Blast from the River City’s Past! by David Hendriks August 27th 2010. The setting – Austin High School versus Decatur High School at Ogle Stadium. 10,000 people filled the hallowed grounds as cross town rivalries battle on the gridiron to claim bragging rights for the next year. The flag is lifted to the top of the high mast in the southern corner of the stadium. As the gathering rises to their feet the “Star Spangled Banner” is sung by the chorus from the both schools and the older generation, their right hand placed firmly over their hearts, sang along. Sadly, many of the younger generation of Austin and Decatur High school classmates seem to have forgotten this tradition as seen in this photo.
The crowd is ready for another Decatur versus Austin High School game. The teams enter the field and gather behind their respective end zones. Austin’s Football team runs on the field first. The Decatur High School team is gathered behind the goal post at the north side of the field “BOOM” the cannon erupts with a huge gunpowder explosion.
Decatur takes to the field while the somewhat dazed and confused crowd; react to the man‐made lightning bolt!
TThhee DDeeccaattuurr RReedd RRaaiiddeerrss ttaakkee ttoo tthhee ffiieelldd w wiitthh tthhee BBllaassttiinngg ooff tthhee CCaannnnoonn!!
August 27, 2010 – Photo by Kevin Naumann “What the heck was that?” said Bill Cook the Municipal Judge for Decatur. Bill was sitting in front of me and I watched as he brought the tips of his shoulders down from his ears! “Oh that was the Decatur High School’s cannon being shot off.” I exclaimed. “It’s a long story” as I began to relate to him a brief history behind the cannon. But he didn’t hear the entire story. And there is a story to be told about the cannon we hear blasted that night that is deeply rooted in the cross town high school football history and folklore.
Fiction, Fact, Folklore or Fable? Many stories have been told and retold over the years by both Decatur and Austin students, faculty, friends, mothers, fathers, newspapers and television news broadcasts about the Decatur High School Cannon and its rich and colorful history. The more times the story is told, the taller the tale becomes and now it’s approaching Paul Bunyan status in our local town of Decatur Alabama. So much factional fiction and fictional facts have been added over the years that most people are indeed confused about what really did happen. Sadly there are even those who don’t even know there is a story to be told. This story is for you and for setting the record straight!
What is at the bottom of all this talk that’s been going on for forty‐five years? Should we start at the bottom and work our way up or we should we start at the beginning and work our way to the present?
Earliest made pictures of the DHS Red Raider Cannon in 1965.
Let’s go back, way back, into the history of this cannon. From The Decatur Daily Article – July 14, 1998 by Karen Middleton ‐ Bob Hunter, Decatur High Class of 1965 was President of the Key Club, when members decided that they wanted to “leave something permanent to the school.” “It was the fall of ’64 and we went up to Union City, Tennessee to something called the Union Gun Works and bought the cannon,” said Hunter in the article. “It wasn’t a real Civil War cannon but a reproduction. “My dad owned Hunter Furniture and we took one of the delivery trucks up there to get it. We brought it back to my grandfather’s farm and fired it off a few times to see if it would work.” The cannon was stored at the State Bonded Warehouse before it was hauled over to Decatur High School according to Key Club member Mark Lovelace. “It was fired the first time at our game with Muscle Shoals. It was Homecoming game here.” It began a tradition of firing off the cannon after each Decatur High touchdown and the Key Club was responsible for lighting the fuse!
Decatur High School Yearbook The series dates back to 1965 when Decatur defeated Austin in the first meeting 27‐7. This marked the beginning of a rivalry that fans schedule and plan events around. The 2010 game was a great game for DHS who came out the victor, 50‐21 but for the AHS fans it’s another heartfelt loss. Decatur high leads the series 33‐14.
Decatur High School Yearbook It must have been great fun for the Decatur High School crowd! From the Austin High School perspective the firing of the cannon after each touchdown was getting on their nerves. Every single time Decatur scored a touchdown they fired their cannon off and the Decatur crowd would go wild with celebration! Year after year Austin High School students had to listen to this blamed thing fire again and again after each touchdown, so the tension had been building for years.
Decatur High School Annual To get a better understanding of the cross‐town rivalry I think it is important that we look back a little further into the history of Decatur Alabama. The Decatur High School Key Club is part of the Decatur Kiwanis Club. The Decatur Kiwanis Club is deeply rooted in the annals of Decatur’s History and was an integral part of the joining of the two sister cities of Decatur, Alabama.
From the source www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decatur,_Alabama New Decatur, Alabama was a city that rose out of the ashes of former Decatur west of the railroad tracks. New Decatur was founded in 1887 and incorporated in 1889. But residents of the older Decatur resented the new town, founded and occupied by people who moved from the northern states. Animosity built until New Decatur renamed their town Albany, after Albany, N.Y., in September 1916. The impetus to meld the two towns came from the need for a bridge, instead of a ferry, across the Tennessee River. The Decatur Kiwanis Club was formed with an equal number of members from each town to organize efforts to get the state to build the bridge. In 1925, the two cities merged to form one
City of Decatur. There is a noticeable difference between the two sides of town. The cities developed differently at different times, and still to this day have somewhat different cultures.
From the Decatur Kiwanis Club web site ‐ http://decaturkiwanis.org/history.htm
Some time during the year 1919, thirty men from the town of Decatur and thirty men from the town of Albany met together for the avowed purpose of achieving the consolidation of those two warring and divisive municipalities. These were leaders with foresight dedicated to building a better community for themselves and for those to come after them. They cast about for an organization to serve as a vehicle for their efforts and after reviewing a number of forms of organizations and clubs, decided that Kiwanis International, with its motto "We Build" was the organization most likely to be effective in their endeavor. Membership was originally limited to sixty men, thirty from Decatur and thirty from Albany. At times there was a waiting list for membership. When Kiwanis International discovered the sixty member limitation, some fifteen or twenty years later, they required the Decatur club to eliminate that requirement. Eventually in 1927, after tireless effort and Kiwanis influence in the state legislature, Decatur and Albany were united into the existing community of Decatur. It is safe to say that the consolidation was brought about by the Kiwanis Club of Decatur.
