Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Old Marietta College Cannon

No Marietta College tradition has a more mysterious and twisted tale than the legend of the College Cannon. Born of murky origins, the focal point of rumors and pranks, the old artillery piece provided excitement during the night life of the campus for nearly half a century. It regularly appeared, then disappeared, first dug out of a cellar, then set in concrete in front of the library, later transported on stolen wagons through dark alleys. Students never knew one day where it would turn up the next.

The cannon was said to have been forged in a local iron foundry at the outbreak of the Civil War, and more than once during that conflict it defended the town of Marietta. When the sound of heavy firing warned the citizens that Rebel gunboats were moving up the Ohio River to attack, the cannon, then called the "Baby-waker," was hauled through the streets in preparation to meet the foe. How relieved the Mariettans were when they learned that the war-like noises had been caused by workmen loading a barge with iron downriver!

The cannon came to the rescue again when Confederate General John Hunt Morgan tore through southern Ohio with his band of raiders in 1863. The Home Guard brought out the cannon to stop the traitors in their tracks - sure enough, the Rebels went around Marietta rather than through it.

Following the Civil War, the cannon was displayed in the park and used only for parades and salutes on special occasions. It was after one of these events in 1875 that it made its first appearance on the Marietta College campus. During the night of September 17, "a crowd of townies" drug the artillery piece onto the front lawn and pointed it at the dormitory. They loaded it with gravel and stones and began firing charges. Most of the college boys slept through the attack, and the townies soon gave up the fight.

As the years passed, the former glory of the old cannon faded away, and eventually it was consigned to the rubbish heap near City Hall. When the Spanish American War clouds of 1898 gathered overhead, it was summoned forth once again by the mayor of Marietta. Hundreds of volunteers accompanied it through the streets to Muskingum Park, where it "demonstrated that it could still make a noise."

Inspired with patriotic fervor at the sight of the cannon, a group of college men crept down to the park during the night and rolled it up to campus. They took the heavy gun apart and carried it up the steps of Andrews Hall to the chapel room. When students assembled for chapel services on the morning of April 22, they were greeted with the sight of the old cannon mounted on the platform with a flag floating above it. Patriotic songs were sung, speeches were made, and the students of Marietta College marched through town, ready to take on the war. Mayor Richardson was so impressed that he offered the cannon as a gift to the senior class of 1898. It was graciously accepted and placed on display in front of Alumni Hall (later the site of Thomas Hall), its barrel aimed at the Baptist Church.

From its lofty position on front campus, the cannon became an important part of the college's daily routine. It was a loafing spot for students and a playing spot for local children. It was a favorite receptacle for penny pitching, and whispered rumors suggested that certain dignified professors stole some secret moments there, "for at this time the college was not the possessor of a faculty rest room." Occasionally it was loaded and shot, just for fun.

Then on Halloween night in 1911, when the college was overrun with pranksters, the beloved cannon was thrown from its cement base and buried under a cinder path. This incident signaled the start of a heated fraternity rivalry and a relentless game of hide and seek. For many years, the students of Marietta College sat up until the wee small hours, plotting the ways in which they might take possession of the cannon.

"Dad" Elliott, the campus caretaker, recovered the cannon from under the cinder path and stashed it safely away in a dark corner in the basement of Alumni Hall. Before long it was discovered by members of the Nu Phi fraternity (later Lambda Chi Alpha), and after a brief display, they buried it under their own front porch. It was uncovered by a group of men from Delta Upsilon, who attached cables to it and suspended it underneath the Putnam Street bridge. The Nu Phi's promptly rescued the dangling cannon and buried it deep under the cellar of their house - but not deep enough.

While the Nu Phi's were socializing at a college "Jam Reception" in 1918, the DU's teamed up with some Alpha Sigma Phi's and absconded with the prize. They mounted it securely on a concrete base in front of the old library (later the Irvine Administration Building), confident that it would move around campus no more. But the Nu Phi brothers of the Class of 1919 could not let it rest, and the old cannon mysteriously vanished from sight for 11 long years.

Throughout the 11 years of seclusion, impassioned pleas were made for the return of the cherished iron symbol of Marietta College tradition. Finally, on a dark night in the spring of 1930, the pledges of Nu Phi were awakened from their slumbers by a group of upperclassmen and alumni bearing shovels. They were escorted to the front of the old library building, where the cannon had last been seen, and directed to start digging. After only a few moments their spades struck iron and the cannon was unearthed. The Nu Phi men of 1919 had simply toppled it off the concrete base and buried it at the scene of the crime!
Nu Phi pledges unearth the Cannon in 1930.

A few days later the old cannon was given a place of honor in the Marietta College Commencement parade. Mounted on a two-wheeled telephone pole trailer, it was pulled down Putnam Street by the brothers of Nu Phi. During the next several years, it made occasional appearances for special events, but after each display, it was whisked away to a secret hiding place. Then on the night of December 12, 1941, it became the target of one last campus siege.

By this time, the Nu Phi's had become the Lambda Chi's, and the fraternity men were once again enjoying an evening of socialization at their annual Christmas dance. Members of Delta Upsilon saw a golden opportunity and swarmed into the unguarded Lambda Chi cellar in search of the iron trophy. But the Lambda Chi's had been tipped off and the DU marauders were caught in the act! The cannon was saved again, but its remaining days were numbered.

The Lambda Chi's, keen to be the final stewards of the cannon, felt the time had come to call the old artifact into military duty once more. And so it was, that the Civil War-era cannon was donated to the nation's scrap metal drive in 1942. Perhaps it was reincarnated as part of a tank in the fight against Hitler, a fitting end for a campus legend.

Linda Showalter
Special Collections Associate
Marietta College Library