Professors Garrett Thiessen (left) and Albert Nicholas examine the cannon barrel shortly after it was rescued from Cedar Creek in 1952.

Monmouth College’s fabled cannon spent half a century in local creek

MONMOUTH, Ill. — In the spring of 1903, a war that would last 50 years began — with no volleys being fired. Perhaps that was because the key artillery weapon was under water.

The war began at Monmouth College and would end there, after a number of the key combatants were dead. It involved the Class of 1903 and its mortal enemy, the Class of 1904. To fully grasp the underpinnings of the war, we must look back to the fall semester of 1900.

One of the first duties of a college class at the time was to adopt its official colors. This was important, as the class colors were analogous to a country’s flag — the banner they carried into battle. 1904 selected the colors blue and gold, and its first opportunity to display those colors occurred on the night of Sept. 21, 1900, when three young men climbed to the steep roof of the college chapel and, edging along the peak, dropped a wooden seat on a block and tackle over the front gable of the building.

Down below, a classmate, wielding cans of blue and gold paint and a brush, was hauled to the top of the gable, where he painted the numerals “’04” in large letters that could be seen by all. Tipped off to the stunt, the rival Class of ’03 tried to intercept the pranksters, but the damage was done, and the freshman class had won the first battle of what would be a prolonged war.

Things remained relatively quiet until Washington’s Birthday, 1901 — the traditional day of the Freshman Banquet. Classmates spared no expense for the gala, renting Hodgen’s Hall, a popular restaurant on the corner where Wells Fargo Bank now stands. It was an annual tradition that the sophomore class would try to disrupt the banquet by kidnapping freshman men on their way to the feast. This year, however, the freshmen outsmarted their foes, arriving at the hall early in the evening. The only damage incurred was a bottle of acid thrown into the hall by the sophs during the afternoon, but by the time of the banquet, the room was aired out.

It was clear that trouble was brewing, and four nights later, on February 26, a band of sophomores broke into the college’s main building and made their way to the attic, and then via a narrow stairway to the cupola. They secured the attic door by pushing part of a boiler against it and climbed into cupola. Once inside the cupola, they raised their class colors — orange and black — on a large banner with the numerals ’03 and with plenty of provisions, they prepared for a long siege of the cupola.

Once again, the freshman class was tipped off about the siege, and at 4 a.m., four of the bravest lads broke into the attic, ready for a scrap. The sophs responded by retreating into the cupola with provisions and tearing down the stairs to keep the freshmen out. They poured orange and black paint on their pursuers and a general fracas ensued.

College president S.J. Lyons, who lived in the manse just yards from the battle zone, was awakened by the noise and telephoned Sheriff Turnbull, who promptly arrested all of the perpetrators and ordered them to appear in his office at 9 a.m. At 8 a.m., Turnbull returned with a deputy to escort all the boys downtown. On the way, however, the freshmen made for the sophomore flag and a near riot ensued. The boys, the sheriff and the deputy all went down in a bunch, until the officers pulled their guns. When hauled before the judge, all of the boys were scolded and fined, and the public sentiment was that President Lyons overreacted in charging the boys with rioting.

The war between ’03 and ’04 would reach a crescendo in the spring of 1903 on the eve of the senior class’s graduation.

It was traditional that the graduating class would leave a memorial on the campus grounds, such as the limestone boulders that today dot the lawn. The seniors wanted something more spectacular, and through the efforts of Monmouth’s Mayor Sawyer and Congressman J. Ross Mickey of Macomb, they were able to secure a cannon — actually a 3-inch ordnance rifle that was Civil War surplus — from the arsenal at Rock Island. They planned to install it in front of the flagpole on Broadway with a plaque identifying it as a gift from the Class of 1903.

When certain members of the Class of 1904 heard rumors that the plaque would carry epithets implying the senior class’s superiority over the junior class, they saw red, and on a May afternoon in 1903, nine of them secretly plotted revenge. The boys decided they must steal the cannon and devised plans to hire a wagon to haul it away. One of the conspirators, James Peacock, enlisted the aid of his younger brother, Shellar. That night they went to home of their cousin, Zenas Spicer, who lived on a farm on West Harlem Avenue, and asked his father about hiring a team of horses and a wagon to do some work for the college. Farmer Spicer refused to rent the team unless Zenas went along. As a result, they hired a wagon, with Zenas as a driver. Other class members were successful in securing a second wagon.

