Since 1994, Bruce Stiles has coaxed towns from Nebraska to New Hampshire to sell their Civil War cannons, sentinels that have graced cemeteries and parks for a century or more.
His success in obtaining dozens of muzzleloaders for private collectors in Pennsylvania stirs unrest. Weeks or months can go by before residents even realize their veterans' memorial has been whisked away.
Last summer, in this central New York village of 2,500, the sales patter went like clockwork. In a form letter, Stiles offered $10,000 for a 1,700-pound barrel at the Groton Rural Cemetery. It had sat there since 1901.
Left outside on its concrete pedestal, it would someday rust beyond recognition, Stiles asserted. Better to have it acid-washed, sandblasted, repainted and displayed at a museum near Pittsburgh that is free to the public.
Some cemetery trustees did not know what they had -- a Parrott naval cannon, one of 78 known survivors from the 1861-65 war. Still, despite being strapped for cash and haunted by bankruptcy for a half-century, the cemetery association said no.
Stiles next barraged secretary-treasurer Juanita Griffin with calls -- "I just got tired of running to the phone and having it be him again," she said -- followed within weeks by a sweetened offer of $15,000 plus a replica cannon he valued at $5,000.
All along, Stiles advised that negotiations be kept under wraps. As he has told other cemetery custodians and town boards across the country, he did not want residents getting riled up. Now he voiced another reason: If people knew how valuable the cannon was, it would be at great risk.
"Once we realized that, then we were concerned about theft and not saying a lot to the public about its value," association president Mary Flang said.
The 12-member board approved the new offer, and the cannon was gone within days. Only this spring, when villagers heard another New York town had sold Stiles its cannon and then paid a steep price to get it back, did Groton awaken to its loss.
As it turned out, the cannon did not belong to the cemetery association.
In the half-century after the Civil War, about 12,000 obsolete cannons were donated to towns and veterans' groups. Many were melted down in scrap-metal drives during the world wars, and fewer than 5,700 survive. At least 560 of them, Union and Confederate collectibles valued from $20,000 to $200,000, are in private hands. A half-dozen collectors have each bought 20 or more.
Stiles, 52, a businessman from Emmaus, Pa., works on commission for Kenneth Watterson, a retired manufacturing executive whose 5-year-old museum next to his home in Venetia near Pittsburgh boasts 26 cannons, howitzers and mortars -- the nation's second biggest private collection.
Watterson's Civil War Artillery Museum opens by appointment only, drawing a few hundred visitors a year. He is now thinking of lending his estimated $1 million-plus collection to a museum in Virginia but will not say if the move was triggered by his divorce or by protests he raised this spring in Upstate New York.
Cannons have disappeared from at least nine towns across New York since 1998. But very few of the sales created the sort of ruckus that ignited in Kendall near Lake Ontario in March and put collectors under an uncomfortable spotlight.
While many Civil War ordnance pieces were lent by the federal government, the ownership trail has been muddied in a few hundred cases by surplus sales to businesses that later resold the cannons, said Wayne Stark, who maintains a "National Register of Surviving Civil War Artillery" and has authenticated cannons for municipalities and collectors.
"I like to see the stuff stay where it is -- if it's being maintained," Stark said.
But Stiles, in an angry defense of his activities when he finally responded to repeated phone calls, said, "All we want to do is preserve the cannons. We're not doing anything wrong. The people that are neglecting them are doing the wrong thing, the people who are letting them rust, the people who are letting them get vandalized and stolen."
As for ownership uncertainties, he asserted: "It's who's taken care of the cannon for the past decades that's the owner."
For Ben Jones, a local Air Force reservist preparing for deployment to Iraq, it is not that simple. "They're not buying them from a junkyard or an antique shop, they're buying them from cemeteries," he said.
Jones joined hundreds of protesters in Kendall after the town board quietly sold its 816-pound, cast-iron cannon for $15,000. Watterson sold it back for $27,000, charging $5,000 for a now unused replacement built in Georgia. The extra costs were covered by a New York state grant.
The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, which is trying to drum up support in Congress to quell bartering in cannons, noted that a 2003 law makes it a federal offense to "injure or destroy" armed forces' monuments on public property or transport them across state lines.
In 2002, a history teacher discovered two bronze Napoleons in Summit Hill, Pa., were replicas when he sent pupils on a muzzle-rubbing trip. Lawyer Carole Walbert proved the cannons belonged to the borough, not to an American Legion post that sold them in 2000 for $70,000, and forced Watterson to return them last year.
Cannons were gifts "subject to recall by the U.S. government," Walbert said. "If cannons have been donated to a municipality or veterans' group, they can't be taken by collectors, in my opinion."
In Groton, a search of historical records by a real-estate attorney, Jim Henry, determined that the cannon was not the property of the cemetery association. The cannon was bequeathed to a veteran's post, and the circular plot where it stood was donated to the town in 1901.
Henry wrote asking Watterson to return the cannon. Watterson agreed if he is paid $23,000 -- he will not take back the replica and wants $3,000 in commission fees, Henry said. The association is seeking donations.
Left behind in other cannon-less towns, meantime, is a smoldering resentment.
"New York is an easy target -- these collectors know darn well they're going to quadruple their profits," said Shirley Goerlich, 68, a historian in Sidney, 70 miles southeast of Groton. That town's cemetery sold its two Confederate flank howitzers to Watterson in 2000 for $35,000.
Their absence from a hilltop plot that Civil War soldiers built by hand "has always been a thorn in my side," Goerlich said.
In third grade, she recalled, the first local World War II hero came home in a coffin, and her entire school "walked all the way to the top of Prospect Hill Cemetery." While her toes pinched in new patent-leather shoes and her ears pounded from a 21-gun salute, the nobleness of the occasion never left her.
"I looked at those big cannons, and I felt so safe," she said. "And I thought, 'These are the people who protect us, and we must always honor them.' "
Air Force reservist Ben Jones protested the sale for $15,000 of the same 816-pound, cast-iron cannon, left. Watterson, the Pittsburgh collector, resold it to the Kendall town board for $27,000 and it was returned to its memorial site.
In Kendall, N.Y., a cannon that was sold and repurchased at a cemetery.