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Published: Thursday, 4/24/2003

Historic items take on new look at site

BY REBEKAH SCOTT
BLADE STAFF WRITER

One day in 1813, a team of British soldiers shot a cannon ball across the Maumee River at Fort Meigs.

They overshot their mark. The deadly projectile sailed beyond the scruffy pioneer encampment and landed in a bog of mud thick as melted cheese. It exploded deep in the goo. One hundred and seventy-eight years later, it turned into buried treasure. The cantaloupe-sized iron ball fractured into nine rusty fragments, but they all fit together to form a ragged orb.

Workers building a visitor's center at what is now Fort Meigs State Memorial Park found the ball and much more buried in what was a bog beyond the fort.

Their discoveries are part of a new, 3,000-square-foot exhibit that opens with a festive bang May 3-4 at the reconstructed War of 1812 landmark in Perrysburg.

“Finding a fragment of one of these [cannon balls] isn't so unusual. They were made to blow apart. But finding an entire one of these? Unheard of,” enthused Larry Nelson, site manager at the park. “I have one. Everyone else in the world has none.”

Ohio Historical Society officials yesterday led a tour through new museum and blockhouse exhibits, showing off the settings and 3-D artifacts they hope will make history come alive.

A Captain Armstrong came to Fort Meigs from Youngstown in 1813. He wasn't a professional soldier, but a militiaman, a civilian volunteer. He wore a khaki-colored wool uniform coat with 11 dark-brown stripes and brass buttons, probably made by a family member. The neck was stiff and high, the better to keep his head up and his bearing military, Mr. Nelson said. The back was cut into tails that fell dashingly to either side when the captain rode his horse.

Captain Armstrong and his coat survived his stay at the fort, collections manager Cliff Eckle said. His coat became an heirloom, and his descendants kept the garment in excellent shape for almost two centuries before donating it to the historical society.

Today, along with a cherry-red musician's uniform, it's back at Fort Meigs.

The show's not all Fort Meigs. Another War of 1812 military relic is a three-foot copper arrow, a weathervane that once topped the courthouse in the town that became Columbus. Legend says spirited new recruits, kept waiting by their sergeant, used the weathervane for target practice. They apparently were good shots: The arrow is riddled with bullet holes.

There are swords, guns, bayonets, and cannonballs aplenty, “certainly the finest collection of military artifacts in the state, if not in the entire region,” Mr. Nelson said. “The vast majority of the items on display were retrieved here on the site.”

More will be added, retrieved from auction houses and collectors, if an ongoing campaign can raise the $1.5 million needed to secure the fort's future, said Scott Mueller, the historical society's development director. The money will be used to reconstruct Depression-era WPA-built picnic shelters, catalog and conserve archaeological items found on the site, and buy more Fort Meigs-related items as they appear on the antique market.

The museum side of the visitors' center focuses on the past, but “this building is all about the future,” Mr. Nelson said. A new meeting room provides several area historic groups a space for dinners and events. The lobby is home to a book and souvenir store. Site staffers now have good-sized offices and a break area, and visitors have places to hang their coats or cool their heels.

The fort facelift and museum project cost about $6.2 million, but it is integral to the area's future in historical tourism, Mr. Nelson said.

“I see plenty of people come through who are retracing Anthony Wayne's march, or War of 1812 sites. With the addition in a few years of the Metroparks' Fallen Timbers battlefield park across the river, this area could reach the critical mass needed to become a major tourist site.”



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