A previous blog post discussed the furor that erupted in Acton in 1936 over placing a cannon from World War I on the town common. After much contention, it was installed near the town hall. Unfortunately, the Society does not have a picture of it, and the cannon is no longer there. Until last week, we had not found anyone who knew where it went.
One of our volunteers has been cataloguing a large number of newspaper clippings that came to the Society with records of the local American Legion. It turns out that among the clippings was the story of the fate of the World War I cannon.
The American Legion materials include an article and two letters that were printed in an unknown newspaper, one dated December 19, 1942. Thanks to these clippings, we now know that the cannon was taken as part of the nationwide scrap metal drive in 1942. War production was gearing up, and citizens were urged to contribute not only metal but paper, rags, rubber, phonograph records, and even used fat to counteract shortages in military supplies. Along with school, church, and veterans’ groups, an Acton Scrappers Club was formed to collect material. Acton had a “scrap heap” at Kelley’s Corner. However, the World War I cannon went farther away. The article entitled “ACTON DONATES WORLD WAR GUN,” announced on November 12 (no year) that the nearby town of Acton had contributed a 7,420 pound cannon to the salvage drive conducted at Fort Devens. Fort supply officer Colonel Thomas Mahoney sent a “powerful ordnance wrecker” to Acton to pick up the gun which was dismantled and added to the Fort’s “immense scrap stockpile.”
The writers of the letters in our collection were veterans and were certainly in favor of aiding the war effort. One of the writers was Herbert Leusher, Commander of the American Legion. He wrote that members of the Legion were busy gathering scrap metal themselves. However, they were upset that they had not been informed about plans to scrap the cannon that was, to them, a memorial. Legion members had been instrumental in bringing it to the town. Leusher said that “gladly would my organization have given its consent for the removal of the cannon but I would have called it a common decency to have been notified.” Someone in the town must have been involved in arranging the removal; it was presumably that person or people with whom the American Legion members were unhappy.
The Legion members were not the only group dealing with these issues. In 1942, many metal items of historical, sentimental or aesthetic interest were claimed for the national salvage campaign. Railings, grates, and fences were torn down, including the iron fence around the State House in Boston. In August, Franklin Roosevelt called for the donation of old cannons and bronze statues that resided in parks and suggested that they could be replaced after the war with newer items. In the resulting patriotic fervor, the conflict between the tug of history and the need of the present was felt all over the country. A historic cannon was sometimes used as the impetus for local scrap drives. Though obviously the needs of the troops were paramount, opposition arose from people who wanted to make sure that the supply of “junk” was exhausted before historical artifacts were sacrificed. Such objections were not always appreciated; newspapers carried the story of St. Louis citizens who tried (unsuccessfully) to conduct a midnight mission to force the “donation” of a cannon on the capitol grounds to a salvage drive. Locally, newspapers reported debates about the fate of memorial cannons in other Massachusetts cities and towns, including Billerica, Burlington, Cambridge, and Townsend. Pittsfield in Western Massachusetts had collected cannons earlier in the year and, with ceremony, sent them in a “cannon caravan” over the route by which Henry Knox delivered artillery captured at Ticonderoga to help liberate Boston in 1776.
Reading about the widespread scrapping of old cannon and other cherished items in 1942 makes the second letter in the Society’s collection more understandable. Major Charles Coulter’s letter talked about the Civil War cannons on the Town Common, with a colorful description of his views on Acton’s Civil War memorials. (His cynical assessment may have been shaped by the fight over bringing the World War I gun to the town in the first place.) Usefully, he described the cannons; they were rifled Civil War Parrotts, obtained for the town of Acton by Congressman John F. Fitzgerald, shipped to South Acton at government expense, and then brought to Acton Center by Nelson Tenney, who made the mounts and placed them on the Common. In Coulter’s view, they had no historic or sentimental value and no connection to Acton. “The scrap heap is the place for them.”
Taken by itself, Major Coulter’s letter seemed surprisingly strong. However, reading about similar debates in cities and towns across the county allowed us to understand the context in which it was written. The Acton Legion’s World War I veterans were upset, not only that their memorial cannon was removed without notice, but that the big Civil War guns on Acton’s Town Common were left behind. Perhaps emotions were particularly high because the fight over obtaining the World War I cannon was still quite fresh in the memory of the Acton’s veterans, but they would naturally wonder why their cannon was considered less worthy of preservation than those from the Civil War.
So Acton’s cannon controversy continued. In the end, despite Major Coulter’s views, the Civil War cannons stayed. Clearly someone decided that it wasn’t worth the cost, whether monetary or political, to send the old cannons to the scrap heap. The World War I veterans were memorialized in a bronze plaque across the street; fortunately, despite concerns of some of the veterans, the salvage drive never went so far as to claim it.
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