Old Ninety-Seven seems like an odd nickname for a cannon stamped with the number 79. An article about the artifact that appeared in the June 8, 1941 edition of the Idaho Statesman was headlined “Old ‘Ninety-Seven’ on Statehouse Lawn Symbolizes Past in National Defense.” The piece went on to describe the gun, much as I did in the beginning of this story, except that it stated the number stamped on the muzzle rim was 97. I checked, then rechecked the number. It is 79. Maybe someone glanced at it, then misremembered when they did a story about the gun. It stuck, possibly because the writer confused it with the train song, “The Wreck of Old 97,” which is what you get when you Google Old Ninety-Seven today.
That mystery aside, we know that the statehouse cannon was purchased by Idaho State Treasurer S.A. Hastings and U.S. Senator William Borah and donated to the state in 1910.
The gun has been fired three times while on the statehouse grounds, but never officially. An accidental “firing” took place during prohibition. The barrel of the gun was a handy place to store lunch paper, cigar butts, and other trash. Someone secreted away a bottle of moonshine in there. On a particularly hot day, that resulted in a minor explosion with liquor leaking from the lip of the gun.
In 1936, following an article in the Idaho Statesman that pointed out the gun had never been fired in Idaho (save for the moonshine incident), scalawags set off a charge in the cannon that peppered a nearby parked car with debris, ruining its paint job. Then, in 1946, “kids” lit off a charge of gunpowder in the cannon, which coughed up sticks, rocks, bottles, bottle caps and other debris from its throat. Eventually, groundskeepers plugged the cannon.
In 1942, when the nation was calling on everyone to recycle their metal scrap so it could be used for the war effort, Gov. Chase Clark proposed to scrap the old cannon. He ran into a bit of a buzz saw in the form of a group called the Boise Circle No. 5 of the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR).
The ladies questioned whether the governor even had the authority to scrap the cannon. Mrs. Francis Leonard, who was “instructed to protest for the GAR” according to an article in the Statesman at the time, said, “One of our members, who, in fact, as a small child, sat on Abraham Lincoln’s lap when he was running for President, summed up our position when she declared the governor should also scrap the statue of the late Gov. Frank Steunenberg along with the cannon.” Clark quickly backpedaled and the cannon stayed in place.