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Homecoming blast from the past

October 11, 2013

Kelsi Ford / The Courier

Long, long ago at Monmouth College interclass rivalries ravaged the quad. Sophomores battled freshmen for bragging rights in the gladiator-like “pole scrap.” Juniors waged clan warfare on seniors in an attempt to display their signature colors to the campus community. Classes came away from these events proud, bruised and overall proud of their efforts. But there is one interclass clash that reigns above all others. This rivalry is the battle between the 1903 and 1904 classes. It is the epic story of the “Great Cannon Caper.”

A number of heated skirmishes burned throughout the classes’ college years (including one that ended in a riot charge from then-President S.J. Lyons). However, as time would have it, the Class of ’03 eventually claimed the highest title known to man: seniors. In their eyes, their stay at Monmouth College was of a heroic magnitude, and they wished to outdo the traditional senior parting gift of a large limestone rock. With an alliance forged between the Class of ’03 and Monmouth Mayor Sawyer and Congressman J. Ross Mickey of Macomb, they were able to obtain a parting gift worthy of their class: Civil War surplus cannon from Rock Island.

With great foresight and recognition of their retirement from battle, the generals of the Class of ’03 decided to come up with a plan not to be outdone next year by their formidable foe: the Class of ’04. Thus, they decided to peacefully memorialize their superiority over the weaker Class of ’04 with an engraved plaque implying the weakness of the then junior class.

Through a network of spies, the Class of ’04 heard of the senior’s strategy and, in counterattack, plotted a scheme of their own. Knowing they would be unable to remove the derogatory memorial of the ’03 Class once it was revealed, nine brave soldiers conspired to hijack the cannon and immortalize themselves and their class in Monmouth College lore.

After extensive planning and plotting, the day of battle, May 27, 2003, was upon them. Using guerrilla warfare tactics, the brave nine closed in on their target, stored a block away from the train depot on South Fifth Street. Sneaking into a Mr. Shellenberger’s shed, the soldier’s came face-to-face with their target. Having brought two wagons, the students hoped to ferry the cannon in one direction and the cannon-carriage in the other for secrecy’s sake. Yet for all their scheming, the class greatly underestimated their foe! As they lifted the cannon from its carriage, the unbearable weight of 816 pounds fought back and it was dropped in the mud. Ninety minutes of intense struggle followed. These conspirators were as nervous as a young man at Gettysburg.

However, providence was on these young men’s side and they were able to get the cannon onto the wagon without detection from enemies. After almost two hours, objective one was accomplished.  Sending the wagons in two polar directions, objective two commenced: get rid of the cannon altogether. Their rendezvous point was just north of the city at the old Law School. Originally hoping to drop the cannon in the Mississippi, the delay forced them to alter attack and the new drop-off point was now Cedar Creek.

Approaching the Cedar Creek Bridge on old Alexis road, the boys heaved the disrespectful enemy into the creek. But the cannon refused to go down without yet another fight. In mid-flight, the cannon twisted and turned, and lodged itself straight up in the cold muddy waters of Cedar Creek. Like the Washington’s soldier’s crossing the Delaware River, the boys plunged into the icy creek and dragged the foe some 50 feet downstream.

At another point, the boys of ’03 looked to submerge the lighter carriage. But the carriage proved as formidable as the cannon; after initially failing to submerge the carriage someone, in the manner of General Sherman, suggested burning it. The flames of the carriage rose into the now-dawn light like a beacon signaling victory after a weary night of struggle. And the boys returned to Monmouth heroes—soldiers of the noblest kind for their brave, dignified efforts.

Next day, of course, came the discovery of the ashes of triumph. The farmer on whose land the carriage was burned was the reporter-in-the-field. After news of this unorthodox means of war, the boys of ’03 retaliated in a desperate search for the cannon.  Yet the younger class’s foresight proved to be monumental; the soldiers of ’03 only policed the creek near where the burnt carriage lay—the cannon, for now, was safely hidden.

Despite many attempts to find the cannon over the years, it was not until some 46 years later, when Wallace Barnes, one of the generals of the Class of ’03, revealed the full story of the cannon and its resting place. On Oct. 9, 1952 after 49 years of burial, legendary Monmouth Chemistry professor, Garrett Thiessen, with the help of the Illinois Power Company, uncovered the cannon. After being locked away in an “unstealable” concrete collar—the cannon was installed nose-down in more than a ton of concrete—where the cannon was unceremoniously, yet habitually, painted with various colors and slogans, the cannon was moved momentarily unshackled from its spot and under Thiessen’s office, where he could keep an eye on the monument. In 1996, the cannon was finally freed from its collar and, after the 40 layers of paint inscribed upon the relic over the years was removed, was successfully test-fired. Now it rings loud and clear at every homecoming game and Monmouth College students and alumni are more than grateful for the antics of the participants in the “Great Cannon Caper.”

—Special thanks to Jeff Rankin, Director of College Communications, for providing the necessary information.

Chase Mowery
Copy Editor

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