The Coming of the Cannon

In the spring of 2005, Hillsdale City Manager Tim Vagle received a most interesting request.  The US Army Tank-Automotive and Armament Command asked for his assistance in confirming the locations for the unusable army "fieldpieces" (meaning cannon and all their attendant paraphernalia like cannon balls) that were "conditionally loaned" to various cities in 1912 by the 62nd Congress.  No records existed at City Hall about a cannon that had come from the Civil War era, so Mr. Vagle did what anyone would do in his circumstances.  He contacted the volunteer researchers at the Mitchell Research Center.  Betty Beaubien took a five month journey into history to reconstruct the path taken to bring a cannon to Hillsdale.The story began when New York Senator James O'Gorman sought to obtain two condemned fieldpieces for use at a battlefield ceremony in New York State.  His success inspired other Senators to set up a clamor for unusable cannon to present to cities and villages in their own states.  Eventually a bill in the House of Representatives authorized "... the Secretary of War, in his discretion, to deliver to certain cities and towns condemned bronze or brass cannon with their carriages and outfit of cannon balls, and so forth...."  During the process of moving the bill toward passage, Michigan Senator William Alden Smith inserted his own request into the language, asserting that Ann Arbor, Jackson and Hillsdale, Michigan would be excellent homes for condemned cannon.  In the "cannon raffle" held in the United States Senate, Michigan got three of the "150 perfectly good 'condemned cannon,'" as The Hillsdale Daily News termed them.  

Meanwhile, City Manager Vagle asked the community for any information regarding the existence and location of the "Civil War cannon, etc."  Three photographs were brought to him confirming that it originally stood in front of City Hall.  One photo displayed at both the Poorhouse and the Mitchell Research Center was taken in front of City Hall.  It showed a Civil War Veterans' reunion in 1915 with a cannon poking out between two of the white-bearded old gentlemen.  The second photo was taken from City Hall, pointing south toward the Waldron Block, better known to us today as the wedge. 

As the photographs came to light, Mitchell Research Center volunteer Betty Beaubien continued her quest for documentary evidence about the cannon sought by the governmental agency.  Old copies of The Hillsdale Daily News, accessed through the extensive microfiche collection at the MRC, satisfied her need for solid proof.  In August of 1912, a telegram from Senator Smith published in the Hillsdale Daily News announced that an unusable cannon and its accoutrements were available if "this is agreeable to the people of Hillsdale."  City Councilmen found the offer not only agreeable but thrilling.  At the city's expense, the 12-pounder cannon, together with 20 cast iron shells used during the Civil War, would travel to Hillsdale from Rock Island, Illinois and would be placed on a "proper pedestal."  Interestingly, both a New York Times article and The Hillsdale Daily News use the terms "donation" and "gift" when speaking of the cannon being dispersed.  That was a far cry from the query regarding "conditionally loaned" fieldpieces in the initial letter to Tim Vagle.  

The wheels of government apparently turned as slowly in the early part of the 20th century as they do 100 years later.  It wasn't until May 30, 1914 that The Hillsdale Daily News was able to report that the cannon and cannon balls finally reached their resting place in front of City Hall.  There they stood for almost thirty years until 1942.  Then the needs of another war superseded the historic value of the cannon.  Hillsdale bowed to the pleas for patriotic Americans to support the war effort with scrap metal that could be melted down for use in our armaments factories.  On May 8, 1942,The Hillsdale Daily News reported that "The bronze civil war cannon removed from the City Hall yard this week...was sold this morning to a local junk dealer for $104."  The cannon at Lakeview Cemetery and cannon balls on the soldiers' lot in the Allen cemetery met the same fate.

Five months later members of the Michigan Historical Commission angrily protested against the destruction of irreplaceable relics.  They charged that in many cases valuable old fieldpieces were being junked only to gain publicity for the war salvage campaign.  Furthermore, they pointed out, as long as there were millions of tons of scrap lying on farms and in backyards there was no justification for the destruction of cultural and historical relics.  By then it was too late to reconsider the destruction of the 1853 cannon first brought to Hillsdale by Senator Smith.  It was gone, supposedly molded into a weapon of war once again.

In the process of investigating the mystery of the Civil War cannon's sojourn in Hillsdale, Betty Beaubien was also able to uncover the mystery of why no records existed to explain the cannon.  In 1987, storage space for city records was extremely limited.  In desperation, a document shredding company was hired.  Following guidelines from the state Attorney General regarding the length of time each type of record needed to be retained, those outside the guidelines were shredded.  The amount equaled four or five dump truck loads, some of which was valuable historic information.

JoAnne P. Miller and Betty A. Beaubien