January 31, 2009 - Cannonball Comin'!


The other day I received an email from Karen, who will remain nameless, sort of, who first complements me saying, "I enjoy your blog," (Garsh, thank you very much Karen) and goes on to say "I would VERY much like to know the story of the cannon ball found in Minnehaha Creek. Please share!"

Karen is speaking of the cannonball image which graced the sidebar of this blog for quite some time. Well, I wish I had more information to relay, but it's probably just as well, as I tend to make a long story out of everything anyway... 
We live here in Minneapolis along Minnehaha Creek, not far from the Longfellow Gardens. 
A few years ago my friend Mary Lerman, (a.k.a. "Buckthorn Mary") Director of Horticulture for the Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board for quite a while, gave me a copy of an article from the Minnesota Horticulturist magazine from the 1980's called, "Birds, Beasts, and 'Fish' at the Longfellow Gardens."
It's a great piece describing how the Longfellow Gardens have been somewhat "recreated" over the years, to duplicate or at least pay tribute to the way they were arranged in the late 1870's through the early 1900's. I've since done some searching to see if I could find a copy of that actual issue, but so far no luck. Possibly the U of M has one.
Anyway in a nutshell it describes how Robert Fremont Jones (nicknamed 'Fish', because he had "made his fortune" in the fresh fish business, he hated the name) came to Minneapolis, had an affinity for animals and ended up buying the property near Minnehaha Falls and creating a zoo which sported some pretty exotic species (much to the chagrin of the Parks Board who also wanted the property to link the parks system together, and to his neighbors.) 
He was quite an eccentric character; besides the zoo with it's birds, chimpanzees, baboons, over 100 monkeys, twenty lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, pumas, apes, bears, coyotes, raccoons, foxes, deer, moose, camels, buffalo, kangaroo, sea lions, and an elephant, he also built a house that was an exact (but smaller) replica of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Georgian Revival house (the "Craigie House" in Cambridge, Massachusetts), and erected a granite statue of the bard (not "The Bard," but Longfellow) on the property. 
Longfellow had of course made famous the "Laughing Waters" of Minnehaha in his epic trochaic tetrameter: "The Song Of Hiawatha," though he never witnessed the falls in person.
After getting really interested in this story (I've held back a lot of details here, including the story of the Longfellow statue's missing hands, thinking that I would like to publish the article and more if I can sometime because it's so darned interesting) huuuuup, deep breath, I did some web searching to see if I could find any historical paraphernalia regarding the zoo and area. 
Editor's note: the word "paraphernalia" has an interesting etymology. It comes from Medieval Latin, ultimately from Greek: a plural of 'parapherna' meaning "the bride's property beyond her dowry," from para- (beyond or other) + phernÄ“ (dowry), from pherein 'to bear'. It also has been described as "a large collection of small objects."
I love words. I wish I knew more of them. -Ed.
My web search turned up some local lore, as well as a few eBay hits. Interestingly enough, a couple were from eBay UK and they were for auctions that had already closed, but one was an awesome postcard and photo collection of Minnehaha Falls and Gardens, of all things!(?)
I emailed the person and tried to get a message through to them to see if the stuff was still around, but the web page was acting weird, and I never received a response.
Another result was in a list of items from an 'auction house' in Minnesota, which included a listing for "a three pound cannonball found in Minnehaha Creek in 1972."
Needless to say, I immediately checked this out, and found that auction had ended as well but was presented with an image of said cannonball with the cryptic title of "minnehahacrk1812cannonball.jpg." 
I tried some more searching to see if I could find a story describing when or where the cannonball was found, but no luck. If it truly is an 1812 cannonball, I can't imagine it would have made it very far from the Mississippi River, but you never know.
However, this research set off a little bell deep in my diencephalon.
When I was growing up, (in Ashland, Wisconsin) my friend John got me involved in the hobby of collecting antique bottles. Not just collecting them, but digging them up. You didn't know that's where bottles came from, did you? Yup, you just go out to where someone used to use something, dig around enough, and you'll probably find one. 
We had some "great" dumps in Ashland. There were many "ravines" where a creek ran maybe part of the year, a place that had become a neighborhood dumping site just because someone else did it first and by god it was convenient and I'm not going to pay someone to take my trash, that's ridiculous!  Places out by abandoned farmsteads, where people would just chuck stuff out their window, or "dump it by the train tracks," throw it in the creek, or cart it down to the lake (that would be Lake Superior, you know where you get your drinking water and flush your toilet into) and throw it in.
One of our coolest spots to "pick bottles" was on the shore of the lake next to the water treatment plant, especially in the spring when the water was way out. You could walk out in this semi-frozen muck and see what looked like an air bubble sticking out of the lake bottom. If you could grab it or pop it out with a stick, often times it would be an old bottle. Sometimes a patent medicine bottle, sometimes a beer bottle from the Ashland Brewery, sometimes a ketchup bottle from just a few years back. It was like buried treasure. If you wore rubber boots you could wade out a ways and pop up a bunch of bottles until the water was too muddy to see anymore. 
I can't begin to imagine how many biotoxins we absorbed, but who knew?  You lived to see that next bottle pop up and find out that it was old, rare, not broken, or just plain interesting.
Not that many were. You had good days when you would find amazing stuff and bad days when you found "diddly" as my dad would say. 
What was truly amazing were the physics going on there. You could spend hours trying to dig up what looked like a complete, classic antique bottle and find out the neck was cracked. Then you thought back and tried to imagine yourself as the person that last held that bottle. Maybe it was broken before it went to the dump. Maybe you dropped it on the kitchen floor in 1867 or 1912 or 1958.
Once on a spring day in ice cold water at the lake dump I saw a silvery bubble glowing maybe eight or ten inches underwater. I poked at it with a stick and saw that it was surrounded by rusted metal. I grabbed the whole mess and pulled. The metal disintegrated, fell away, and a perfectly sound, inner silver vessel from an ancient Thermos popped up and bobbed on the surface, filled with water and sank again. I pulled it out and was transformed, thinking, "Wow. All these broken bottles and bits we find, all this wave action and lake settling, all of these rocks and metal and crud nearby, here's this Thermos sitting there buried upside-down for decades completely unbroken and I just pulled it out of the lake. Amazing."
So gradually steering the helm back on topic here, on another of our treks to this particular spot, John and I were poking around and I came across some rounded metal object. I dug it out, and it turned out to be the biggest ball bearing I had ever seen. I was trying to imagine what huge crane or equipment this thing this was from, and we were both ooing and ahhing over it. 
In grade-school days you were cool if you showed up at the schoolyard to play marbles with a "steelie" or big ball-bearing, where everyone else had glass tiger-eyes. I never had steelies, but the kid whose dad worked at the junkyard always did, and I lusted for them. They were probably three-quarters of an inch diameter maximum. This steelie was like four inches in diameter and weighed a few pounds. 
I was fantasizing myself finding this thing years earlier, showing up at school with it, and ruling the world. 
I brought it home, cleaned it up the best I could, and it's still sitting on one of the glass inkwells I couldn't bear to part with in my mom's "back room" up in the old house. Never did bring it to school. Not that it would fit in my pants anyway.
I didn't occur to me until I saw that image of the cannonball, that is what it is. I looked up cannonballs and found they are known by their weights, i.e. "a three-pounder," "a sixteen-pounder", and so on. 
I think it's about a three-pounder. 
Where it came from, I have no idea, but it's about the same size as the Minnehaha Creek cannonball.

