Belchertown fifth-graders find loaded gun during archaeological field dig

Last modified: Saturday, November 02, 2013

BELCHERTOWN — At first Wendy Robinson thought it was a joke when one of the fifth-graders participating in this year’s archaeology day yelled “gun” while digging in the dirt near Main Street. She soon saw with her own eyes that three boys wielding garden trowels had unearthed a loaded Smith & Wesson model 10 .38-caliber revolver.

She instructed the children to back away and called the police, who determined the firearm was old and not likely a hazard.

Robinson, a teacher at the Chestnut Hill Community School, who organizes the annual archaeological dig for Belchertown students, chose the excavation site precisely because the owner of the property at 15 Main St. had found part of a very different kind of gun there while clearing brush a year ago last July. Arthur Lemire came across what looked like a rusted glob of metal. He took it over to Cliff McCarthy, the archivist at The Stone House Museum, who ascertained that it was the firing mechanism of a Colonial-era flintlock musket.

Robinson made a presentation to all the fifth-graders in town ahead of the Oct. 12 outing, which involved 30 children and 15 adults, to talk about the relationship between artifacts and the study of history, including that a piece of Belchertown military history was found at the site they would be heading to.

“I told them we would be going to the yard where a man found a flintlock gun, so I think that really built their interest,” she said. “Never did I imagine we’d find another gun.”

Nick Plant, 11, who was digging with his friends Andrew and Chris Cowles, was the one who called out.

“Of course, I thought they were joking because they knew a gun had been found there before,” Robinson said in a recent interview. “Everybody went running over to them and, lo and behold, there’s this rusty revolver in the hole.”

Belchertown police officer Justin Roy was the first on the scene.

“He looked at it and said, ‘yup, it’s a gun,’ ” Robinson said.

Sgt. William Panto arrived soon thereafter and the two of them gingerly deposited the firearm in an evidence bag. Panto estimates the gun may have been there for a decade or two. The serial number was rusted over so he sent it to the state police crime laboratory, where acid will be used to try to get at any identifying marks.

Panto, Robinson and Lemire all said one of their first thoughts when hearing of the gun was that it might be tied to a 1986 killing at the Belchertown State School for which the murder weapon was never retrieved. Panto soon determined, however, that this weapon was of a different caliber than the one used in that crime.

The teachers involved in the outing were right to be concerned about safety, Panto said, but given its condition, “I don’t think anybody was in danger of getting hurt by it.” Asked if the gun might have discharged if jolted, Panto said, “I guess it could have. It’s old, the powders and primers are unstable at that point.” But even though all the visible cylinders had ammunition in them, Panto doesn’t believe a bullet could have made it through the barrel “because there was too much gook in there,” adding, “the frames are pretty strong. If it had gone off and didn’t go anywhere, it might have bulged the cylinder, but it wouldn’t have blown up in your hand.”

Atypical find

The find was a dramatic departure from the shards of crockery, bits of antique glass, square-cut handmade nails and pieces of pipe children have found on similar digs in years past. Up to now they have been conducted in the Stone House Museum yard. More unusual artifacts have included a skeleton key, an old butter knife and an awl, said Marnie Henneman, a second-grade teacher at the Swift River Elementary School. Henneman is also a past president and trustee of the Stone House Museum and is still in charge of educational outreach. She started the tradition of promoting archaeology for children in the late 1990s with the help of staff at the University of Massachusetts Archaeological Services.

Robinson took the lead in organizing annual digs seven years ago after she took a summer course that included a dig at Old Deerfield.

“I thought, gee, this would be a great hands-on project to bring to the kids in town,” she said. Robinson builds it into her Colonial history curriculum. At first she thought of doing mock digs whereby she would put objects in the ground ahead of time for students to discover. “I went to the antique store for plates and broke them all up. I bought some vases,” she said. But she soon discovered that there was no need to salt the terrain as she turned up plenty of interesting authentic items.

At the Stone House, students carefully remove squares of sod before digging up buckets of dirt and sifting them over a wheelbarrow. At the end they replace everything but the little treasures they come across.

This year was a bit different. Lemire, the owner of 15 Main St., had told Henneman about the flintlock he found. Through that connection, Robinson got involved. Before the group arrived, Lemire alerted his tenants, one of whom is Lisa Hussey, a special education teacher at the elementary school. She told her mother in Sturbridge, who showed up with a metal detector. The dig started at 10 a.m. and each time they found a hot spot, children went to that area. At 10:25 “the detector was setting off a very strong beep, so we called the kids and said dig right here,” said Hussey.

Andrew and Chris Cowles, both 11, who are part of a set of triplets, together with Nick Plant, first saw some material that turned out to be a small piece of luggage. They tugged on it before Chris was able to get a firm hold on it, according to his father, Michael Cowles, who was also there. “He grabbed it and pulled it out and at that point the gun tumbled out” and back into the hole, said Cowles.

“It was a little weird,” Nick said in a recent interview. When the beeping started, said Andrew, “we thought it was probably either a nail or tinfoil because that’s what we mostly found that day.” After the gun fell out, he said, “a bunch of people took pictures and then someone called the cops ... I was excited and surprised.”

According to Robinson, “The parents got more excited about the gun than the children. They were revved up, like ‘oh my gosh, what did we just stumble upon.’ ”

Seeking answers

Everybody, she said, was taken in by the mystery of where the revolver came from and why it was there. “Finding the gun is a memory I think every person there, kids and adults, will always have,” Robinson said.

Panto said it may take months before he hears back from the crime lab. Once they can read the serial number, investigators will check the Massachusetts gun registry and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Exlosives to see if the firearm was stolen, lost or used in a crime, he said. At the very least, the number will reveal when it was manufactured.

“It is an odd place to bury a gun. Maybe somebody just wanted to get it out of sight for a little while and had an intention of coming back to get it,” Panto said. “It certainly wasn’t buried too far in the ground. It almost seems like somebody hid it in haste.”

Under current law, if a gun is lost or stolen, the owner is required to report it to the local licensing authority, according to Panto. There is also a law that targets recklessness if someone creates a situation whereby a minor could gain access to a firearm, he said.

Panto said he quickly determined that the gun wasn’t connected to the 1986 State School shooting because the bullets in that case came from a .22-caliber rimfire pistol. Kenneth Phoenix was convicted of killing his supervisor, power plant facility manager Raymond Green, and remains in prison.

“Rumor has it,” said Panto, that that weapon “is in the swamp where Lake Wallace is, out in back of the police station.”

Robinson said Phoenix still proclaims his innocence. “I was keeping my fingers crossed that it would somehow be connected to prove, either one way or the other, whether he was involved or not,” she said.

The gun part Arthur Lemire found in that same yard, and which led to all the excitement, came from an English “Type G” trade flintlock circa 1750-1775, according to McCarthy, the Stone House Museum archivist. McCarthy’s research shows that the town common was a place armed men would muster during the American Revolutionary War, making that find all the more tantalizing. It is now part of the museum’s collection.

“We get stuff from all over the map,” said McCarthy, “but to have someone bring us a flintlock mechanism was pretty different.”

The old gun and the newer one have something in common, he noted. “It’s exciting when pieces of the past come to the surface. People want to know the story behind it.”


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