(Originally posted June 5, 2018) I took a quick trip up to Salisbury to visit my friend Steve Bradbury this morning. Whenever I see him, I am reminded that he is a man of singular purpose, and that he is focused with great intensity on the gun. Also, he prefers to call it a cannon.
It’s technically both – one of the great loves of Steve’s life is a 1917, 105mm towed field Howitzer, believed to have been used by the German-allied Bulgarian army because of the Cyrillic script etched on it. This Howitzer has lived many lives, and most of these will likely remain shrouded in mystery forever. What is known for certain is that at some point it was captured by American troops, and after the war was sent back to the United States as a trophy of war.
Artillery pieces like this one are a common element of war memorials in many New England cities and towns. They once were stark reminders of sacrifice, bravery, and loss. I remember the fearful thrill of looking down the barrel of a Civil War artillery piece when I was younger – imagining what it would have been like to face it across a field and have to run toward it. Over time, many of these weapons become instruments of peace – a place to play or shade for a picnic.
After World War I, any community that wished to have a piece of memorial artillery could apply to the arsenal in Washington, D.C., and a suitable weapon would be swiftly dispatched. By the time Newburyport (actually American Legion Post 150) decided they wanted in on the deal, the war had been over for over a decade, and there were only a few pieces left. The Howitzer became ours in 1931, and was added to the Eben Bradbury Triangle, just behind the statue of George Washington and the boulder with Eben’s commemorative plaque.
By 1990, the Howitzer was dangerously unstable. Its wooden wheels had only three spokes left, its paint had chipped away, and the open barrel was filled with gum and trash. Steve, his brother, and a host of friends and supporters, reconditioned it in 1990. When those wheels proved insufficient, Steve went looking for a better solution. He found it Amish wheel-wrights, who continue to craft wheels for their buggies the way they have for centuries. The newly rebuilt wheels were installed in 2013, along with a support frame so if the wheels fail again, there is no chance of the cannon collapsing on a child.
But the wheels will not collapse again. Steve has done everything in his power to ensure that all of the information needed to maintain the Howitzer has been passed onto me. I have a file, detailed instructions on everything from the color of the paint to how often to oil the wheels. This visit, he handed two more pages of detailed instructions. It would be a nice project for Veterans Day, he said. Get a crew together. And remember, the Amish make the best wheels.