One of the imperative parts of the celebrations every year was to fire off a cannon or two, especially after the American Civil War when there were all kinds of surplus artillery pieces available to veterans’ groups.
Even before the Civil War, there was a terrible cannon accident at Milan on July 4, 1854. That morning a crew was firing the morning cannon salute. While loading for the third time, the gun fired, throwing the gun crew several feet away. Two of them, David Vansise and Calvin Haladay, were badly burned around the head, chest and upper limbs. The first report was that they would recover, but Vansise died 10 days later, leaving a wife and five children. Further investigation showed that one of the crew had his finger over the touch hole and when the charge was being loaded, enough fumes had accumulated to ignite the charge and set it off.
A similar accident occurred at New London on July 4, 1886. Ephraim Easley, of Norwalk, a Civil War veteran who had been born in slavery in Kentucky, was helping fire a cannon at the New London celebration. The piece discharged prematurely, and Easley lost an arm and most of his eyesight as a result.
Easley recovered and lived on in Norwalk until his death in 1897 at home, 19 Cline St. His was a typical story of escaping from slavery in Missouri in 1862 with several relatives and friends and surviving a gun battle with pursuers. He reached Norwalk and soon enlisted in the army.
One cannon that I know of with no horror stories attached to it can be seen on the original veteran burial lot in Norwalk’s Woodlawn Cemetery. This isn’t a retired military piece, but was made in Norwalk about 1856 by the workmen at the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad shops, just south of the new fire station on Whittlesey Avenue.
The cannon was used for several years at various celebrations and for a long time was stored at the fire department. About 1888, it was removed to the cemetery and mounted on a concrete base for display.
The Independence Day celebration of 1865 was an especially poignant one, since it was the first time since the 1860 anniversary that the nation was united and at peace once again. Norwalk’s celebration started with a national salute (cannon fire, naturally) and the ringing of church bells. A procession formed at 11 a.m. and paraded on Main Street before retiring to the fairgrounds, then located where South Linwood Avenue is now, just south of Summit Street.
There were the usual orations, reading of the Declaration of Independence and other entertainment. Evening brought on a huge display of fireworks, the largest seen in the village up to that time. The Reflector editor opined that that day’s festivities would be “one of long remembrance in the annals of Norwalk.” I’m happy to bring it before the public again after more than 150 years.
* * *
REMEMBER: My “Just Like Old Times” books are on sale at New Directions Design, 20 W. Main St., in downtown Norwalk. These contain my earlier columns fully indexed and in permanent book form. No home is complete without them.
Henry Timman, an authority on Firelands history, resides in rural Norwalk.