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Greenfield cannon collector takes strong aim at history

Crane operator Art Leinweber (left) of Muskego lifts a 4,270-pound cannon onto its carriage as the cannon’s owner, Frank Markel (right), guides it into his front yard in Greenfield on Dec. 6.

Crane operator Art Leinweber (left) of Muskego lifts a 4,270-pound cannon onto its carriage as the cannon’s owner, Frank Markel (right), guides it into his front yard in Greenfield on Dec. 6. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Dec. 14, 2012

Greenfield - When Frank Markel looks at the more than two-ton Civil War cannon sitting in his front yard, he thinks of the young Union soldiers who fired it in the struggle to keep the nation together.

"Who were the fellas that fired it? … I wish I knew about them," said the Civil War buff.

Then the Greenfield resident said he thinks: "I'm a very fortunate person who's allowed to have that piece of history in my yard."

It isn't any ordinary cannon - if any Civil War cannons can be thought of as ordinary.

Brick-busting cannon

Markel's cannon is properly known as a 30-pound Parrott, after its maker Robert Parker Parrott. It was the bread and butter of the Union's siege cannons, Markel said.

It was part of a grand experiment in which modified cannons proved to be more than a match for brick forts. The cannon has a rifled barrel that puts a spin on the shells it fires.

Markel's 30-pound Parrott cannon and others like it bombarded Fort Pulaski, which guarded the Savannah harbor for the South. The Confederacy desperately needed goods and its harbors were its lifeline, Markel said.

"The Confederacy was hurting for stuff," Markel said. "The whole key was to be sure the Confederacy didn't get supplies. … Control of the bays was quite important."

In a major test, the cannons blasted holes in the fort's thick walls in the 1862 siege and the Confederate garrison was forced to surrender.

They could throw a shell three miles and with devastating accuracy for the time. The solid shells weighed 30 pounds and were about a foot long and 4.2 inches in diameter. Sometimes the shells were hollow and filled with powder and blew up when they hit something, Markel said.

Unusual arms dealing

On the other hand, because they weigh so much, they couldn't be easily transported to battlefields, he said. Even by modern standards, taking one home was hardly routine.

Markel bought the cannon from a collector in Allenton, Pa., and drove his truck there to get it. The cannon cost $35,000 and the specially made siege carriage cost another $20,000, he said.

"But it's a good investment," he said. "The prices only go one way."

A crane set the 10-foot cannon onto the siege carriage last week. Together they weigh more than 6,000 pounds, Markel said.

"It's gargantuan," said Markel's wife Karla. "It really blows my mind."

And it's OK with her that he not only has the 30-pounder, but three other cannons - all facing out from their home on Shady Lane Court.

"I'm happy he's got them," she said. "He doesn't drink, he doesn't swear, he doesn't smoke, he doesn't do anything nasty, and this brings him a lot of pride and people ask him about them."

Historic lessons

Karla said her husband is more than pleased to fill them in on a little Civil War history.

"We've made marvelous friends, too," she said, noting that the Markels now have collector friends with whom they vacation every year.

Collectors get together at re-enactments during the year as well, she said.

With the coming of the 30-pound Parrott, the Markels have one of only three collections in the country of 10-pound, 20-pound and 30-pound Civil War cannons, Frank Markel said - the others are in northern Wisconsin and in Lancaster, Pa., he said.

He owns only Union cannons. Confederate cannons are so rare they're extremely expensive, he said.

His cannons are actually only semi-retired. He fires them - powder only, with no shells - at every Fourth of July celebration at Alcott Park, just outside of Greenfield in Milwaukee.

Then he takes the cannons to a family home in Milwaukee, where he fires them for a neighborhood celebration. He has a letter from Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn saying he can do it, he said. Police used to show up just in case, but after nearly four decades of safe firings, they don't anymore, Karla said.

In addition, every five years the Markels hold special celebrations that have included bands, horse-drawn carriage rides, and even a parachutist landing on the front lawn, she said.

"There's never a dull moment around here. Never ever," Karla said, chucking.

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