HOWE — For more than 100 years now, a small but somewhat forgotten piece of Howe’s history has been hiding in plain sight.
Now, thanks to a little detective work by a local historian, that piece of history is soon to be headed to a new home.
Howe resident Ralph Abston said like so many others that his heart broke when he heard the Howe Military Academy was closing after 135 years.
Abston has a deep connection with the school. For several decades, the now-retired educator taught history, geography and English at Howe. At times, he helped coach Howe’s football, track and cross country teams.
So when Howe officials announced that the school would close and the 63-acre campus would be up for sale, Abston, a 30-year military veteran, started to wonder, like others, what would become of the military artifacts that grace the Howe campus?
Several military pieces sit on the Howe grounds. A large U.S. Army tank sits on Howe’s northwest corner. It’s a popular place to take a photo.
In addition, a U.S. Army mortar sits in front of Howe’s dining hall, and a set of naval guns rest on concrete pedestals on Howe’s southeast edge.
Technically, all those items are on loan to the school from the government, part of a military inventory. Now that Howe is closed, the government has a right to take those items back or move them to another location or simply scrap them.
Most people thought a small cannon near the school’s flagpole was just another piece of military inventory on loan to the school.
Turns out that isn’t true.
“When the school started the process of closing down, a lot of the controversy that came up centered around what’s going to happen to a lot of those artillery pieces,” Abston said. “The tank out there on the corner, the naval guns and mortars and then things like that are part of the ROTC Military Program inventory, and they have to deal with the government as far as those objects are concerned.”
But that small cannon caught Abston’s eye over and over.
The cannon, Abston knew, is unlike any other artifact on the Howe campus, but it took a historian to bring its almost-forgotten story to light.
“I take my sentimental walks through the school every once in a while, even still, and as I was walking by the cannon, it dawned on me. I knew that cannon wasn’t a piece of military ordnance, but wasn’t sure others did. It’s not on the military inventory. As a matter of fact, its part of a war memorial to the Civil War veterans from the village of Lima. And I thought, ‘I better start doing something here.’ When this school sells, whoever is the buyer is going to think that cannon is part of the inventory, and it’s not.”
The cannon itself is unique, and its story fascinating, Abston explained.
The cannon was cast in 1861 by the once-thriving Lima Foundry, a business that at the time was located on Third Street in Howe, not far from the Methodist Church. Abston said the foundry made farm tools and fireplace equipment, metal items needed by area farmers and homeowners. But just after the start of the Civil War, for reason unknown, the foundry workers decided to cast not one, but two small cannons, cannons created not as tools of war, but instruments of celebration.
“They’re salute cannons,” Abston explained. “They weren’t made for hurling projectiles, they were made to make a big noise.”
Abston said one cannon stayed in Lima, the other given to the people of Ontario. Abston said his research showed the cannons were used to help those folks celebrate special occasions like the Fourth of July and perhaps later, Decoration Day.
Not surprisingly, the cannons quickly became part of the friendly but sometimes intense rivalry that existed between the two communities. Abston said each town took pride in who could make the biggest noise with their cannon. The cannons typically were set off someplace in the center of each town, and the winner of that title, he said, was measured by counting the number of shattered windows after a blast.
Abston said villagers would sometimes sneak into the other town and steal the cannons, stashing them someplace not easily found. Abston said his research uncovered a story about the Lima cannon disappearing only to be found sitting at the bottom of the Pigeon River in town. The Ontario cannon, he said, disappeared only to be found inside a local grain bin, buried under a wagonload of wheat.
But everything changed, Abston said, when the Ontario cannon was accidentally destroyed. He said the townspeople accidentally overloaded the cannon and when they fired it, it blew up. That, Abston said, made the people of Lima reconsider what they were doing with their big noisemaker, and the cannon, it seems, was put away while they reconsidered its fate.
Abston said the people of Lima eventually decided to make the cannon part of a war memorial to honor the men of Lima who fought in the Civil War. But when that happened, Abston said he can’t be sure.
The inscription on monument says “In Memory of Civil War Veterans Village of Lima. 1864.” But Abston said its origin story is still clouded in mystery. The Howe school didn’t open until 1884, and didn’t become a military school until 1895. Lima didn’t become Howe until 1909. Abston is still searching for records that would tell him how the memorial came to be, and when it became part of the Howe campus.
Worried the campus could be sold at any time, Abston wanted to make sure the memorial would be safe. Unfortunately, it seems, few in town knew of the cannon’s existence, let alone its story. Abston said his greatest fear was the school would be sold and the cannon scrapped.
So he reached out to people in the community just to make sure others knew of its story — members of the Howe Military Academy Board of Directors, the Howe Lions Club, the Lima Township Trustee, members of the Howe Community League — hoping others would be as interested in finding a way to preserve the cannon and memorial as he was.
Turns out they were.
Members of Howe Military’s Board of Directors quickly agreed to return the memorial to the people of the village. And Lima Township Trustee Terry Iannarelli and the members of his advisory board agreed to find the memorial a new home, ultimately deciding it should be placed in Howe’s Riverside Cemetery, not far from the graves of many of the men the monument was created to honor.
How that will be paid for, no one is sure. It’s expected to cost several thousand of dollars to clean up and move. Iannarelli said he and his board really haven’t had time to talk about how to make it happen. He did say donations to help that happen can be made to the Howe Community Association. Donors should specify that their donations are to help fund the Civil War monument’s restoration project.
Abston, historian that he is, is just happy to know others cared as much about protecting and preserving the Civil War monument as he did.
“This isn’t a tourist attraction. This is a memorial, like a headstone in a cemetery,” he explained. “It needs to be someplace that’s significant to the people of the village of Howe.”