Bridge Dedication – Ca 1927 – The Decatur Public Library
Keller Memorial Bridge Construction – Ca 1927 – The Decatur Public Library For more of the history of Decatur be sure to check out this web site. http://decatur‐al.gov/livework/decatur_then.html Thus we have a little of the history that started this inter‐city rivalry that still exists to this day! With the completion of Austin High School in 1962, the city was again split in two. You either lived on the east side of the railroad tracks and went to Decatur High School or you lived on the west side of the tracks and went to Austin High School.
1965 Austin High School Annual
1967 Decatur High School Annual
The Decatur High Key Club was responsible for the purchase of the cannon. The Key Club was responsible for the cannon and their duties included keeping the cannon in sound order and firing it after each touchdown the football teamed scored.
The Key Club is an international student‐led organization which provides its members with opportunities to provide service, build character and develop leadership. The Key Club pledge – “I pledge, on my honor, to uphold the Objects of Key Club International; to build my home, school and community; to serve my nation and God; and combat all forces which tend to undermine these institutions.” Underscore placed here by the author of this article as a notation to remember.
Decatur High School Annual
Decatur High School Annual Now let me tell you the story of what happened to the Decatur High School cannon in 1977. The idea began to spring up amongst a group of young, seventeen year old men from the Austin High School Class of 1978. They had heard enough of the cannon! They were going to silence it forever! The four young men were, Jay Jenkins, Darryl Mitchell, Jeff Coffey and Bob Quarles. Bob actually was from the AHS Class of 1979.
Darryl Mitchell (AHS Class of 1978) offers these details from his perspective. “We often gathered together at Jeff’s house on 16th Street just down the street from Austin and would walk to school together in the morning.” During their gatherings the idea hatched and began to grow that they were going to silence the cannon once and for all. They were going to snatch the cannon from Decatur High School before the Austin vs. Decatur game, which was to be played on November 4, 1977. Back then the game was the last regular game of the season for both teams. According to Bob Quarles, the original idea behind the snatching of the cannon came from Jay Jenkins. The plan was schemed and plotted and bantered amongst each other as they dared each other on. They had thought about borrowing one of Jay’s father’s crane trucks then hoist the entire cannon into the back of the truck but that plan didn’t work out when the truck was on a job at the time right before the big game. The word eventually got around to the “Red Raiders” that the “Black Bears” were going to take off with Decatur High’s prized cannon. Darryl Mitchell was dating a girl from Decatur High School and he let her know of their intentions but “I kind of brushed it off like we really were not going to do it”.
Pictured here are Molly Williams, Darryl Mitchell, Jeff Coffey before the 1977 Homecoming Parade for AHS.
Darryl states that when it came time to snatch the cannon they found that some Decatur High School students were gathered around guarding the cannon which stood in the corner of the field at Ogle
Stadium. It appears that the some of the “Red Raiders” students took it serious enough that they posted guards there ‘round the clock’ to protect their prized cannon. However it began to sprinkle late that Fall Saturday night in 1977 so whoever the “guards” were, they threw in the towel and walked off. Mr. John Roland Jenkins, Jay’s father, says he thinks that they went to Hardees to grab a coke. Bob Quarles doesn’t recall being forewarned about any “guards” being on duty that Thursday night before the Austin vs. Decatur game. Bob remembers that they didn’t see anyone at all. Instead he remembers that they heard that story later on that there might have been someone in the bleachers watching the cannon. He said that if there was anyone keeping an eye on the cannon, then they were gone by the time they arrived. Dr. Robert Quarles now practices nuclear radiology, diagnostic radiology and nuclear medicine. Darryl relates the story. “It was a cold, rainy, nasty night.” This group of four young men were circling around the DHS campus in Jay Jenkins father’s 1973 El Camino (white with wood grain sides). Can you imagine them sitting like sardines in this little car‐truck on this drizzly night waiting for the opportunity to seize the Decatur High cannon? “We were well prepared.” says Jeff Coffey, often referred to as “Theo” by his friends. Jeff says “We had a three foot long bolt cutter to cut the lock and chain on the gate to the Ogle stadium field.” These daring young opportunists, rushed in quickly, to gather their treasure in the early evening hours of November 3rd, 1977. Swiftly they parked the El Camino and Jay, Bob, Darryl and Jeff rushed in hoping no one was around. But no one was around at least none that could be observed. But they were still at risk of someone catching them in the middle of what they were doing! Their well laid plans soon turned out to have a few problems. They gathered around the cannon sitting there all by itself. They tried pushing it back and forth a bit but it was heavy! They pondered first to themselves then to each other. How do you get a 900 pound cannon ‐ wheels and all ‐ into the back of an El Camino? Even if they got it back to the truck, they wouldn’t be able to lift it up into the bed nor would it have fit! So young Mr. Darryl Mitchell, being the clever young man he was, started tugging and twisting on the barrel and it slowly started to slip and give. They quickly undid the straps that held the barrel of the cannon to the carriage. All four heaved and lifted the 350 pound cannon barrel off the large wooden wheels and walked together to the back of the El Camino.
They left behind the carriage and wheels. Mr. Roland Jenkins remembers that Jay told him that his adrenaline was flowing so fast that “We didn’t even feel the weight of the cannon” as the four ran off with it.
