Friday, September 21, 2018
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Twin brothers in western Wisconsin make noise with their cannons
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A restored cannon outside Paulson Brothers Ordnance Co. in Clear Lake, Wisconsin. (MPR Photo/Phil Picardi)
Memorial Day is a time to remember loved ones who died fighting for the country. It's a time of cemetery ceremonies, a single bugle sounding taps, and 21-gun salutes. The Paulson brothers used to shoot cannons on Memorial Day, but they haven't since Sept. 11, 2001. The two men from western Wisconsin are collectors and expert builders of Civil War era cannons. The Civil War is a subject they talk a lot about this time of year.

Clear Lake, Wis. — In the small town of Clear Lake, Wisconsin, about an hour east of the Twin Cities, Civil War cannons and mortars are lined up and appear to be trained on the high school across the street.

The weapons are part of a collection of antique guns owned by 64-year-old identical twins, Bernie and Bruce Paulson. The guns greet visitors who come to Paulson Brothers Ordnance Corporation.

In their factory, Bernie Paulson machines bolts. A bolt is an artillery term for missiles fired by a cannon. The non-lethal bolts are for an upcoming shooting demonstration at a National Guard post in Michigan.

Bernie and Bruce have 30 years in the Civil War artillery business. They built their two-man company into what many Civil War buffs say is the pre-eminent restorer of antique cannons.

The Paulson brothers make ammunition and the carriages, limbers, and wheels that hold and pull the heavy iron gun barrels. They usually make them out of steel to protect them against the weather, but they also make them out of oak or hickory if a customer wants authenticity.

"The wooden carriages they actually had in the Civil War are purchased by a lot of living history people. I know if you watch television and you see these different states advertising, 'Come to Kentucky, come to Tennessee,' they always show a little clip of a Civil War re-enactment, and that's our customers. If you see some guns firing, probably our carriages are there," Bernie said.

Bernie Paulson and his brother Bruce have been intrigued by the Civil War since they were nine years old. As kids, they shared a bed and hung posters of Civil War scenes from their bedroom walls. Bruce said they started making historically accurate artillery pieces when they worked together designing farm machinery.

"Because we're mechanical engineers, we like machinery. And artillery is just another piece of machinery," Bruce says.

The Paulson brothers produce a top quality product in a very specialized field. Paulson Brothers gun carriages are displayed at Disneyland, and at Gettysburg and many other Civil War battle sites.

Bruce says the pair's best work was done for the U.S. Army. The job was restoration of a carriage for a giant cannon on display at West Point. The gun was captured by Union troops at the battle of Fort Fisher in North Carolina.

Bruce Paulson says PBO guns have also appeared in several TV shows and movies. But he and his brother prefer to work with people who are serious about Civil War history.

"You can never really find the handle on the check writer when you're dealing with movie people. It's always like, 'We'll set up an office or suite in a city.' Then, two weeks are gone and you can never find them again. So, like even Disney, it's money up front, then we'll make something for you," Bruce Paulson said.

How much money?

On the high end, a restored six-pounder cannon sells for $44,000. But the brothers won't sell to just anybody. Most orders come from municipal governments wanting to repair the courthouse cannon, or military branches with display guns on parade grounds.

Bernie Paulson said the guns are made to the exact specifications of the original 1848 drawings. The brothers actually shoot the guns and field test their work.

Bernie said he and his brother will continue to manufacture Civil War era cannons in their small town factory. Demand is strong, he says, and it will only continue to grow.

"Bruce and Bernie are building something that nobody needs. Think about that," Bernie says. "The last thing in the world you'd ever need is a cannon. Only in the U.S. of A. you can actually buy stuff you don't need. That's kind of neat. I think it's wonderful."

One of the places you're less likely to see their work is the Upper Midwest, where there are few Civil War re-enactments. Most occur on or near the actual battlefields in the South. So why would a premiere cannon-maker plant be based in Clear Lake, Wisconsin?

Bernie Paulson gives some credit to what he calls "northern industry." But mostly, he says, it comes down to two brothers with the know-how and the desire.

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