Apponaug's "Stolen Cannon" Mystery

Warwick is fortunate in having a number of historic buildings in a relatively small area. This makes it possible for visitors to take a walking tour of the Historic Apponaug Village and enjoy the varied architecture that has spanned two centuries.

The Kentish Artillery Building

Not far from Warwick's City Hall, there is a two-story, red brick edifice that is also part of the Warwick Civic Center Historic District. On the facade of the building are the words "Kentish Artillery," with the dates 1797 and 1912. Today, this building is the Warwick Museum, but at one time, it was the home of one of this country's earliest military units. This simple structure presents an excellent example of the manner in which the village's buildings bridge the centuries.

The structure was built in 1912 to replace the wooden armory hall of the Kentish Artillery, which traces its roots back to 1797. The Kentish Artillery was organized in 1804, when the Kentish Light Infantry, a Warwick Company organized in 1797, was given permission to become an artillery company. The purpose was to replace the United Artillery of Revolutionary service, which had disbanded after the Peace of Paris. Many of the United Artillery veterans had joined the more active Kentish Light Infantry and were instrumental in the change. In 1804, the veterans of the Revolutionary War were approaching middle age and were anxious to keep the military traditions strong and alive and felt military companies would serve that purpose.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the old infantry units were no longer attracting young recruits. Many believed that it was more important to form artillery companies and that future wars would depend more upon armaments than the traditional contributions of foot soldiers and bayonet charges. Tradition tells us that the Kentish Light Infantry Company was organized upon the urging of George Washington.

The unsolved mystery

Records indicate that when the unit became the Kentish Artillery it was given, along with other armaments, two cannon that once belonged to the United Artillery. The fate of these cannon has provided Warwick with one of its unsolved mysteries as these cannon have disappeared in the 20th century and many of Warwick's leading historians have come to the conclusion that the cannon were stolen in a well-thought out, well-executed plot.

While local historians disagree on how the crime was committed and exactly which cannon were stolen, they trace the activity back to the mid-19th century. In 1854. the Town of Warwick gave the Kentish Artillery permission to erect a one-story. Greek Revival, gable-roofed, wooden building on the eastern portion of the town lot. When the building was erected, the village of Apponaug was still a predominantly rural area despite the mills being erected nearby. At this time, the Town House grounds still had a "barren, desolate appearance" and a "strong fence or barricade" was erected around the four elm trees recently planted there in an attempt to beautify the area. The fences were necessary to keep cattle, which were plentiful in Warwick, from harming the trees. During the late 19th century, the simple wooden building was adequate for the artillery company and was used for social functions as well as for the traditional military purposes.

In 1911, a serious fire destroyed the wooden armory and William R. Walker & Sons, the prestigious firm that built the 1893 Town Hall, was engaged to erect the new building. The result is the present two-story brick structure with a gable-roofed rear wing. The architects chose brick for the front of the building to harmonize with the town hall and added projecting square corner towers and a battlemented parapet to represent the concept of an armory.

One of the most interesting aspects of the building is that niches were built on either side of the doorway to house two cannons. The Walker firm added a charge of $2.50 for "carting the cannon" to the new building. All this seems to indicate that the guns were valuable, most likely dating back to the Revolutionary Period, and made of metal. Today, these guns are wooden replicas, raising the question, "What happened to the original pieces?"

A bold act of thievery?

It seems that every village in Rhode Island has an interesting mystery that it likes to dwell on. The one in Warwick centers around the mystery of the cannon at the Kentish Artillery building on Post Road, not far from City Hall in Apponaug's Historic and Civic District. A handsome, Greek Revival, gable-roofed wooden building was erected on this site in 1854. It was a one-story building with an outbuilding in the rear. Its purpose was to provide a meeting hall for the Kentish Artillery, a militia unit that had been organized in 1797.

The fire of 1911

On a very cold night in March 1911, it is believed a tramp managed to get in the outbuilding in an attempt to keep warm. This was a time when the Stonington Railroad had an important station in Apponaug. Many of the local residents had complained that tramps were often seen in the vicinity. Many of them "rode the rails" looking for work and a number of them made their way to Apponaug. The Vigilant Fire Company later deduced that the vagabond who settled in the building to the rear of the armory started a small fire. Somehow it spread rapidly, possibly catching on some papers stored in the shed. Fanned by strong winds, the flames soon engulfed the armory and St. Barnabas' Church. All the buildings at the time were wooden and caught fire easily.

Unfortunately, there was but a very weak water supply and only one line was operable at the time. In addition it was bitter cold, about eighteen degrees, and the water froze as soon as it hit the buildings. Despite the efforts of the volunteer fire departments, St. Barnabas' Church and the Kentish Armory were lost. Only through great efforts was the blaze stopped from spreading through the rest of the village.

The brick armory

Almost immediately, the Kentish Armory was rebuilt by William R. Walker & Sons. Brick was chosen for the front of the building to harmonize with the town hall, which was also the work of the Walker firm. Without doubt, two ancient cannon were owned by the Kentish Artillery at the time as Walker built a niche on each side of the doorway to house the cannon and also charged a fee of $2.50 for "carting the cannon" to the new building.

The cannons' origins

By the early 20th century, the number of those active in the Kentish Artillery had dwindled and eventually the building was used by a number of other organizations. Most villagers had been accustomed to seeing the cannon at the front of the Armory and took it for granted they would always be there. There was some speculation concerning the origins of the cannon. Some, such as Oscar Aylesworth, believed they were cast at the Hope Foundry in Scituate and this belief was retained by his granddaughter, Dorothy Mayor, Apponaug activist and historian. Others, such as Horace Belcher, noted Pawtuxet historian, believed they were guns captured by the Pawtuxet Rangers at the Battle of Saratoga on October 17, 1777. In the late 20th century, the argument over the origin of the cannon took on additional significance when it was learned they were missing.

Who took the cannon?

The cannon disappeared in 1972. The Kentish Artillery building was being used by the Warwick Boy's Club at the time and Howard J. Gardner, an employee of the Club, recalls the incident. He reported that on a Saturday morning, when he often worked alone, four or five men appeared at about 11 A.M. and began removing the cannon. He states, "...They said they were borrowing the cannon for some sort of celebration or showing, (and that they) had permission from the Mayor." He was told that it was a temporary loan, that they would clean up the area, and that they would put in wooden replicas so as not to detract from the building's appearance.

Gardner later found that no permission had been granted and the guns were never returned. This has given rise to numerous and conflicting theories, not only as to the identity of those who took the cannon, but to the type of cannon as well. Despite research and inquiries by such historians as Dorothy Mayor, David Stackhouse and numerous others, the mystery remains.

The Warwick Museum

At the present time, the Warwick Museum is housed in the old armory building. The museum was a Bicentennial project started by the Warwick Junior Women's Club in 1974. It first opened in the Pontiac Mill and, after a few years, moved to the Kentish Artillery building. The Warwick Museum prides itself as a "living history center" and feels it explores all areas of local history. Exhibits change on a regular basis and the Museum offers a wide variety of daytime and evening classes and workshops. The Kentish Artillery Armory is part of Apponaug's heritage and the Museum is keeping the history of the area alive.

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