Off they roared into the dark, tires spinning, with the cannon sliding around and banging into the sides of the bed of the El Camino truck/car as they made each turn. Jay had the foresight to take one of his mother’s quilts with him which they supposedly used that to wrap up the barrel of the cannon. They discussed amongst themselves “What are we going to do with it now?” Jay suggested that they take it back His father’s business, “Valley Steel Construction” on the river on Hwy 20 and fill it with concrete. Then they would return it back to its rightful place on the field at Ogle Stadium, never to be blasted again after a touchdown. Darryl Mitchell said “Let’s go over to Madison and get some beer and we’ll figure out what to do with it after that.” At the time, Decatur was a dry town and if you wanted any beer, you had to cross the 1 and 3/4 mile wide, Tennessee River, to go over to the wet county of Madison to buy beer. There were two bridges crossing the river at this time in 1977. One was referred to at the time as the “new bridge” built in 1963 and the other was the old “Keller Memorial Bridge” built in 1928, named in honor of Helen Keller from Tuscumbia, Alabama.
Decatur Alabama’s Bridges – Fall 1977
So “the best laid plans of mice and men” seemed to erode when they came to the bridge. “Look around. There is not a car in sight, not anyone” said Darryl. Jeff suggested “Let’s just get rid of it now and toss it off the bridge” and quickly all four agreed. They were driving north on the new bridge heading out of Decatur; they stopped the El Camino somewhere along the top of the bridge. All four jumped out of the cramped El Camino and grabbed the cannon barrel in the bed. All four of the boys lifted the cannon and hurriedly set it on the right side (east side) of the concrete rail. “All together now – heave!” Darryl said. They heard a bell ringing sound. “I think its hung up”. Darryl thought it had lodged on the large metal structure running directly under the bridge because it made it large “gong” bell sound.
“No, no, I heard it splash” said Jay Jenkins. Not wanting to stand around and discuss it any further, they went off to Madison to get some beer. “We’re wanted men, we’ll strike again, but first let’s have a beer!” as Jimmy Buffett immortalized in his 1973 song, “The Great Filling Station Hold Up.” Jeff and Darryl returned to Darryl’s house and Bob and Jay went home. Darryl, Jeff and Darryl’s brother Tim Mitchell sat around discussing the night’s events at the Mitchell residence. Soon the conversation came about, that they should have a cheer to shout out at the next night’s Austin versus Decatur High School football game. With the help of Darryl’s brother, Tim, they came up with this cheer or rather should I say, insult! “Give a little shake” “Give a little quiver” “Your’re damned ole’ cannon” “Is in the bottom of the river.”
To add insult to injury another group of Austin Students had put together a plan of their own, not knowing about the cannon scheme. They were going to paint a big Austin “
A ” on the field on Thursday
night before the November 4th 1977 game. Danny Gibson from the AHS Class of 1979 recalls “I’m not saying I know who stole the cannon but the same night the cannon was stolen someone painted a big Austin A on Decatur side of the field. “It took about twelve cans of black paint and four guys to paint it." Jim Breeding asked the art teacher to help him make a stencil for the A and she did. It was a 10 foot cardboard cut‐out. Mike Krueger, Jim Breeding, Ricky Watson, and Danny Gibson snuck out that night. The boys from Austin climbed the tall fence of the DHS stadium around midnight and with the stencil and spray paint, painted the Austin A on the football field. As Danny Gibson explains “I had broke my leg (tibia and fibula) in football practice earlier in the year after having a cast up to my posterior, it was later put in a cast up to my knee. I was in that stupid cast for three months. I managed to climb the fence with the rest of the guys. We painted the big A near the sidelines where the Decatur High Football squad would be standing so they could see it.” They managed to get the job done and sneak back into their rooms. The next day it began to rain, and it appeared to them that their handy work had been trampled and stomped to nothing but a black mess. These were the sort of things that went on between the two high schools. Arriving at Austin one morning the students and faculty are greeted with this view. Someone had rearranged the words, just a little.
Decatur High School changes the letters on the Austin “Coming Events’ sign.
The plot thickens… a modern day “Civil War” break out. Jeff Coffey relates the story. “I was on his way home that Thursday night after tossing the cannon in the river and as I went by Austin High School, near my home, I noticed a car and a group of boys bashing out the windows at the school” Jeff said, “I took down the car tag number and called it in to the Decatur Police anonymously.” What had happened was that the supposed DHS guards on duty at Ogle Stadium came back and found their cannon gone! So in retribution, some members of Decatur High came to Austin’s campus and busted out nearly two hundred glass windows. I remember coming to school and seeing all the busted out windows. It was quiet a scandal. The names of the vandals were soon found out and they or should I say, their parents, had to pay for replacement of all the windows. I truly don’t know who was involved. Another anthem was quickly put together by the boys from Austin. “You broke a few windows, You played a little prank, What about the cannon, the damned thing sank.” Friday morning came around and as the group met at Jeff’s house they walked to school. Darryl explains, “Even before we had crossed the street, students were coming up to us and saying that they had heard that we were involved in the stealing of the cannon!” Jay Jenkins was said to have exclaimed to the students who asked about it, “What are you talking about? You think we were involved?” Jay had a knack for telling the truth and being able to skate around the direct questions according to writer of this article. “Jay and I were best friends” recalls David Hendriks, so this short story is dedicated to him.
Jay Jenkins Died – June 23 , 1978 in a one person car accident having fallen asleep at the wheel. Jay had diabetes and sometimes went in to insulin shock and would become groggy.
The word quickly spread and the culprits soon spread word to each other at school that they needed some damage control. Darryl called a meeting at the AHS campus “Keep a lid on it.” Darryl explained that no one within the group was to say they had anything to do with it, especially in light of what had happened to the windows of Austin’s school. The rumors soon swirled and before long there was even an Austin student who actually took credit for snatching the cannon. Still others have claimed that there was an entire group that had gathered around the bridge and watched the cannon as it was thrown off! Talk about lying low, these four young men did their best to keep out of the limelight and to their credit not many people to this day know who were involved. But the scandal was already the talk of everyone at Austin High on the day of the “big game.” Everyone was asking “Who did it? Who stole the cannon? Where is the cannon at?” Keeping the lid on it eventually led to more rumors and the list of culprits soon expanded. The Assistant Principal of Austin High School in 1977 was Mr. Lorenzo Jackson. Coach Jackson taught Civics while I was at Austin and was well respected. He taught with an air of authority and knew his subject well. He was known for his interesting lessons and for his fairness but he was also feared for his ability to dish out a paddling on the butt that you weren’t soon to forget. You didn’t want to be called in to his office for a conversation as I can personally attest!
