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On Wednesday morning, a Colonial Williamsburg Foundation staff member approached 14-year-old Caleb Fenderson, a tourist from Oklahoma visiting the area with his family, and asked him if he wanted to fire a cannon that afternoon.
“My mom’s immediately like, ‘yes,’” Fenderson said during an interview as he stood with his family on the wide grassy field behind the Colonial Williamsburg Courthouse, waiting in the late afternoon heat for Historical Interpreter Carrie MacDougall to lead him out to the cannon.
In the distance, a historical interpreter playing George Washington rode in a circle on the field, delivering a rousing speech about the need for continental troops to push forward to Yorktown and lay siege to the entrenched British general Cornwallis and his forces.
After Washington finished, Fenderson and his family watched as a line of interpreters dressed as continental infantry marched through the field and fired three shots from muskets.
Then it was his turn to fire the three-pound cannon. He followed MacDougall out to the gun while more than 100 people gathered for the program — the On to Yorktown and Victory! portion of Colonial Williamsburg’s Revolutionary City programming — watched from behind a string fence encircling the demonstration area.
At the cannon, Fenderson picked up a long wooden staff known as a linstock. He twirled it in ceremonial arcs, allowing the rope fastened to its metal point to begin to burn like a cigarette while a nearby interpreter bellowed out commands. Once the rope was hot, he brought the rope attached to the linstock down to the back of the cannon, igniting the gunpowder in a colossal boom.
Afterward, Fenderson said he had fun and he would consider the experience a highlight of his trip to the Williamsburg area.
“I would do it again if I had the chance,” he said of firing the cannon. “I’ve learned a lot more than my previous social studies teacher would have taught me. I think getting a close-up experience with history rather than reading about it in a book is a lot more helpful.”
That close-up, fun experience is key to Colonial Williamsburg’s future, according to President and CEO Mitchell Reiss. He has repeatedly said as much since taking over for Colin Campbell in October, and he has either implemented or is formulating several new initiatives like allowing children to fire the cannon under the close supervision of several professionals.
“Frankly, we need to try to do some things we’ve never done before to make this special place even better,” he said last week, during an annual breakfast the foundation sponsors for Williamsburg community leaders.
Along with the cannon-firing initiative — which started May 1 — he plans to bring a live-fire musket range and a petting farm to the Historic Area.
Next month, kids will get to start working alongside archaeologists to excavate artifacts from a site near the Prentis Store on Duke of Gloucester Street. In the fall, kids will get a chance to trick-or-treat in the Historic Area, which by then will feature night-time lighting on eight major buildings.
“You’ll notice us paying more attention to first-time visitors and families who have chosen to invest their hard-earned vacation dollars for a trip to Colonial Williamsburg instead of the Magic Kingdom [which is part of Walt Disney World Resort in Florida],” he said at the breakfast.
For MacDougall, the interpreter who led Fenderson to the cannon, the initiative seems to be paying off with the kids. They are typically between 10 and 12 years old, and all seem to enjoy it.
“The kids usually have a huge grin, and the families are very excited as well,” she said. “There aren’t many opportunities to do this in a lifetime. I wish we could have every child do this.”
Tim Sutphin, the foundation’s director of Revolutionary City Programs, hopes the experience will give kids a memory they can carry for life.
“Where else do you get to fire a cannon but at Colonial Williamsburg?” he said. “For us, it’s great because we can engage and show people what we’re doing. We’re not just making this up. There’s a reason and a process for what we’re doing.”
The cannon Fenderson fired is a three-pound gun, a common piece of artillery used in the wars of the 18th Century. It was capable of firing solid cannonballs — useful both for ranged shots at infantry and as a siege weapon — and canister and grape shot, in which the cannon fires many small pieces of metal at once like a giant shotgun.
“It’s easy to move by a crew of men,” Sutphin said. “It’s easy to maneuver. It’s easy to fire.”
Kids will get to continue to fire the cannon throughout the summer as part of the On to Yorktown and Victory! program. The kids who get to fire the cannon must have tickets to Colonial Williamsburg and are selected at random.
The On to Yorktown and Victory! program begins each day around 5 p.m. at the Courthouse of 1776 and lasts about 20 minutes.