If you ever wondered about Vermilion’s cannons…

By Rich Tarrant

The photograph accompanying the column this week was taken by a young man named John Bernard “Bernie” Gribble during the summer of 1941.  Gribble was 16 years old at the time. Although I have no concrete evidence to prove it, the photo was very likely taken by the young man in an effort to earn a Scout merit badge in photography. It is of very good quality. In fact it was so good that it was published on the front page of The Vermilion News on 29 January in 1942. Given the fact that this was well before the time of Polaroid and digital cameras this was no mean feat on Gribble’s part. The only fault one might take with it has more to do with the newspaper staff than the photographer: the Scouts pictured were never identified.

On the other hand the photo was not really the subject of the headline over it, which read, “Cannons in the Park Fired Salutes”, or the article that followed it. Most of the information in that piece was provided by long time Village Mayor, H.R. “Squire” Williams. The reason Mr. Williams knew so much about the cannons that still sit in Exchange / Rubberneck Park was because he and a well-known Vermilion doctor, F.E. Englebry, were responsible for their acquisition back in the spring of 1898. At the time Dr. Englebry [VPJ 01/26/18] was the village mayor and Mr. Williams a young attorney.

The cannons are 32-pound (i.e. a gun firing 32 pounds of weight) Naval cannons. Mr. Williams noted that they were shipped here by train from Boston and hauled from the depot to the park by a local contractor named Dan Thompson; the local postmaster Edgar Kane furnished the lumber for the stanchions; and Harry Rose and local painter, painted them.

The first time they were fired in Vermilion was during a 4th of July celebration in 1898. A small charge – 1 and a half pounds – was loaded and fired by Mr. Williams. Those present during that “big bang” were G.A.R. members Albert Alonzo Blair, Tom Ball and Charles A. Mattison.

The last time the gun was fired was in 1921. By that time Williams was Mayor and had been several times. It was also a 4th of July celebration. At this time the newly formed Fiebirch Post of the American Legion was in charge of festivities. The Mayor offered to buy a keg of powder for the “boys” if they used the cannon, and two local veterans, Marty Strahle and John Leidheiser, attempted to secure the powder with no success. Finally they acquired a keg of coarse grain blasting powder.

The cannon they used was the one facing Lake Erie. During the cleaning of the gun it was found that a priming of black powder was required to ignite the main charge of blasting powder. They used old fishing nets as wadding. At sunrise on the Glorious 4th the first round was fired attracting every youngster in the village to the park like a magnet. Mr. Williams specifically noted that eleven-year-old Vermilionite John Trinter was the first to arrive. The gun was then fired at stated intervals throughout the day.

A grand finale of sorts was slated for a sunset service in the park. Unfortunately, it was discovered that there was no black powder left to prime the gun. While Bill Tarrant, the first legion post commander, was searching around for something to use, the gun crew filled the cannon with wet nets and mud. Mike Kishman who was clerking at Albert Hart’s drugstore while on vacation from medical school suggested that ether could do the job. And it most certainly did.

I am amused by Williams’s eyewitness description of the sunset ceremony that ensued: “The people collected. The flag flew high on the pole. Babe Thompson’s bugle sounded retreat. Tarrant stood by the canon with its charge primed with the ether. He lighted a safety match and placed it over the touchhole. Then things happened.”

            “With a thunderous roar the canon leapt into the air, carriage and all; snapped off the steel cable with which it was anchored, the cannon came down much off the base; windows rattled; the bass drummer in the G. A. R. Band, Johnny Krapp, held both heads of the drum to save it from vibration; the mud in nets spewed from the Canon tore into the cement form that Phil Darley had just built for the Kishman Fish Company’s twine loft, and raked the river to beyond the lighthouse.”

“The band played the national anthem; the flag came down with the crowd standing at attention.”

Methinks, however, that the crowd was not really standing at attention. They were frozen in shock. In any case, if you ever wonder about the cannons in the park, that is the story. It’s also very likely the reason they’ve not been fired since 1921.

Ref: The Vermilion News 01/29/1942.

Vermilion resident Rich Tarrant has agreed to share many of the photos and stories he has acquired from the former Vermilion News and other local sources with the readers of the Photojournal. Rich is the youngest son and a grandson of the late proprietors of The Vermilion News (1897-1964). Readers may email him at: rnt@twc.com

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