Mr. Jackson called William Littrell into his office that fateful Monday morning. Everyone knew the Littrell brothers including Mr. Jackson. He was especially familiar with William.
William is seen here in one of his mug shots behind bars and wearing his Willie Nelson t‐shirt. The Bruin 1976 I had a conversation with William and he explains the story to me this way. Mr. Lorenzo Jackson asked, “William, did you have anything to do with this? William knew the vast consequences of what would happen to him ‐ had he been a party to this illustrious event. He pleaded “No Mr. Jackson, I swear, I didn’t have any part of it. I was sick as a dog at home and you can even ask my Dad!” This conversation went on like this for about a half hour according to William. William happened to be guilty by association only. Poor ole William was thinking to himself “Why me Lord? What did I ever do?”
“Don't cross him, don't boss him. He's wild in his sorrow: He's ridin' an' hidin his pain. Don't fight him, don't spite him; Just wait till tomorrow, Maybe he'll ride on again.” Willie Nelson “The Red Headed Stranger”
“I swear, it wasn’t me, I was sick at home in the bed” says William. Coach Lorenzo Jackson kept asking me “Where is the cannon at?” William finally offered up ”I don’t know but if you want to find out for yourself, you’d better get your skin suit on and go looking for it in the river!” According to William as a personal testimony “I never ratted out my friends” whom he knew were involved in this escapade. And no, he did not go around saying he had anything to do with the cannon being tossed off the bridge! Mr. Jackson said “William, I believe you in spite of yourself.” Mr. Jackson let William go without having the face the broad side of a large wooden paddle kept in his desk. Some thirty‐four years later, William Littrell confessed to me “I would have been part of it if I could, but I truly was sick that night.” William resides in Vinemont Alabama where he with the help of his five brothers run the “Littrell Brothers Lumber Company” He can be found every Sunday morning singing in the choir at his church and plays the occasional guitar. Perhaps if you’ll hum a few bars to “The Red Headed Stranger” he’ll whip out his guitar and demonstrate his talent. But the investigation was far from over. Mr. Bearl Whitsett, Principal of Austin High School called Jay Jenkins into his office.
Mr. Whitsett asked Jay a lot of questions and finally let him go with no formal punishment. Jay’s father, Mr. Jenkins, asked Jay later on if he had told Mr. Whitsett the truth. Jay said “Yes, I told the truth, he just didn’t ask the right questions! Apparently Jay had a real talent for skirting around the issues. He would have made a great lawyer. Mrs. Jenkins said she thinks another reason Jay was let go so easily that day is that the Jenkins’ were neighbors with the Whitsett’s a few years before when they were living on 12th Avenue. Mrs. Jenkins said “Bearl, just really didn’t want to know.” She thinks it was because of their relationship with him. The Jenkins had moved from Southwest Decatur to Southeast Decatur and they were living on Country Club Road back in 1976. Jay continued at Austin High School and his younger sister, Jan, transferred to Decatur High School her sophomore year. Jan was a Junior Cheerleader at DHS when all this happened and she had to endure quite a bit of suspicion and criticism herself, from her older brother’s involvement with the disappearance of the cannon, her mother explained to me. Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins now reside in Marietta Georgia having moved there from Decatur in 2005. But the questioning didn’t stop there. “It must have been a week later, when Poochie O’Hara calls me on the telephone” recalls Glenda Jenkins. “I see, un‐huh, do tell, you don’t say!” is how I imagine the conversation went. Glenda was 38 years old at the time and she speaks to her husband, John Roland Jenkins about the incident as soon as she could. Mr. Jenkins said “I had a lot of sorting out to do!”
Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins recall that they sat Jay down and asked him about the cannon incident. “Jay told me, that Decatur was going ‘B B ang, bang, bang ’ every time they scored a touchdown.” Mr. Jenkins continues the story, “Dad we just got tired of hearing that cannon go off all the time against Austin.” Mr. Jenkins asked Jay ‐ “Where is the cannon at now?” Jay being evasive as he was, said “Well, Dad all I can tell you is that nobody’s going to steal it again!” That explanation wasn’t going to work this time. Mr. Jenkins asked Jay again. “Where is the cannon at?” Jay said, “Well, it’s in some water somewhere.” Mr. Jenkins said, “What do you mean?” Jay replied “Well if you are going to go find it, you’ll have to swim!” Jay was literally over a barrel, this time not the barrel of the cannon but the barrel he was soon going to be tarred and feathered in, if he didn’t come up with some plausible facts. Mr. Jenkins getting a little miffed by this time says “Ok, Jay I’m going to ask you one more time, where is the cannon at?” Jay says “Well, do you know where the middle of the bridge is crossing the river? It’s there at the bottom of the river!” Then only, then, Jay ‘fesses up’ to his parents the whole story. That didn’t “settle” too well with Roland Jenkins. Jay’s was “grounded” and part of his punishment was that he was going to have to find a way to get it out of the river and return it to Decatur High School. Mr. Jenkins recalls that both he and Jay had become certified scuba divers in 1976. Mr. Jenkins plan was that he and Jay would dive down to the bottom of the Tennessee River and find the cannon. He told me that they would rig a balloon bag and float it to the surface or tie a chain around it and hoist it up to their boat. They never got around to doing that as Jay died in a tragic accident soon after graduating Austin in June 1978. Game night – November 4, 1977. Austin faced Decatur at Ogle Stadium. Tension was really tight. Decatur High School students were not amused, not in the least! The night was dampened by a cold hard rain. Thankfully no fights broke out that night. I remember this night very well. As a 17 year old student of AHS at the time, I had taken on the role of photographer for the Austin High School annual staff. The photograph below is one of the pictures that appeared in the Austin yearbook. I took this picture that night with my father’s Canon F‐1 camera. I remember it well because I found out later the 135mm camera lense was not waterproof! I had to pay $135.00 to have the lense cleaned up from the job I had working at a gas station on 6th Avenue.
