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World War I Howitzer

With Veterans Day and its ceremonies just over, it occurred to me that residents might be interested in the history of the World War I howitzer and how it came to reside in the Pioneer Cemetery.

World War I veterans who founded Rayon-Miller American Legion Post brought the 1918 German 105mm howitzer to Pittsford early in 1932. It is likely that these veterans saw the howitzer as a companion piece to the 1860-65 memorial cannon mounted in the Pittsford Cemetery in the late 1800's. The Krupp manufactured gun was supplied by the Army Ordinance Department and is thought to have arrived in town by train. It was first housed in Pete Thornell's Garage, presently Starbucks Coffee Company, for cleaning and to await its formal dedication.

Military records of the time indicated that the howitzer had been captured from German marines in France by the US Army 27th Division in October 1918. It bore signs of war action, but was otherwise in good condition. The 27th Division was a National Guard unit from western New York, making this howitzer particularly significant as a memorial in Pittsford.

Rochester newspapers reported on March 2, 1932, that a torn water-stained page from a German marine's diary had been found tucked away in the tool box on the carriage. The October 1918 entries told of preparations for a new attack and noted: "news is bad. Americans very active . . ." This "discovery" caused a sensation for a while. The newspapers were suspicious however, and eventually the diary turned out to be a hoax, but it worked for a little while and, according to past supervisor, Paul Spiegel, "a lot of fun was had by all".

Town and village officials, together with Legion officers, selected the small triangular park at the corner of East Avenue and Washington Road, which at the time was named Penn Street, as the site for the howitzer. This was just north of the railroad bridge across North Main Street in the Village. Concrete supports were installed in the summer of 1932, and a flag pole was erected on the plot to enhance the setting.

A festive parade preceded the formal dedication of the memorial on Saturday afternoon, September 10, 1932. The marching line came down Main Street and across the canal bridge, flags flying to the accompaniment of the Doud Post Band, The Wilson Fife and Drum Corps, and the Wilson Drum and Bugle Corps. Several marching units participated with the Rayson-Miller Post, including Legionnaires from Fairport, Brighton, Honeoye Falls, East Rochester, and many more.

At this dedication Congressman James L. Whitley offered remarks that dealt with the threat to peace as he saw it at that time. He said in part: "It is the duty of every veteran who has experienced the hardships of war to prevent disarmament by the United States and to make certain that every avenue of preparedness to secure peace is opened."

In the following years, the howitzer was a village landmark as it stood watch in its small park, passed ceremoniously each Memorial Day by the traditional parade bound for the Veterans Plot in the Pittsford Cemetery. Village youngsters were drawn to it and many a young boy played at "firing" the howitzer at passing trains, trucks, busses, and cars.

The peace of that north end of the Village was shattered at 12:14 AM on October 31, 1960, when the howitzer went off with a terrific blast. "It practically lifted me out of bed" remarked a Washington Road neighbor. Fragments of a tin can containing explosives dropped into the muzzle by pranksters destroyed a mail storage box and sent bits of shrapnel flying against the railroad bridge." It would have been a good prank, but there was just too much explosive". Sheriff Deputies followed several leads, but the pranksters were never caught. The Legion decided to plug the barrel with cement and thus, no more Halloween capers!

In 1974, the intersection of East Avenue, North Main Street and Washington Road was reconstructed to accommodate increased traffic and at the same time an apartment house was built on the northeast corner. The small triangular park, home of the howitzer for 42 years, was lost. The now homeless howitzer had to find a new home. It resided in the Town Highway Department for a time until the East Rochester Legion Post suggested a suitable place in their Edmund Lyons Park. Pittsford Legionnaires agreed to the loan and it was moved in 1980.

In the spring of 1987, after the Rayson-Miller Post found its first permanent quarters in the lower level of the Village Hall, it was suggested that a new site be selected for the howitzer. After much consideration, the site in the Pioneer Cemetery was chosen and the howitzer was moved back to Pittsford. By the end of October 1987, it was permanently secured on new concrete supports, the site graded and sod laid in preparation for the November 11 rededication. It had been repainted, cleaned and polished and the original plaque secured. A semi-circle of flag sockets was installed around the site in order for flags to be erected on major holidays and especially on Veterans Day when a ceremony is held each year at 11:00 AM, the date of the Armistice ending World War I. The howitzer was removed from the cemetery and is currently in storage until a new suitable location can be found and the howitzer can be restored.

(Submitted by Audrey Johnson, Town and Village Historian. Gathered from scrapbook notes in Pittsford history.)