7 comments:

Karen said...

Sooo, just to clarify, someone somewhere might have the cannonball from the creek, but you have a perfectly serviceable cannonball from Lake Superior. Well, drat.

But! Good for you, having your own cannonball. Not everyone does.

And thanks for elucidating.

dignature said...

That put's the point on it, Karen. See? I DO tend to make a long story out of everything. YOU were able to summarize it in one sentence.
If I can unearth any more cannon-ball specific info in my travels, I will definitely relay it.
At least we know there WAS a cannonball found there. We think.
Have you visited the area near the Mississippi below the Fort Snelling bike path and seen some of the relics sticking out of the ground there...?

Karen said...

I have! Like a couple of buried wheels, and less identifiable detritus. I wonder if that's a cannon carriage, or gear used to haul stuff up to the Fort, or bits of shipwreck, or junk left behind by the Selkirkers, or what.

We seem to have a state archeology society, but I don't know if they have addressed that area.

dignature said...

Yes, there's some weird stuff there. I know they had a small-gauge railway that went up the steep hill there to the fort at one time.
I'm not sure who the group was, but in the 90's I saw a group doing some extensive archeology/paleontology on the rock walls along the river side of the bike path that runs below the fort.
I'm not sure where along the creek you are located, but our neighborhood forum is having a rousing discussion about neighborhood history right now:

http://forums.e-democracy.org/r/topic/tIj8266EaVPkamGAkCdmJ

Some very interesting info being shared about people's property histories and maps, etc.

You have to register to become a member, but you don't have to live in the neighborhood.

Karen said...

Maybe those guys were the ones who found that 19th century graffiti. (I couldn't find the story on-line, sorry.)

I'm familiar with e-democracy, and like local history, so I'll look at that forum. Thanks. I'm actually upstream of there.

In April, I'm giving a talk on the 19th century development at Minnehaha Falls, illustrated with old photographs. Feel free to attend, put it on your blog, mention it to the dog, whatever.

Karen said...

Oh, details here: http://lindenhillshistory.org/

dignature said...

Thanks Karen! I'll post it on the events list here and on the Facebook "Minnesota Picture-Takers Guild" group page events list.

Not sure if you found them, but last year I did a mini-study in classic metro water-towers.
Including that amazing one that I believe is in Tanglewood...?
http://dignature.blogspot.com/2008/01/january-27-2008.html

Also:
http://dignature.blogspot.com/2008/01/january-26-2008.html

http://dignature.blogspot.com/2008/02/february-2-2008.html

and who could forget:
http://dignature.blogspot.com/2008/03/march-19-2008.html