Pictured is the original cannon for the Marauders that was used from 1966 until 2005. Photo courtesy of Deborah Phillips / Snapper.
Sporting traditions can provide a sense of pride and unity to teams and their fans. Whether a high-spirited chant or a ceremonial ball toss, these rituals signify what brings so many together through one common thing they share – an alma mater. For Millersville University, the cannon serves as a symbol of perseverance and victory, as it fires whenever the football team scores a touchdown. The cannon has remained an iconic facet of ‘Ville sports for almost half a century, and with that comes a rich history.
The tradition of the cannon traces its origins to a fraternity known as Omicron Gamma Omega (OGO). Founded in 1920 at the University of Virginia, OGO established a second or “Beta” chapter the following year at Moravian College. The first cannon was constructed by Jim Heller and his father in 1961, with the intention of firing it at the school’s football games. Five years later, OGO brother James “Jim” Paul would carry on this tradition.
In the Spring of 1966, Paul transferred from Moravian to what was then known as Millersville State College and convinced eight other men – mostly first-year transfer students – to join him in forming a brotherhood as the third chapter of Omicron Gamma Omega. One of the fraternity’s first initiatives was to continue Moravian’s tradition of firing a cannon when their football team scored a touchdown. Kent Stapleton, one of the founding brothers and a transfer student from the United States Merchant Marine Academy, worked in construction to pay for school. While on a site in west Philadelphia, he noticed something unusual in the discard pile – a six-inch steel pipe, perfect to make the barrel of a cannon. With the help of his fraternity brothers, they packed the pipe into the trunk of his car and drove away.
This cannon became a summer passion project for the young men. The brothers constructed the remainder of the contraption with whatever they could find in farm equipment shops and junkyards. The first cannonballs consisted of black 12-gage shotgun shells and sawdust wrapped in newspaper. To practice, the brothers would fire the cannon in vacant lots.
“We would set off it in a vacant lot near House of Pizza, put newspaper in, and fire it,” explains Stapleton. “The university never said a word, but there were occasions when the police showed up. But they were fine with it as long as the cannon was only fired on campus property.”
The cannon was constructed in the backyard of a brother’s parents’ home, located near the Manor Shopping Center. In the early October hours, the brothers were rolling it down Millersville Pike when they were stopped by local police, who believed the men stole the cannon. They were let go, but this nonetheless became a nostalgic anecdote.
The OGO brothers finished the cannon in time for its debut at the 1966 Homecoming game and thus, an iconic Millersville tradition was born.
The cannon would later be reconstructed with the help of their advisor Ralph Miller, an Industrial Arts professor, as well as some brothers who were enrolled in the Industrial Technology program. Black powder also replaced the makeshift cannon balls, which were often muffled by the roar of the crowd.
Firing the cannon at every home game became an integral aspect of football for the college. Brothers of Omicron Gamma Omega took responsibility for maintaining and firing the contraption. This also served as a bonding activity for the brothers, bringing them together for something that defined their friendship and place within the campus culture.
“Everybody knew the OGO fraternity and who we were,” says Stapleton. “We were the most respected on campus and our contribution to the community through this tradition certainly set us apart.”
A group of OGO brothers pose with the cannon prior to its debut at the Fall 1966 Millersville Homecoming game.
Pictured left to right, front row: Gary Mathers, John Wolf, Barry Slaughenhaupt
Pictured left to right, back row: Andy Siepel, Rich Woodward, Bob Ingrham, Dave Krum, Jim Paul, Ron Rashelli, Kent Stapleton, Tom Musselman, Don Huntsinger, Joe Wilt
PHOTO COURTESY OF KENT STAPLETON
Safety concerns grew in the 1990s and the New Millennium. Although the university campus and local police departments did not interfere with the brothers and their cannon, there were some worries regarding the liability of the homemade contraption. This became prevalent in the early 2000s when the Biemesderfer Stadium was renovated, with the Home section moving across the field facing the cannon. In its previous 30 years of operation, the cannon was fired from a hill near Penn Manor High School, near where Millersville football fans sat. When the sidelines switched, the brothers considered moving the cannon but decided against it for safety reasons.
In 2005, the university started requiring fraternities to have liability insurance. Being a local fraternity, OGO did not have the funding or resources to afford such an expense. In turn, the organization had no choice but to disband. In doing so, the tradition of the cannon initially died with them.
For about two years, the cannon sat rotting in storage, waiting to be fired again. When an OGO alumnus called the school regarding the whereabouts of the cannon, he discovered that it was stored in a different location than usual.
“I called a bunch of departments at the university, basically playing phone tag until I could get ahold of somebody who knew where the cannon was,” explains the alumnus, who requested to remain anonymous for the sake of his privacy. “It turned out that the cannon was kept in a storage shed near the Bush, which is this forested area where we used to party in college. The university was happy to get rid of it since they needed the storage space.”
The cannon was restored in 2017 and now remains in possession of the alumnus at his home in southern Lancaster County. He hopes that the cannon can continue to be used in the future to bring alumni together.
“The cannon was and still is a focal point, not only for the brothers of OGO but also the campus community,” he says.
With OGO no longer active on campus, a tradition that had since become synonymous with ‘Ville football games was no more. In 2019, however, there was an opportunity for revival. Former Lancaster mayor Charlie Smithgall, a civil war reenactor and owner of one of the largest artillery collections, contacted Millersville ROTC coordinator Sgt. Allan Rivard and Millersville University Police Department (MUPD) Chief Pete Anders with the proposition of firing a cannon at home football games, just as OGO did years before. The university subsequently purchased from a friend of Smithgall in Conestoga a Canon de 4 Gribeaval, an authentic brass cannon used in the Battle of Yorktown during the American Revolution. The historic cannon remains in use at home football games to this day.
In the present, the cannon is fired and maintained by a crew of 20 ROTC cadets. At the same time, the Athletic Department provides funding and MUPD holds explosive materials such as black powder, ensuring safety and security. Handling a dangerous and historic contraption such as a cannon inevitably comes with challenges as well.
“One challenge with operating the cannon is making sure everyone stays safe,” explains Ashley Whicher, an ROTC cadet and student leader of the cannon crew. “While we have all the necessary equipment to ensure everyone’s safety, there is always the possibility of a misfire. We of course educate everyone on the process of dealing with misfires, but it can still cause concern among the crew.”
Sgt. Allan Rivard, who supervises the cannon crew, sees this tradition as an opportunity for cadets to learn valuable safety and teamwork skills, while also teaching them responsibility.
“ROTC cadets come from every flavor of this campus,” Rivard says. “With the cannon crew, they get to collaborate and bond on something bigger than themselves. It’s one of the most dangerous things you can do as a cadet, but it teaches responsibility and allows them to tie the community together by upholding a longstanding tradition. Besides, how many people get to shoot a cannon?”
With three university groups overseeing the operation of the cannon, many of the safety concerns are alleviated, while also allowing students and staff to gain experience and participate in community activities. Both OGO alumni and the ROTC program have expressed interest in a reunion event where they fire the cannon together – potentially even both cannons if safety regulations allow it.
Although the cannon has changed hands over the years, it remains a symbolic reminder of what ultimately brings the campus together – pride, unity, and a passion for sports.
The ROTC crew fires the cannon, an authentic artillery weapon from the American Revolution, at a home football game.
DEBORAH PHILLIPS / SNAPPER