LEWISTON — Seeing a couple of old Civil War cannons and their rotted carriages in a shed at the Togus VA hospital a few years ago, John Footer offered to help rebuild them.
His plan was to use the skills of the students and staff at Lewiston Regional Technical Center.
The retired Lewiston stone mason remembers the initial response from Togus officials: We’re not letting teenagers work on these things.
“Originally, they wanted them rebuilt by craftsmen in the old style,” Footer said.
But using students made perfect sense to Footer and Lewiston Regional Technical Center teacher Tom Fylstra. After all, they reasoned, the carriages were likely built with child labor during the war.
“In my mind, they were probably built by teenagers to start with because all of the 20-year-olds would have been fighting in the Civil War,” Footer said. “So there were probably a bunch of teenagers and a couple of old craftsmen building these things.”
“And that’s the way we did it,” he said.
Having gained the trust of Togus officials after donating two years of his time to rebuilding a dilapidated stonewall near the flagpole in front of the VA hospital, Footer got permission to take the carriages.
“We had the cannons just sitting in the back of a shed for many years,” said Tyler Watson, assistant chief for facilities at Togus. “They were starting to rot away. John came to us, and after some discussion we accepted his proposal.”
The six students in the Trades Career Cluster II class at LRTC, taught by Fylstra and Alan Merritt, along with Footer volunteering his time, disassembled the rotted carriage and rebuilt it to its former glory.
Last week, the 12-pound Napoleon cannon was remounted to the carriage and placed next to the flagpole and stonewall Footer had repaired a couple of years earlier. The weight refers to the cannon ball.
The process of replacing the wooden sections of the carriage wasn’t easy, and Fylstra admitted having some doubts during the eight-month project.
“At points along the way, I wondered, ‘Should we have taken this on?'” Fylstra said. “But we just plugged away. A couple of times I actually surprised myself that we were able to do the things we did.”
Fylstra teaches skills in building trades, landscaping and power mechanics. First-year students learn basic skills and take safety tests on the use of the various hand and power tools.
Second-year students use that foundation to focus on projects in the school and community. They are often working on multiple projects at the same time.
The six second-year students are all seniors and hail from four high schools — Josh County, Cam Merchant and Brittany Dyer of Lewiston; Tyler Golightly of Oak Hill in Wales; Peter Cornelio of Leavitt in Turner; and Evan Curtis of Lisbon.
Footer, who was a member of the first graduating class in 1974 when the high school moved to East Avenue, was familiar with the school’s vocational programs, which helped him during his working career.
“When I saw those cannons, I knew we could help,” Footer said. “I knew what these programs do. I understand what these kids are capable of.”
Footer had no problem convincing the leaders of LRTC to take on repairing the carriages.
“The idea that we were involved in this project is very exciting,” said Rob Callahan, director of LRTC. “It’s explicable to what we’re trying to do at this school. The idea that the skills they learn here translate and have an impact on our community.”
The carriages arrived without their cannons. Considered a firearm, school officials decided it was best to leave the cannons at Togus.
Once the carriages arrived in the classroom, the magnitude of the project became clear. The carriages were in such poor condition that none of the wood could be salvaged. The tail had broken off and there were cracks throughout the remainder of the wood.
There were no instruction manuals and the tools used to build it in the 1860s no longer existed, Footer said.
With more than 70 years of teaching experience between them, Fylstra and Merritt began planning the project.
“We had to put both of our heads together, and John came up with a lot of ideas about tooling,” Fylstra said “‘It was really a group effort to do this.”
Students from a drafting class took measurements and produced a professional-looking diagram showing where all the parts went.
The next step was removing all of the screws and nails holding it together and carefully cleaning and removing any rust from the metal pieces.
“The best part for me was tearing it all apart,” County said. “Hammering, chiseling, filing. I had a blast tearing it apart and then putting it back together.”
The biggest dilemma was finding a large enough piece of wood. The original carriage was made of oak, but finding a large piece of oak was near impossible.
