On Veterans Day, American Legion Post 104 in Appomattox, Va., dedicated a World War I-era cannon display, a project that united local veterans and the community.
James "Buck" Owen, a past commander of Post 104 and member of the Legion's National Media & Communications Commission, said the artillery piece required nearly a year of restoration work.
"There are only seven of these (cannons) we know of in existence," Owen said. "Four are in museums, and two others are in personal collections. It's great advertising and a great recruiting tool, especially with the 100th anniversary of The American Legion coming up."
About three years ago, Owen noticed an object sticking out of some brush down the road from his house. He went for a walk to check it out and discovered the cannon.
"I parted the brush and there it sat, the wheels off and lying on the ground," recalled Owen, a local Civil War re-enactor. "I got super excited because I knew what it was when I saw it."
Fast forward about six months, and Owen was able to get in touch with the family of Tom Weaver, the cannon's owner. During World War II, Weaver worked at Fort Pickett, Va., and was friends with its commander, which is how the cannon ended up in his possession.
Owen told Weaver's daughters – Kendall Levin of South Carolina and Anne Wojcikowski of Lynchburg, Va. – that if they ever wanted to give away the cannon, Appomattox Post 104 would love the opportunity to restore it for display.
Not long after, Weaver passed away, and Wojcikowski called Owen. "She said, 'We're going to donate the cannon to your American Legion post.' I said, 'Fantastic!' And she said, 'There's a "but" to it. It's got to be out of the yard by Thursday.' I said, 'No problem.'"
Owen called a fellow post member who owns a wrecker service, who told Owen to meet him at his shop at 7:30 a.m. An hour later, the cannon was sitting in Owen's driveway.
Much of the cannon was rusted. The wheels’ wooden spokes were rotted. Birds’ nests filled the barrel. “It was really in sad shape,” Owen said.
He immediately went to work with post members, disassembling the iron pieces using an acetylene torch and impact wrench.
“I’m a retired hull technician in the Navy, so this goes right along with what I did,” said Owen, who retired as a senior chief after 26 years.
He also found a man in Atlanta who does restoration work for the Smithsonian Institute; he took on the job of rebuilding the cannon’s wheels using the original rims and hubs.
Meanwhile, Post 104’s “Big Wheel” project raised $3,000 in donations from individuals and businesses. “We have a great rapport with the people here in Appomattox,” Owen said. “The community has been fantastic.”
Once the wheels were rebuilt, Owen and Wayne Schmitt, Post 104’s adjutant, used an engine crane to lift them into a vat of wood preservative. “We wanted the new wheels to last at least a century,” Schmitt said. “The original wheels lasted nearly that long.”
Local companies sandblasted the cannon’s barrel, shields, bolts, nuts and washers, and made brass pins for the upper shield. Post members wire-brushed every part before priming. Owen and Schmitt researched the proper paint, following the Smithsonian’s advice on finding the right olive drab.
Finally, after thousands of hours of labor and nearly $16,000 in total costs, the 3-inch field gun went back on the cannon. Still, it doesn’t look brand new, and isn’t meant to.
“We left all the bullet dings in it and everything,” Owen said. “We wanted it to look the part.”
Owen modified a trailer to haul the cannon, and Post 104 has plans to build a garage to keep it protected. Already, they’ve been asked to bring the cannon to parades and other events around the state. Several Virginia American Legion posts have inquired about a visit, too.
“They want us to bring it when they’re recruiting so people will come down and see it,” Owen said. “Hopefully they’ll get more members for the Legion. That’s the idea behind this thing.”