GEORGETOWN — It sounds like a crime novel: local militias, undercover operations, secret hiding places, and accusations of lies and deceit.
In reality, it is all part of a playful feud that for the past 200 years has engaged residents of Georgetown and Rowley in mischief to once and for all prove which town is the true owner of “Old Nancy,” a Revolutionary War-era cannon.
“We are, there’s no question about that,” said Bob Merry, a Rowley selectman and the town’s official cannoneer.
“Don’t believe them,” countered Bud Spaulding, a former Georgetown fire chief with clear memories of concealing the bulky cannon in the basement of the old fire station.
The friendly dispute is once again back in the spotlight with a ceremony Monday evening at Town Hall in Georgetown. At the ceremony, Ed DesJardins, a retired architect and a director of the local historical society, will present two framed drawings to the Board of Selectmen, one depicting the original construction document of the cannon carriage and one showing the cannon itself in minute detail.
The “Old Nancy” of Georgetown is on the display in the basement of Town Hall and DesJardins said he hopes the drawings will add to the authenticity of the historic muzzleloader.
Merry quickly dismissed such notions.
“There’s a rumor about it,” he said, sounding secretive, “I’ve heard it was bought at a yard sale in Topsfield.”
DesJardins meticulously researched the cannon before he produced the drawings in time for the bicentennial celebration of American independence back in 1976. Spaulding, who at the time ran Spaulding Colonial Reproductions with his brother Arthur, then used a reprint to build the carriage, which was used to show off the big gun during the festivities.
Spaulding, now 86, will attend the Town Hall ceremony with his son, Gary Spaulding.
“Back when I was young and riding a bicycle, the first thing I did when I crossed the Rowley town line was scream, ‘We’ve got the real “Old Nancy!”’ Spaulding said, chuckling.
The drawings initially belonged to the Georgetown Historical Society until the board of directors recently decided to donate them to the town, giving them a more prominent spot alongside the cannon and Spaulding’s carriage.
“I think it’s terrific,” DesJardins said. “It’s part of our local history.”
The cannon, which in antique documents is described as a “relic of fun and frolic,” arrived on the British frigate Nancy as she was captured in Ipswich Bay in 1775. Amid the confusion, part of her cargo of weapons was left on a dock in Gloucester where Major Eben Boynton of Rowley purchased the rusty cannon.
As Boynton made no provision in his will about the cannon, his two sons both claimed it, setting the stage for centuries of feuding since they lived in separate parishes — the future Rowley and Georgetown.
One legend maintains the Rowley militia hid “Old Nancy” in the Rowley River. Another claims the Georgetown cannon is made out of wood.
Over the years, it has been hidden in such strange places as manure and hay piles, only to be dug up for various celebrations, then stolen and retrieved again. And suddenly both towns had an “Old Nancy.” The Rowley version can, unlike its Georgetown rival, be fired.
“I would characterize it as a little disagreement between a mother and a daughter,” Merry said.
Spaulding said he knows a thing or two about Rowley’s “Old Nancy” that he would rather stay mum about, cautious not to fuel the debate. As one of several appointed guardians of the Georgetown cannon, Spaulding and a group of strong friends used to haul it from one hiding place to another. These days, the feud stops at friendly banter.
“In this day and age, you just can’t get away with anything else,” Merry said.