“To find a kiln-dried piece of oak to work with, we’d be waiting for five years,” Footer said.
“We didn’t know what to make it out of,” Fylstra said. “Where do you get a piece of wood that big and that strong?”
They settled on using a 12- by 12-inch beam made of pressure-treated wood.
Since the tools in the school workshop weren’t designed for wood that size, they had to come up with ways to cut the beam using a variety of saws.
“The first time we tried a saw, it didn’t even go halfway through,” Fylstra said.
They relied on pictures from books that showed what a carriage for a Napoleon cannon looked like. While studying the photos, they made a surprising discovery — the cannon had been refurbished once before, probably in the early 20th century.
That created problems.
“Is this really original or just the way they had fixed them?” Fylstra said. “But the books really helped. There were some things we never would have known had we not found original diagrams.”
In addition to the photos, the students used the second carriage to take measurements. That second carriage will be next year’s class project.
Golightly, the student from Oak Hill, said he’s a history buff who knows a lot about cannons, but he said the hands-on work taught him way more than he ever could have known.
“There’s a lot of intricacies with it,” Golightly said. “I know about cannons but not to the extent of actually working on one. The way they are built to support the weight of the cannon. The tail and why it is shaped like that to support the weight. The direction of the grain pattern in the wood. You don’t notice that in pictures.”
One piece the class didn’t have to build was the wheels. Togus had the 5-foot wheels repaired 10 to 15 years ago by the Amish, Fylstra said. “That’s beyond our capabilities.”
With the cannon and carriage dated 1863, Fylstra and Footer believe the cannon was likely used in battle. The second one, dated 1865, likely wasn’t, Footer said.
“I think it would be very odd if that was built in 1863 and didn’t get used,” Footer said. “That was during the height of the war.
On May 17, the class traveled to Togus to present the new carriage. The bronze cannon was lifted onto the carriage and placed next to the flagpole in front of the main entrance to the VA hospital and the wall Footer had rebuilt a couple of years ago.
Togus officials were amazed at the craftsmanship.
“Not that I had low expectations, but I was pleasantly surprised,” Walton said. “Everybody was pleased with their work. It was definitely up to the standards of any craftsmen or professionals we could have hired.”
When the second one is delivered next year, Walton said, it will become the centerpiece of the grounds at Togus.
Fylstra said his next year’s class can’t wait to get their hands on the historic relic.
“It would be interesting to know just how they were made 150-something years ago,” Fylstra said. “It’s amazing to us what they could do without power tools. But we have a good handle on how to do the next one.”
Staffers from the Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center, volunteers and Lewiston Regional Technical Center students and staff roll the new carriage the students built for a 12-pound Civil War-era Napoleon cannon May 17 at the medical center in Chelsea. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)
Ryan Taylor, left, gives directions to a loader driver as they put a 12-pound Napoleon cannon onto the Civil War carriage built by Lewiston Regional Technical Center students. The cannon was put in place at Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chelsea on May 17. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)
Staffers from the Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center, volunteers and Lewiston Regional Technical Center students and staff roll out the new carriage the students built for a Civil War-era cannon at the center in Chelsea on May 17. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)
Lewiston Regional Technical Center students and staff built a carriage for this Civil War-era 12-pound Napoleon cannon for the Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chelsea. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)
John Footer takes a photo of students and staff from the Lewiston Regional Technical Center who rebuilt a carriage for a Civil War-era Napoleon cannon that will be displayed at the Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chelsea. From left are student Cam Merchant, teacher Tom Fylstra, students Brittany Dyer and Evan Curtis, teacher Alan Merritt, students Tyler Golightly and Peter Cornelio, LRTC Assistant Director Peter Gagnon and student Josh County. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)
The remains of a carriage for a Civil War-era Napolean cannon sits in a classroom at Lewiston Regional Technical Center. The carriage will be repaired by next year’s class.