Photo and Comments made at the time ‐ David Hendriks.
“Take off your pants Get on a Boat, Gotta go swimming Cause your cannon won’t float.” A banner was made and it was placed over the fence rails for the Decatur High students to see. Kelley O’Hara Holloway recalls “I remember making a big huge sign that said BANG! Every time DHS scored during the game we held up that sign. Not much consolation. Austin went 3 and 9 that year in football.
Decatur High School Yearbook ‐ 1978 Even though the heckling cheers from Austin students helped encourage the team, the Black Bears went down to the Red Raiders, 21‐0 as the final buzzer sounded. The Red Raiders got the final say on who was city champs that year. The Austin Black Bears went down, but you want to know something else friends and neighbors – so did the cannon! The cannon did not get fired after the three touchdowns times that night. And for many nights to come! From the 1998 Decatur Daily article. “Former Decatur High principal, James Milner is reluctant to point fingers.” “One night it just came up missing.” “It was rumored that the Austin Boys just got tired of hearing it shot off and they ran off with it.” “We had that caisson rolling around without a barrel for I don’t know how long, then we had another made. But it never did look the same.” Truth is “It looked awful.” according to John Godwin, DHS Class of 1979 – John said “Some Dad had taken a white PVC pipe, sprayed it black and mounted it to the carriage.” “They tried shooting a few M‐80s in it but it was never the same.” The old DHS Key Club cannon, minus the barrel, was unseen and unheard of for years and years to come. The tradition of shooting off the cannon had died but the tension remained. As the old saying goes “What goes around comes around.” There are always consequences to our behavior. Not only had a bunch of windows been knocked out at Austin High School, the shenanigans continued back in 1977. Arriving at Austin High School soon after this illustrious event, the word soon spread around the Austin campus that the head of our illustrious mascot figure, the Austin High Black Bear, was amiss!
The Black Bear stood about six foot high and eight foot long in the foyer of the gymnasium which is today called the “Joe Jones Gymnasium” in honor of Coach Jones who had made a reputation for hard work and winning.
Someone had cut the head completely off the Austin High Black Bear, much to the chagrin of the Austin students and faculty. Students were gathered around and talking amongst themselves wondering what had happened and who could have pulled off such a tumultuous stunt? Decatur High School had its tradition of having its cheerleaders with the cannon as the background of many photographs as shown here in these photographs.
1966 Decatur High School Annual
1966 Decatur High School Annual Austin High School too had its tradition of having its cheerleader photographs taken in front of the big Black Bear.
Lee Miles, was a sophomore at Decatur High School in the fall of 1977 and a “Class of 1980” graduate. He describes the story of the caper this way. “Mark King came up with the idea.” “He and I were buddies at the time and I’m not sure of the month but it was on a Friday night.” Mark climbed up the side of Lee’s house around 2:00 AM to Lee’s second floor bedroom. Mark and Lee had snuck out several times in the past and this was not unusual for them. Mark, knocks on the window and wakes Lee up from a sound sleep and says “Hey wake up! We are going to go somewhere!” Lee exclaims “Huh, what, where?” Mark says “We are going to Austin and we are going to get back at those guys for throwing the cannon in the River! We are going to get the Bear!” “That’s fine, let’s do it” Lee says. In the pre‐dawn hours Mark and Lee ride over to the campus of Austin High School. Mark drives around to the back of the gym. Now on foot they were looking for an entrance into the gym. They soon found an unlocked window. The windows were about “4’ x 1.5’ and swung outwards from the bottom. Lee helped Mark through the window and Mark then raced around to the front and opened up a door for Lee. Mark had brought a hack saw and a BB gun he had gotten in the fourth grade. They came loaded for bear!
They were fully prepared for action and spoiling for a fight. “The Black Bear” stood approximately six feet tall and was six foot long on a plywood platform with its left foot on a stump. The bear was on rollers so it could be rolled around. It stood proudly in Austin’s gym foyer. Even if they wanted to take the whole Bear, it wouldn’t have gone through the doors! But they couldn’t leave without trying to decapitate the bear’s head. Can you imagine these two sixteen year old boys trying to cut through the Bear’s neck, approximately five feet in circumference, with a little metal hack saw blade? “It took an hour and half to cut the bear’s head off” an exasperated Lee explains! “We took turns hacking at it! They twisted, pulled, yanked and finally got the head off. “I was sweating to death it was so hot and we were scared out of our wits that we would be caught.” “We had a BB gun with us and we shot a few lights outs and a dinged a few windows.” I can just imagine if the police had shown up at that time and caught them in the middle of their little endeavor holding a BB gun and the Black Bear’s head! I suppose the police, not knowing what was going on and only seeing a rifle would have immediately pulled down on them ‐ then and there. The young men ran off putting the Bear’s head in the back of Mark’s car and drove back to Lee’s house just as the sun was coming up. Lee put the Bear’s head in his bedroom closet. Lee was exhausted and he sleeps in on Saturday morning. About 10 o’clock the next morning, Mark knocks on the door. Mrs. Miles answers and tells Mark “Lee is in his room. Come on in.” Mark opens Lee’s bedroom door and tells Lee “I don’t think this is a safe place to keep the Bear’s head so let me take it with me.” Lee says “That is fine, I don’t care ‐ I just want to get some sleep!” That was the last time that Lee saw of the actual Bear’s head. He did however see a photo in “The Decatur Daily” with a DHC student, holding the Bear’s head in a photo. Let us fast forward to Monday afternoon to the Decatur High School campus. The rumor mill had already cranked up. Rumor was at Decatur High School, that someone had taken the Austin High School Black Bear’s head off and Lee was to blame! Lees says that Mark King apparently had gone out showing the Bear’s head off! He had gone to a party Saturday night at Pat Hennessy’s house with the Bear’s Head in his car. Mark puts it on his head and walks in the door. What a riot that must have been! He then hands it out to the party goers. Several of them tried it on, danced about and had a good belly‐ ripping time with it. According to Peggy Huey McKleroy, an Austin High student, she was a witness to the fun that the Decatur bunch were having with the Bear’s head. Peggy tells me she was at another party where the Bear’s head showed up. “I was at Curtis Brannon’s house with a bunch of Decatur High students and witnessed the fun they were having.” Peggy says “I asked to borrow Dr. Brannon’s phone and after calling several of the guys who were in on the taking of the cannon to no avail, got Jay Jenkins on the phone and reported what I was seeing.”
