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A 3-inch wide steel ball that was given to the Kensington fire chief turned out to be an explosive cannonball. (Contributed photo)
A 3-inch wide steel ball that was given to the Kensington fire chief turned out to be an explosive cannonball. (Contributed photo)

The shot heard 'round the county; live cannonball blown up in Kensington

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How dangerous could a 3-inch wide iron sphere be? Deadly when it's a live cannonball.

Kensington Fire Chief Joey Nessman had a cannonball sitting unobtrusively in his garage for three years. On December 20, the Crow Wing County Sheriff's office bomb disposal unit counter-charged the explosive object.


"It blew up big," said Karin Anderson, Kensington Fire Department secretary.

Nessman's uncle, Davis Larson, discovered the cannonball underground in the western Black Hills of South Dakota approximately 20 years ago. Nessman received the ball as a Christmas gift from Larson.

"We just thought it was a steel ball until about a month ago," Nessman said.

Nessman's brother-in-law mentioned the cannonball to Matthew Drayer, who had experience with explosives disposal for the Department of Defense in Afghanistan. Drayer advised Nessman, "Please put it down, do not touch it." Following Drayer's advice, Nessman contacted Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen, who arranged a detonation with the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office bomb squad unit. Drayer had e-mailed photos of the cannonball to military contacts who told him that it was very dangerous.

"It had a brass plug in it that we didn't see right away," Nessman said. "That's actually the fuse mechanism."

Nessman said research he has done indicates that the ball dates back to the American-Indian Wars around 1860. It had most likely never been fired. Nessman said the bomb squad didn't expect such a large explosion. The charge attached to the ball was supposed to blow a hole through the sphere, pushing the powder out. Nessman would have been given the ball after it was disarmed, but there wasn't anything left to keep.

The bomb squad took about 20 minutes to set up the charge with a five-minute fuse. After driving almost a mile away on secluded Kittleson Road in Kensington, the fuse was ignited. Nessman estimated a debris sprawl approximately 20 feet in diameter, though he noted the majority of the explosion went straight up in the air.

"I was just kind of shaking my head because that thing had been around for years," Nessman said. Had there been a fire in his garage, or if it had rolled off its shelf, it could have been set off. The shock of extreme temperature changes, if Nessman had moved it from his heated garage to the cold outside, could have also triggered a blast.

"There have been kids killed from these blowing up," Anderson said. "They think it's just a fun toy. There is no education on the subject."

Solid cannonballs, round-shots, are fired from smoothbore cannons and do not contain explosives. Other cannonballs are explosive-filled and have an exterior fuse connected to powder inside. These are unstable and unpredictable. Some explosive-filled cannonballs discharge at a calculated distance rather than exploding on impact. Cannonballs are artillery weapons used in war.

There are four contracted bomb disposal units in Minnesota.The Minneapolis Police Department, St. Paul Police Department, Bloomington Police Department and the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office are equipped with bomb disposal teams.The squads perform post blast investigations, evidence handling and packaging, reconstruction of detonated devices, lab operations and site safety. Each is equipped with hazardous device disposal robots, portable digital X-ray machines, open trailers and total containment vessels.

DeyCrystal Dey Crystal Dey is a staff reporter for the Echo Press. Originally from Minnesota's Iron Range, Dey worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Florida and Connecticut before returning to her home state to join the Echo Press in October 2011. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Staff Reporter Crystal Dey on Twitter at @CrystalDey_Echo.