingness to help out whenever needed. Tony Amato and Mike Oleson were also thanked for their efforts in situating the cannons and preparing their platforms.
After Brown spoke, he and Garvin had everyone back up a bit and they fired the cannons with a spectacular boom, smoke and a couple long flames out of the barrels. Garvin and Brown did a three-gun salute with each piece before letting others have a go.
Colman and Costine and chair of the board of selectmen Steph Landau and others instrumental in getting the cannons back had a chance, including diminutive Gen Rowell, who threw her fist in the air after letting off a mighty blast.
The air smelled heavily of sulfur and there were plenty of kids and adults who held their hands over their ears at the noise, but all had smiles on their faces, and more had phones and cameras out to catch the historic firing.
After the ceremony the cannons were made inoperable until the next time they would be responsibly fired. Brown noted concerns about the pieces being misused and precautions were taken to avoid that.
After the firing was over, people milled about, asking questions of Brown and Garvin and eating refreshments provided by the historical society.