The decapitated Bear’s head was proudly displayed by Mark King for a week or two. According to Lee, when asked where he got it, Mark’s story was “Lee Miles cut the thing off and I got it from him!” Lee exclaims “He took no responsibility in his involvement whatsoever!” Lee tells me that on Tuesday, the talk got bigger, on Wednesday it was sweltering and by Thursday the rumor mill had reached epic proportions. Lee was a hero! Lee even had a jersey made up with the letters “BEAR HUNTER” across the back of his jersey which he wore as he roamed the halls of Decatur High School. So apparently he isn’t as innocent as he proclaims. James Milner was the principal of Decatur High School in 1977. It was Thursday afternoon and Lee was sitting in class. The intercom blasts out “Can you send Lee Miles down to the principal’s office?” Everyone stood up and clapped their hands together, according to Lee. Off Lee goes dragging his heels making his way to the dreaded encounter with the principal. Lee says “I had been suspended so many times it wasn’t funny, but this time it was serious.” Lee walks into the principal’s office. There was Mr. Milner sitting there with two of Decatur’s finest. Mr. Milner said “Lee, I want you to be very clear with these gentlemen and I want you to tell them exactly what happened.” So Lee explained exactly what happened down to the last detail. The Decatur police officers stood in disbelief. They said, “Are you sure of what you are saying?’ They were astonished by his honesty. Lee said “You asked me to tell you the truth, what more do you want me to say?” “It’s the truth! Lee was dismissed and went home. At 7:00 that night, there was a knock on the door of the Miles house in Southeast Decatur. It was two officers from the Decatur Police Department. They introduced themselves to Mrs. Miles. They said they were there to issue an arrest for Lee’s involvement in the Bear head’s decapitation and the break in at Austin High School. Lee says he got “three weekends in Juvenile Detention” in Hartselle, Alabama and had to pay a $250.00 fine. He also had to pay restitution for the fiberglass repair needed to put the Bear’s head back on. Lee says that one of the kind police officers knew a little about fiberglass repair and offered to help do the job. Lee says “It was a life changing event for me that is for sure!” Lee Miles now lives in the Denver Colorado area. Lee states that even in the court of law, Mark refused to take any responsibility in the incident therefore they are not on the best of terms. In hindsight, Lee confesses, “I really wish we had thrown the darn Bear’s head off the bridge!” Mr. Bearl Whitsett former Austin principal recalls it being a big shock, in a Decatur Daily article. Whitsett said the beast’s tongue had been previously cut out, but nothing prepared him for the ghastly sight. “He was a funny‐looking thing. We walked in one day and there he stood – a bear with no head.” Whitsett said it appeared that the culprit had rolled the bear on his wooden platform from the gym foyer to the back door, intending to steal the mascot. “He couldn’t get it through the door because it had one of those dividers, so he just cut the head off.”
Bearl Whitsett 9/19/2008 Photo taken by David Hendriks The bear’s head eventually was put back on the Austin High school’s life sized fiberglass, Black Bear. To this day it stands in the foyer of Austin’s Auditorium, minus the rolling platform.
If you happen to get a chance to see this big fellow, be sure to look around the neck for the fiberglass surgery that was performed putting his head back on!
Over the years the Black Bear he has had his tongue cut out, some of his teeth pulled out, its head cut off and suffered other indignities as well as seen many triumphs.
The Bruin – 1982 – Page 31 Whatever became of the High School anchor many of my AHS classmates asked? Students often gathered around the old anchor for conversations and photographs. It sat in the middle of Austin High School’s campus. It was painted Austin’s colors – Black and Orange.
The Austin High School “Bruin” Yearbooks from 1975 through 1978 are filled with pictures of students gathered around and on top of the old Navy Anchor.
Although it was painted many times, I can safely say it was never stolen. What I can’t say is that no one ever attempted to steal it. Apparently someone did one night. According to sources the villains in this
case, backed their car up to the anchor and tied a rather large chain around their bumper to the Austin anchor. “All right now ‐ give it a little pull,” is what I imagine the pranksters said to the driver. That didn’t achieve their results. I can hear them now, “Back up a few feet and give it a little slack! Ok, ready, now stomp on it!” I can just see it now. The driver gave the mighty anchor a mighty tug! Coming to school the next morning the staff and students at Austin were amused to find their Anchor with a chain tied to the bumper of a car. The mighty anchor not only weighed 5,000 pounds it was welded into the concrete ground! It is reported by an accurate source that each link in the anchor’s chain weighed 110 pounds. I would love to know who was behind that little adventure and hear their side of the story. Yes indeed the iron boat anchor belonging to the Navy was painted many a time but it was never hauled off and thrown into the Tennessee River! So the question remains, where is the anchor? Many students at Austin High School remember Commander Hatton. After he left Austin in 1979, he taught at Headland High School in Headland Alabama.
