The Western Illinois Museum’s Artifact of the Month for January 2015 is a gavel made from two pieces of wood taken from the USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides.  This month’s featured artifact provides a look at an important national naval treasure and tells the story of how a related artifact came be part of the museum’s collection of over 6,000 items. The United States Navy began building the wooden ship in 1794 and it was commissioned in 1797, making it the world’s oldest naval vessel afloat. President George Washington named the ship after the Constitution of the United States of America.

Helen L. Wear donated the USS Constitution gavel to the museum; she was born in 1904 and died in 1998.  In 1928, Wear was the first blind graduate of Western Illinois University and became a teacher of the blind at the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired in Jacksonville, Illinois.  When she retired from teaching, she returned to Macomb and was a driving force in the creation of the Audio Information Services, which broadcasts audio versions of newspapers, magazines, and books for individuals who are print-impaired in the tri-states region.

Along with the ten and a half inch gavel, the collection includes two copies of typed letters giving background information and an etching of Old Ironsides. The letter dated December 10, 1930, is addressed to Mrs. Henry Wm. English, Jacksonville, and is from Captain R.P. Schlabach of the U.S. Navy Yard, Boston.  The letter indicates that Mrs. English made a request and that under separate cover he is sending,

…two pieces of wood with which to make a gavel for your Chapter of the United States Daughters of 1812.  The wood being forwarded to you was removed from the U.S. Frigate CONSTITUTION, “Old Ironsides,” and is part of the original material that was built into that famous vessel in 1794-1797.

The second letter, dated February 27, 1933, is also addressed to Mrs. English, and was sent from the Office of Naval Records and Library of the Navy. It gives details of the construction of Old Ironsides.  At the bottom of both letters is a 1952 notarized statement from Mrs. English, swearing the letters are authentic copies.   Along with the letters is an envelope addressed to Miss Helen Wear, Jacksonville, Illinois.

These letters indicate that Mrs. English of Jacksonville wrote to the Navy asking for a piece of wood from the USS Constitution for constructing a gavel for the Jacksonville Chapter of the National Society United States Daughters of 1812.   This society is a women’s organization for descendants of those who fought in the War of 1812. The envelope confirm that the letters were later mailed to Miss Helen Wear in Jacksonville in 1952 and presumably, this was when the gavel acquired by Miss Wear as well.

The Old Ironsides’ history is connected to War of 1812 and the pride of the vessel’s service has created interest in naming organizations and making mementos, such as a gavel.  The USS Constitution is famous for her actions during the War of 1812 against Great Britain, when she captured numerous merchant ships and defeated five British warships. One of them was the battle with the HMS Guerrierewhich is where the nickname of “Old Ironsides” was earned.  It was said that during this battle when the Guerriere shot at the USS Constitution, the shots seemed to bounce off the American ship, as if the ship were made of iron rather than wood.  The story was widely circulated and the nickname stuck to the ship ever since.

The War of 1812 is significant to the history of our region’s development.  This area between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers is know as the Illinois Military Tract because it designates land given as payment to soldiers who served for five years in the War of 1812. It includes all of the present counties of Adams, Brown, Calhoun, Fulton, Hancock, Henderson, Knox, McDonough, Mercer, Peoria, Pike, Schuyler, Stark, and Warren Counties. It also includes part of Henry and Bureau Counties, and those parts of Marshall and Putnam which are on the west side of the Illinois River. The area comprises about 5.4 Million acres. McDonough County and the city of Macomb are named after famous heroes from the War of 1812.

After the War of 1812, the USS Constitution continued to serve as flagship in the Mediterranean and African squadrons.  In 1824, Thomas Macdonough (for which McDonough County is named after) received command of the USS Constitution. However, he suffered ill health and in 1825, Macdonough had to relieve himself of his command of Old Ironsides. Commodore Macdonough’s command of Old Ironsides is a serendipitous connection to this artifact and illustrate how a simple item can build understanding of compelling historical events.

The USS Constitution retired from active service in 1881 and became a museum ship in 1907.   During the 1920s the ship was inspected and it was determined in order to further preserve Old Ironsides extensive repairs were needed.  Much of the wood needed to be replaced and the discarded planking from this restoration period was made into various items and sold as ashtrays, bookends and frames. Some of the discarded wood was given to patriotic groups such as the Jacksonville Chapter of the National Society United States Daughters of 1812.   Money raised from the sales of these items helped to further fund the renovation and the ship was returned to its 1812 seagoing appearance. Restoration was completed in 1930.

All over the United State there are gavels made from pieces of wood from the USS Constitution. One famous gavel is in the collection of Dumbarton Oaks, a research institute in Washington DC. This gavel was used to open the “Dumbarton Oaks Conversations” which led to the establishment of the United Nations in 1945.  Other locations that have a USS Constitution gavel include: the Governor’s office of Massachusetts, the Maine Maritime Museum, Bath Maine, the Daytona Beach, Florida American Legion, the Rochester, New Hampshire chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the president of the Massachusetts Library Association, the Osterville Men’s Club of Osterville Massachusetts and the Masonic Lodge of Kinston, North Carolina.

The museum’s collection consists of artifacts like the gavel, preserved because they teach about regional history.  It was donated by a significant individual in the history of this area: the first blind graduate of WIU.  The gavel was made from part of a ship that played an important part in the War of 1812, a historical event that played a role in the development of the region. Thomas Macdonough, the county namesake, later commanded this ship.

The gavel was on display January 1st through the 31st, 2015.

Article by Heather Munro