Gun Questions

As we look forward to Memorial Day I would like to highlight the artillery piece in the front yard of the Fenton Mansion. It is not owned by the Fenton History Center nor is it an artifact in our collection. It is owned by the city of Jamestown and is under the care of the Parks Department. But Fenton is proud to have it here and I, as a Fenton employee, have had a personal interest in this gun for 10 years.

Someone should take up the task of exploring the history of cannons in Chautauqua County. I know of two supposed instances (Dewittville and Steele Street) of cannons left behind from military events of the late 18th century. The early settlers acquired a small number of cannons left over from Oliver Hazard Perry’s victorious fleet on Lake Erie in the War of 1812. Two were used to celebrate the first Chautauqua Lake steamboat run July 4, 1828. Then there is the question of the fate of most of the Sea Lion’s cannons first fired in 1984.

There is an appalling record of accidental maiming and death from unwise cannon firings in 19th century July 4 celebrations.

The Grand Army of the Republic was, excepting perhaps for The Society of the Cincinnati, the grandfather of all veterans’ organizations. It was open to Union veterans of the Civil War. The Jamestown post, James M. Brown Post 107, existed from 1869 to 1872 then re-formed under the new number 285 in 1882. Its meeting rooms were in the Fenton Mansion starting in 1926 and it is listed here until 1942 although the last Civil War veteran in Jamestown died in 1939. The Sons of Union Veterans (James Hall Camp) continued to meet here until they disbanded in 1950.

That was the local post. The national GAR hired Cora Gillis as secretary in 1945. She had her office in the mansion from 1953 until the last Civil War veteran in the country died in 1956.

At some point, possibly 1888, possibly earlier, the Brown Post acquired two Civil War cannons. These were used in area parades for decades but at some unknown date prior to 1941, ended up parked on the Fenton Mansion front lawn. Many such cannons went for scrap in World War II drives. Dunkirk lost eight, but ours barely survived.

The Brown Post had given all its relics and possessions to the Sons of Union Veterans. We have a 1968 letter from Cora Gillis saying the Sons gave one of the cannons to the VFW, presumably Tiffany Post 53, and it was placed on the “grounds of the new Post Office” meaning the current post office which opened in 1960 with the small veterans’ park adjacent. The other cannon seems to have gone ultimately to the East Randolph Cemetery.

In 2000 the VFW was contacted by Kenneth Watterson on behalf of the Civil War Artillery Museum in Emmaus, Pa., near Philadelphia. Partly on concerns about vandalism and theft, an exchange was worked out for a replica. In the same year, the East Randolph Cemetery exchanged its cannon with the Civil War Artillery Museum of Venetia, Pa., south of Pittsburgh also represented by Watterson. It seems that Watterson arranged similar transactions with many holders of Civil War cannons throughout the nation between 1999 and 2005. His Emmaus museum was a private museum open by appointment only. It was closed and sold in 2012. The Venetia address is listed as a hobby shop.

Some of our information indicates the GAR cannons were brass 12-pounders but the base where one was displayed in the veterans’ park looked appropriate for a 2-pounder. The replica is cast iron and looks like a 12-pounder. Were Watterson’s “replicas” all the same regardless of the size or composition of the originals?

The artillery piece currently in the front lawn is not related in any way to the earlier pieces beyond evoking the old memories. It was emplaced May 30, 1963, by the VFW according to a clipping I can no longer locate. Although the Fenton Historical Society had organized in April 1963, it did not have a presence in the mansion until July 1967 when the library opened.

This gun is a model French 75mm. It was among the first of the modern recoilless artillery productions and was used extensively from the Spanish-American War to World War II. Overnight, it rendered the Civil War cannons and other artillery, which had changed little in 300 years, obsolete.

Weather had taken its toll by 1996 when I was first approached about the gun by Gene Canfield, then of Jamestown. In 2003 and 2004 Fletcher Johnson of New York City appealed for restoration of the gun and provided funding. I was put in charge of a committee. Working through Moses Shetler of Conewango we were able to replace the wheels of the gun in 2006. Since then I have tried in vain to find someone with welding skills who will repair the frame.

In 2010 the city of Jamestown website received an email from Glen Williford in Zionsville, Illinois, inquiring about this gun and stating it has a “most interesting history.” He never responded to my reply and I was never able to locate him despite ongoing efforts.

The story of the guns on the Fenton Mansion lawn is riddled with strange turns of events, confusing mysteries and unanswered questions.