According to William C. Hatton Jr. “In the Summer of 1979 my dad had the National Guard pick up the anchor and it was stored at the Armory on the Beltline until he arranged for a helicopter from Fort Rucker (Training Mission) to swing by and pick it up and deliver it to Headland International Airport. It was loaded on a flatbed trailer and as your picture shows it is sitting in front of Headland High School.
“He did this without permission from anyone at AHS. But it was still US Navy property and the school could not stop it from being moved. He did not see eye to eye with certain people or person if you know what I mean. Dad passed away in 2003.” Ronnie Morgan (AHS Class of 1978) reported to me that the Navy anchor has just recently been moved in September 2010 to Rehobeth High School in Dothan Alabama.
Keller Bridge Demolition. In the summer of 1998 the Keller Memorial Bridge was at the end of its life span, having being opened in 1928.
The beautiful structure had long been a fixture of the Decatur Community. It was being forced out to make way for the new bridge that was being built across the Tennessee River in Decatur in the name of progress. The barges and tugs that worked the mighty Tennessee had often collided with the bridge trying to make their way through the narrow draw bridge opening. I personally saw the scars of such accidents from the water level. I love the Tennessee River and I loved this old bridge and often wondered of the stories she could tell. I was given a love for the river from my father, John Hendriks and he too from his father Louis Victor Hendriks often called “Skipper” by his friends, for his love of the Ouachita River and his many custom made boats Camden Arkansas. This is a photograph taken in 1924 of my grandfather and the air‐boat he made.
My grandfather claimed it was the second boat of its kind ever made. He saw the first one in Baton Rouge Louisiana and he came back to Camden Arkansas and made his own from memory. I remember sitting on Grandpas knee. He said it would go about 75 miles per hour across the water. “I came around a bend in the river really fast and going side‐ways. It scared the people scrubbing their clothes on the washboard so much that they threw their clothes in the air and ran off screaming “Jesus, is coming, Jesus is coming!” I remember Grandpa chuckling about this and me too as he tickled me. I couldn’t wait for my Dad to come home from his job at Redstone Arsenal because we would take off to the Tennessee River. Many times we would climb the spires of the Keller Memorial Bridge to jump off into the river. Often times we would sit directly under the draw bridge and just watch and listen to the cars hum across the draw bridge sections above. It had a distinct sound that refuses to be erased from my memory. Many times we watched as the towboat captain of the “Mary Ethel” maneuvered his barges between the Keller Bridge and the railroad tracks which would spin around on its axis.
The Port of Decatur's Mary Ethel towboat pushes barges up and down the Tennessee River. Mary Ethel, a twin screw push boat with 800 horsepower, was built in 1971.
But up on top of the “Keller bridge” the automobile drivers would have to wait for up to a half hour for all the traffic to clear once the draw bridge was lowered. To the citizens of Decatur it was just par for the course and a part of our lives. It was a slower paced back then. No instant communications via cell phones. It was a time to get out of the car and just watch what was going on and talk to the fellow onlookers.
Photo taken 1978 by David Hendriks
Many civic minded citizens did not want the Keller bridge to be completely destroyed. Attempts were made to keep it partially intact so that visitors could walk the bridge. Proposals were offered to set up shops along the bridge to promote tourism and other commercial interests. Efforts were made to save the bridge from destruction but to no avail. It would cost too much to maintain the old “Keller Memorial Bridge” and none of the money that was budgeted to demolish the bridge could be obtained for future uses. The old bridge was doomed and had to come down. It was taken down in stages with dynamite blasts that took down sections at a time. It was carefully orchestrated with many environmental concerns as well. An article appeared in The Decatur Daily on Saturday morning, July 11, 1998.
This publicity set off a firestorm of interest in the story of this cannon find. Many citizens of Decatur Alabama had their own story about the cannon found at the bottom of the Tennessee River. The Decatur Daily was inundated with phone calls each with their own story of the cannon found at the bottom of the river. Was it a civil war relic tossed into the river to keep it out of the hands of advancing Union forces? Or could this be the same cannon that was tossed off the bridge back in 1977? The Decatur Daily followed up with a few more articles.
In this article the writer Karen Middleton says that the taking of the cannon was in retaliation of the Bear’s head being decapitated. That is wrong. It was the other way around. The article also reports that they found the cannon 150 feet from the Keller Memorial Bridge. If indeed they discovered a cannon in that area then it would not be the cannon tossed off the bridge that night on November 3rd 1977. But with the security being so tight at the time, I have wondered if perhaps they said this, to throw the scent off the trail. A civil war cannon was estimated to be worth $20,000 to $50,000. The officials of Decatur didn’t want anyone diving around looking for spoils and besides that the Mayor of Decatur had already laid claim to the cannon. Certainly the cannon thrown off the bridge that night in 1977 would not have drifted two feet after hitting the water and it would have sat exactly where it landed. No amount of current would have pushed it anywhere. Still another article appears that says “4 cannons believed sighted under historic Keller bridge.” This only added fuel to the fire.
Indeed the plot thickens. The article above was never substantiated. Joe Hollis is now deceased. There were no follow up articles concerning the cannon or any other cannons being raised from the river. The question remains – “Where is the cannon at?” Robert Parham is the owner of the “Blue and Gray Museum” on Bank Street and a DHS Class of 1966. http://www.rparhamsrelics.com/ Mr. Parham is considered an expert on Civil War history in the city of Decatur. Robert has heard the story of the DHS cannon barrel being tossed into the river many times. I interviewed Mr. Parham at his shop and he said. “Certainly if there were any Civil War Cannon at the bottom of the river, it would have been raised!” “It would have taken many permits and authorizations from state and federal agencies but it would have been brought to the surface.” Mr. Parham continues. “If it was the old Decatur High cannon it would have been recovered by now.” Robert is not too convinced that it was ever tossed in the river in the first place in the first place.
