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Cannonball was a blast from the past

The old cannonball rested for years on the coffee table in antique collector Robby Collins' home in Jacksonville.

Chances are the conversation piece was picked up by more than a few guests who hefted it, maybe even threw it in the air.

No one dropped it, apparently.

But on Tuesday, it "went off like the Civil War" when the Oregon State Police explosive unit in Central Point checked it out and detonated it, said OSP Detective Blain Allen, a bomb technician.

The bomb squad was asked to check it out by the Southern Oregon Historical Society, which had been loaned the contents of Collins' study four years ago by family members, according to SOHS Executive Director Allison Weiss.

"Every year, these cannon balls from the Civil War or Indian wars kill two or three people," Allen said. "People place them too close to the fireplace or whatever. They are real susceptible to heat, friction or shock.

"Not all of them but some, like this one, are loaded with black powder, which doesn't deteriorate with age," he added. "They are still alive 150 years later."

Collins, who died in 2003 in Singapore at age 81, was a well-known collector who traveled the world.

Retired Medford fireman Marshall Lango, a friend and neighbor who often looked after Collins' home when the collector was away, recalls seeing the 5-pound ball about the size of a grapefruit.

"It was a prominent feature on Robby's coffee table for years," Lango said. "I never thought of asking him if he knew what it was — probably should have asked. It sat right there on that coffee table all the time."

Collins' niece Barbara Heyerman of Ashland also remembers the old ordnance.

"It sat in his study for years — visitors were always picking it up," she said.

The collection included furniture and other objects Collins had acquired, including the cannon ball, Weiss said. The society had intended to use it as an exhibit of his successful effort to make Jacksonville a National Heritage District, she added.

After the society closed its museum in Jacksonville two years ago, the staff determined it would not be feasible to display the materials and contacted the family to have them returned.

However, when SOHS curator Tina Reuwsaat saw the cannon ball, she advised that it be checked out by the local bomb squad, who picked it up July 12, Weiss said.

The explosive cannon ball had been in storage in the museum since the Collins' antiques were loaned to SOHS by the family.

"This was a bit unusual," Weiss said, noting that SOHS has been going through its items to ensure there are no dangerous explosives in the collection.

"We're pretty sure we've gotten everything," she noted.

Even someone experienced with old ordnance cannot tell the live ones from those that don't contain explosives, Allen said.

"We had six to eight last year — none were alive," he said. "Most of them are solid balls but a guy can't tell just by looking. They have a very small fuse hole but this one was so rough I couldn't find it."

The OSP explosive experts used a small charge directed to punch a small hole in it, he said.

"It went 'ka whump!'" he said, describing the loud explosion. "People need to remember these are not toys. These are implements of war. The worst thing you can do is move one."

Anyone with an old ordnance is encouraged to contact the OSP squad, which will destroy it at no cost, he said.

"We will not try to make it safe — we will destroy it," he said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-76-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Cannonball was a blast from the past