The 17-year-old touched up the old weapon, repainted a flag pole and helped straighten nearby Civil War tombstones to complete his Eagle Scout project. Meinholz still has a yellowed newspaper clipping of him kneeling next to his handiwork.
In the decades after Meinholz earned his Eagle badge and left for boot camp, the cannon again fell into disrepair. Spokes were missing from the wheel, rust was building up and the American flag overhead was tattered when Herschel Luckinbill saw it last December.
“When I drove by and took a look,” Luckinbill said, “I was sick to my stomach to see the condition.”
A Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War, Luckinbill said he considered the deteriorating cannon to be disrespectful to the veterans buried nearby and others who fought in long-ago wars. He resolved to repair the weapon, a project that took six months and almost $9,000.
The shiny finished product was unveiled Sunday in front of about 200 people, many of them veterans of modern conflicts. On the eve of Memorial Day, those in attendance said it was important to remember all the generations of Americans who have served and died.
“It’s kind of a monument,” said Al Skyles, an 89-year-old World War II veteran from Montgomery. “People should have some kind of reminder.”
That reminder came back to life in recent months as craftsmen deconstructed, cleaned and then rebuilt the cannon. Local companies contributed much of the labor, while others donated to pay for the effort. A Chicago-area native in Colorado used lumber from Kendall County to construct new wheels. Brass trim long obscured by grunge re-emerged. Finally, the cannon was reassembled and hauled back to the cemetery.
Luckinbill, who chronicled the reconstruction on Facebook, is still trying to raise the last portion of that $9,000. He said Sunday that he was within $1,000 of paying for the effort.
Luckinbill was originally told that the cannon was used in the Civil War, a fact that would have been poignant if it had been true. Union troops trained along the river in Montgomery before heading off to battle. The grave markers next to the cannon memorialize Civil War soldiers from the Illinois Cavalry, the Illinois Infantry and the Pennsylvania Infantry.
Restorers discovered that this cannon was built decades after the Confederacy conceded to the Union. It might have been used in the Spanish-American War of 1898, Luckinbill said, but nobody is sure. Regardless of whether it was used in battle, Luckinbill said its presence in the cemetery is an important tribute to veterans of all conflicts.
On Sunday, a standing-room-only crowd on the cemetery lawn heard from local dignitaries and enjoyed a presentation by an impersonator of President Theodore Roosevelt, who served in the Spanish-American War.
When the speeches ended, three veterans walked over to the cannon, which was hidden behind a blue tarp.
Two men who fought in World War II grabbed hold of the covering. Retired 1st Sgt. Jon Meinholz, the Eagle Scout who went on to serve in Kosovo, Bosnia and Operation Desert Storm, also gripped the tarp. The tattered flag overhead had been replaced with a crisp new one, and the grave markers Meinholz straightened back in the 1970s were adorned with miniature flags.
After pausing for a moment, they pulled back the blue covering. A 45-star flag, a nod to the still-forming union during the Spanish-American War, was draped over the barrel.
“It’s amazing,” said Meinholz, now a Junior ROTC teacher in Florida who flew in for Sunday’s ceremony. “It’s museum quality.”