Mr. Parham recalls talking to the Bridge Lift tender, Coy Clem, and he told me he never saw a thing! Mr. Clem passed away September 19, 2010 at the age of 87 after serving many years with the Decatur Dixie Youth and the Boys Club. Robert recalls the time when the Keller Bridge was being brought down. He said there was a floating platform that the diver’s used as their base station. Robert said “The divers were at least 150 feet west of the Keller Memorial Bridge working in that area.” He carefully described the story and witnesses who can attest to this fact. “There is no way a cannon tossed off the bridge could have drifted that far!” I concurred with him. But I suggested “What if the divers were doing something else that day like relocating mussels and not looking for the cannon?” I don’t think they were over the sight of the Decatur High School cannon or anywhere close. I wondered to myself, if the DHS cannon were discovered, why wasn’t it brought up? The story of the cannon continues to this day. Over the years people continue to ask “Where is the cannon now?” The answer comes in two parts. Part A ‐ The barrel to the cannon is still at the bottom of the Tennessee River, sleeping with the whiskered catfish. Part B ‐ The caisson, wheels and axles sat unattended hidden away under the bleachers at Ogle stadium so long that only the person knew where it was, was the person who put it there! “I guess it was around 2005 or so” explains John Godwin – Class of DHS 1979. “I was helping tear down a float that had been in the homecoming parade the day before. Nobody had heard from the cannon for years and I was reminiscing about the cannon. I was telling the story of the cannon and wondering aloud about where it could be.” I was overheard by Mitch Warren. Mitch was in charge of maintenance at Decatur High School and he said “I know exactly where it is!” He led John deep beneath of the structure of the Ogle Stadium bleachers. John is quoted “It was in a room, behind a room, behind the Austin High School’s locker room. There was a little opening in the wall and Mitch shined a flashlight back some fifty feet where we could see the wheel of the cannon.” John Godwin was very excited to see the cannon carriage! His excitement turned to a personal interest in seeing the cannon restored to “its glory days” and John sets about doing just that. John said “I called up about ten of my old friends and we go to the ball field just before a Decatur football game.” “We managed to move things around and brought the old cannon outside where is caused quite a stir amongst the football players. Coach Adkins was not pleased with my actions that night because it was taking the focus off the ball game!” But John was on a mission. He met with the principal of DHS, Mike Ward and the superintendent of education, Sam Houston and the Decatur Fire Marshall. Why the Fire Marshall you ask? Because if you are going to fire a cannon full of gun powder after “nine‐eleven”, you had better make sure you have the law on your side. Imagine the fuss and commotion there would be amongst the neighbors, including Decatur General Hospital just across the street from the stadium. You wouldn’t want to cause a problem with the patients in intensive care would you?
Decatur High School enlisted the help of Robert Slack former History teacher and current Vocation teacher at Decatur High School. He returned the cannon to its former glory. Every Friday night at the Decatur High home football games, Mr. Slack and his assistant, with the help of a golf cart, roll the cannon back to a spot in the Northwest corner of the field at Ogle Stadium.
September 3, 2010 – Robert Slack – Keeper of the Cannon – Decatur High School – Ogle Stadium. As I interviewed Robert on Friday night, September 3rd, 2010, I was excited to see the cannon up close. I marveled at the job he had done restoring the reproduction Civil War Cannon. I made mention that the barrel is no longer held by straps to the trunnion plate. Robert said, “No, I made certain it wasn’t going anywhere this time!” Indeed it is not, as it is welded to the carriage and for another good reason too, it packs a mighty mean punch! Robert had done his research well, back in 2005. He found the place where it had been originally purchased in the fall of 1964. Dixie Gun Works of Union City Tennessee is still in business today. www.dixiegunworks.com “I was able to order the exact same replica barrel that the Red Raiders cannon had on it originally.” Robert continues. “When we got the cannon it was a mess. Several of the wooden spindles were cracked and missing when we found it.” He pointed out several of the spindles he had
made in the Vocational Education shop to me as we walked around it. “It had been painted all kinds of different colors over the years no doubt by opposing teams.” he offered up to the author of this article. John Godwin says they were hoping to blast the cannon off at the first game of the year in 2006 but things were delayed a bit. Robert recalls the first time he fired the cannon off at a ballgame. We had agreed with the coaches when to shoot off the cannon.” The football team gathered up behind the goal posts in the north end zone. Coach Adkins told his team “When you hear the cannon ‐ charge through the paper banner that the cheerleaders have across the goal posts.” The boys were gathered around, pumping themselves, high fiving and chest bumping in the air, when suddenly from out of nowhere it seemed, “BOOM”. Not expecting anything like that they “Boys of Fall” hunkered down to the ground with their elbows in the air, explained Mr. Slack. They didn’t know what had happened but after they regained their composure they burst through the banner, thus renewing the tradition at Decatur High School. However now it is not blasted after each touchdown but at the beginning of each game and sometimes at the end of the game.
September 3, 2010 – Photograph – David Hendriks
John Godwin does the radio broadcasts of the live football game. “Right before I hear the blast from the cannon, the air is literally sucked out of the press box, then “BOOM”. ”Even though I am somewhat expecting it these days it still causes me to jump.” An observation shared by many!
Robert Slack has heard and seen it all. “Last year we had a Decatur Police officer who had been stationed in Desert Storm, draw his weapon and hit the ground on his belly!” “Don’t shoot, it’s only me!” Mr. Slack said “An elderly gentleman standing over here on the Decatur sideline wet his pants and had to go home and change”. I asked Robert, “Just how much gunpowder do you put in the cannon?” He said that he started off putting a little in at a time as he experimented. “Over the past few years I’ve experimented with anywhere from two ounces of gunpowder to five ounces.” Ok, I ask, “How much do you use now? “Five ounces!” He replied. “Holy smoke!” I exclaimed. “That’s the stuff that legends are made from!” The stories will go on and on as well they should. But now we know the true story of the “The Cannon & the Bear.” Fiction, Fact, Folklore or Fable? You decide!
David Hendriks – September 3, 2010