In a letter to his wife, Abigail, shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote that the Fourth of July each year “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations …”
A fine sentiment, of course … and the kind of call to action that the men from Dimond Hill have never shied away from … which, in a roundabout way, is how Jane’s dad, Abbott Presby, ended up launching the first rocket powered vehicle to ever cross a New Hampshire state highway.
This story, like most good farm stories, begins with a boy and his cannon.
Abbott was in his early teens when he and a cousin hit upon the notion of making their own cannon in the workshop across the street from the farm proper. The barrel was two feet in length and almost four-inches in diameter, with a smooth bore just big enough to fit a broom handle. A touch hole was bored into the butt end and neatly fit the fuse line kept in the barn with the black powder … for those occasions where ledge or stubborn stumps needed a little persuading.
The business half was mortised into a heavy oaken block and secured with iron straps pounded into shape at the workshop forge. Two eyebolts were screwed into the rear of the block where a pipe could be slipped through so that two boys or a hefty man could carry the cannon from one place to another.
Of course, when Abbott was a teenager, the cannon was used mostly as entertainment, with him and his cousin hauling it off to a nearby pond to shoot rocks and rods and his mother’s broom handles across to the opposite shore. Once Abbott was grown with a family of his own, however, the cannon became more of a ceremonial piece, brought out only on those special occasions where controlled, ear-splitting explosions were appropriate … you know, like when a group of farmers with cigars and a jug decide they need to pump a little excitement into the party.
By the time Jane was starting school, the cannon spent most of the year sitting in a corner of the shed covered by an old tarp. The lone exception was the Fourth of July.
As longtime residents of Dimond Hill will tell you, July 4th always started with a coffee-cup-rattling cannon salute at about 7 am, just after all the cows had been milked and tended, and before Jane’s mother could mount a proper opposition.
The cannon was loaded onto a small farm cart and wheeled across Hopkinton Road (NH Route 202/9) until it sat alongside the workshop, where it had a clear view of the equipment barn at the far end of the hayfield. The cannon was strapped to the wagon and the wagon wheels were securely chocked … all reasonable safety measure were in place.
Abbott then would load the cannon with black powder, careful to estimate the proper amount (which was somewhere between window-rattling and window-breaking), and then pull out his pocket knife to snip off just the proper length from the roll of fuse line … too little and the thing might go off before he had his ears covered – too much and he’d get tired of covering his ears.
The first “BOOM!” typically scattered the birds, woke the neighbors and kept the hens from laying for a day or two. It also brought Jane’s mother to the doorway to practice “that look” and to catch young Jane long enough to order her to get no closer than the stone wall across the street from the darn fool who hadn’t any more sense than the block of wood that held the cannon in place.
It wasn’t long before the neighbor men started trickling in, each carrying a cup of coffee and many concealing a little July 4th cheer to help keep the coffee warm. Abbott needed little encouragement, and as the coffee kept flowing both “booms” and cheers got louder. It wasn’t long before Jane’s mom lost a broom stick or two as the men started taking target practice at the equipment barn at the far end of the field, almost 200 yards away.
Well, it was in the midst of all this fun that Jane’s mother announced from the front porch that the she pretty much had had enough of cannon celebrations for one Fourth of July, at which point all the men turned toward Abbott, who rocked slightly as he puffed away on his Cigarillo, plastic tip held firmly between his teeth.
The tension almost equaled that of watching the fuse burn itself into the touch hole, each witness cringing at the anticipated explosion.
Instead, however, Abbott smiled at his bride, and through that boyish grin wheedled his way into one last shot for Old Glory. Being the patriotic girl that she was, and the wise wife she had become, Jane’s mom warned him off that it had better be the last shot and stood her ground, arms folded, to ensure they all knew she meant business.
A natural showman (and, perhaps, wanting to impress his wife), Abbott figured to end the whole deal with the biggest bang of the day. The cart was carefully wheeled into full view of the front porch, and, as steady as any man with that much coffee in him could be, Abbott measured out the proper amount of black powder … plus a bit more for good measure. The fuse was cut with safety in mind (unfortunately, just not Abbott’s mind), and inserted into the touch hole with the utmost of anticipation.
Abbott’s Cigarillo was puffed up until it glowed, and with a glance back at the house he touched off the fuse. The crowd of men shied back on impulse, covering their ears, — eyes pinched and mouths gaping open, each one eager for the glorious concussion just ahead.
It was about this time Abbott noticed that in all the excitement no one had bothered to chock the wheels of the cart. Without hesitation (or without thinking, depending on who’s telling the story), Abbott reached down to toss a bolder under the right rear wheel when KA-BOOM the damn thing went off … and … off it went.
The cart shot backward through the crowd of men, down about fifteen feet of access road, across the state highway, and into the stone wall not twenty feet from where Jane sat watching. (The cart was ruined, the cannon survived … and survives today in an undisclosed location … where it still occasionally rattles windows on the Fourth of July).
Jane’s mother stood on the porch, hands on hips, mouth agape, eyes filled with fury. Abbott looked back, remorse creeping in … at the loss of a good cart … and rebellion rising in the veins of his neck. But just as Jane’s mom was ready to let loose, the men began cheering and clapping each other on the backs and raising what was left of their coffees to Abbott Presby’s patriotic passions.
Jane’s mom shook her head and turned away … Abbott just grinned and nodded his head.
He wouldn’t have heard her, anyway … his hearing didn’t come back until the next morning.
Happy Fourth of July from the Dimond Hill Farm.
Well, nuff said …