The cannon itself had stood for a few days in broad daylight on the platform at the C.B.& Q. freight depot, located on South Fifth Street. Attached to the cannon was a leather tag addressed to “The Mayor, Monmouth, Illinois.” Because the cannon was consigned to the mayor and still in possession of the railroad, no one had the temerity to touch it, fearing involvement with the law. But on the afternoon of May 27, railroad officials decided that it should be hauled away and put into storage, as it got in the way of freight handling on the platform. It was taken to the Shellenberger Dray Yards, one block east, and stored in a shed behind Mr. Shellenberger’s house. That night it disappeared.

Waiting until the last streetlight was extinguished at midnight, the nine boys converged upon the dray yards with their two wagons. It had been decided that pulling an entire cannon through the city streets was too risky, so they decided to load the barrel onto one wagon and hitch the gun carriage to the back of the other wagon. This bit of strategy almost led to their undoing.

They freed the cannon from the shed and dragged it out into the yard. Here, they lifted the barrel off the carriage and proceeded to drop it into the mud. Weighing 816 pounds and unwieldy, the muzzle proved a formidable competitor and the boys spent a full 90 minutes struggling to get it out of the mud and into the wagon, fearing all the time that lights would begin going on in neighboring houses. But miraculously, all remained quiet.

Anxious to avoid detection, the wagons were sent in two different directions — one south and one west. Eventually they rendezvoused just north of the city at the old Law School, which was located directly across the road from the current Farm King store. Originally, they had planned to take the cannon to Oquawka and dump it in the Mississippi River, but the delay caused by dropping the barrel on the ground made them decide to choose Cedar Creek instead.

The wagons proceeded north on what is now U.S. 67 to the Cedar Creek bridge, which was about a half mile west of the current bridge, and just west of the old Rock Island Southern bridge. They pulled the carriage onto a wooded hillside and hoped to dump it into Cedar Creek, but the ground was too soft and they only succeeded in getting one wheel into the creek. Someone suggested they burn the carriage, and they did — the oil-soaked timbers quickly igniting.

Realizing they could never get the heavy cannon barrel into the creek from that vantage point, they tried to think of a nearby bridge from which they could toss it. Someone remembered a tall wooden bridge over Cedar Creek on the old Alexis road, just a mile to the east, and they headed for that spot. Giving the barrel a mighty heave, they pushed it over the railing, expecting it to slip out of sight under the muddy waters of Cedar Creek. Instead, it landed straight up, with the breech of the barrel sticking out of the water. There was no choice but to jump into the cold creek and drag the cannon some 50 feet downstream.

The route of the cannon abductors, sketched on a period map.

By this time, dawn was breaking and the boys had to get back to town to escape discovery. Wallace Barnes, the ringleader (who was a couple of years older, having served in the Spanish-American War), hurried back to Mrs. Hunter’s boarding house at 821 East Second Avenue where he lived with his brother and seven other Monmouth College students. Just as he arrived, he heard one of the students — a member of the Class of 1903 — coming down the hall to the bathroom. It was necessary that the boy pass through Barnes’ room to get to the bathroom, so Wallace plunged into bed, muddy shoes, clothes and all, and pretended to be asleep.

All that day, at meals and in classes, the cannon thieves were trembling in anticipation of news of the disappearance to hit, but everything remained calm until late in the afternoon, when the farmer on whose land the carriage was burned called the Daily Review newspaper to report it, and the newspaper called members of the Class of 1903 to inquire about it. That evening, with fire in their eyes, the boys of ’03 donned old clothes, strapped on weapons, and descended upon Cedar Creek. They waded through the creek, but only in the vicinity of the burned carriage, so the cannon itself remained safe.

Somehow word got out, though, that five members of the junior class were involved. In the 1903 yearbook, a “wanted” poster appeared, calling for a $1,000 reward for their capture. This was not just an idle threat — because the cannon was federal property, the theft was considered a felony and, during the summer of 1904, a grand jury was convened to look into the matter. Most of the alleged perpetrators, as well as some of the young women of the class, were questioned, but all kept silent and the state’s attorney eventually dropped the case.

All this time the cannon barrel had gone undetected in Cedar Creek. During the first summer, when the waters ran low, it actually was in plain sight from the bridge, but one of the class members discovered this and piled rocks in front of it. Then, during commencement week in 1904, several class members went back to the scene one night and succeeded in dragging the cannon about 30 feet across and downstream to a sand and gravel bar, where they dug a trench and buried it. In later years, the stream changed course several times, and the sand bar became covered by high banks, making the cannon almost completely inaccessible.

Prior to the 25th anniversary of the Class of 1904 in 1929, efforts were made to unearth the cannon with teams and scoop shovels. It was hoped to present the relic to the Class of 1903 as a goodwill gesture, but the efforts proved futile.

At the Class of 1904’s reunion banquet in 1929, Wallace Barnes presented the elevating screw from the cannon — with the leather address tag still attached — to President T.H. McMichael in recognition of his ability “to unscrew the inscrutable.” That relic, which Barnes had treasured for a quarter of a century, now resides in the college archives.

Just prior to the college’s centennial, Barnes was convinced by David Fleming, assistant to the president, to reveal the full story of the cannon. In the July 1950 issue of the alumni bulletin, Barnes did just that, describing where in relation to the Cedar Creek bridge the cannon had been buried.

Monmouth chemistry professor Garrett Thiessen became obsessed with finally locating the cannon and led some unsuccessful search parties near the Cedar Creek bridge. Finally, on October 9, 1952, Thiessen enlisted the aid of Illinois Power Company, which sent an employee along on the search with an electronic device used to locate gas pipes. At 5 p.m., after working 2–1/2 hours, a power company employee who was downstream from where the college party was searching, located the cannon barrel sticking six inches out of the creek bed under several inches of water. They were able to drag the barrel to a small island, and from there they attached a cable from a wrecker truck on the bank.

It was decided that the cannon was at risk of being stolen again, so it was secretly placed in the basement of the Monmouth Armory. In order to be displayed on campus, it was deemed that the cannon would have to be made “unstealable.” On April Fool’s Day, 1953, a deep hole was dug and the barrel was lowered into it nose-down. The hole was then filled with more than a ton of concrete.

During commencement weekend of 1954, on the 50th anniversary of the graduation of the Class of 1904, a ceremony was held near the buried cannon in which Wallace Barnes apologized for the theft and officially turned the cannon back to the surviving members of 1903.

When Wells Theater was built in 1990, the cannon had to be moved to make way for construction. With the help of the City of Monmouth, a hole was dug around the concrete collar so that a chain could be attached and an end loader lifted the cannon — concrete and all — out of the ground. It was moved across campus to the new science center, under the sign bearing the name of Professor Thiessen.

In 1996, a student in Professor Bill Urban’s history class mentioned that her father was a member of Scott’s Tennessee Battery, a Civil War reenactment group based it Davenport, Iowa, that had participated in such films as Glory and Gettysburg. The student said that her father believed the cannon could be restored and used in reenactments.

Soon, a jackhammer was at work freeing the cannon from its concrete tomb, and the barrel was loaded onto a trailer and taken to the Quad Cities. Over the next several weeks, the cannon was meticulously cleaned inside and out and approximately 40 layers of paint, a quarter of an inch thick, were removed from the exterior. The barrel, which looked as good as new, was successfully test fired, but the problem of securing a carriage to replace the burned original remained.

Urban instituted a fundraising campaign, which collected a few dollars, but finally the family of the late Kenneth Mueller of the Class of 1960 came forward with the necessary funds to construct an authentic carriage as a memorial tribute.

For a number of years, that tribute echoed loudly at Homecoming, when Monmouth’s cannon was fired after every home touchdown. When a visiting coach complained that the cannon violated the conference’s rule against noisemakers, however, the cannon was forced to go silent. Efforts are now underway to overturn that ruling.

College historian Jeff Rankin describes the history of the cannon to visiting alumni.

Today, some 155 years since its manufacture, 113 years since its theft and 63 years since being officially returned to the class that donated it, the cannon continues to be a fascinating piece of Monmouth College lore. Little did the Class of 1903 realize when they dreamed up the idea for their class gift that it would be the most memorable class gift in the college’s history.

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Jeff Rankin

Jeff Rankin

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Editor and historian for Monmouth College. Avid researcher of western Illinois history for 40 years. FB and Twitter. jrankin@monmouthcollege.edu