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Discovery of black powder, live ammunition at museum results in visit from ISP explosives expert

(Talk of the Town photos by Jennifer Zartman Romano) Inside the artifact storage room of the Whitley County Historical Museum, from left, museum director Dani Tippmann, Indiana State Police officer Mike Lantz and museum volunteer Chuck Jones review an artifact manifest to determine where potentially dangerous items could be found in the museum's collection. Below, center, Lantz examines a potentially live piece of ammunition. At bottom, a Spanish-American War period leather pouch revealed a large number of live shells. Each of these shells were removed, photographed, de-assessioned from the museum's collection and will be destroyed by the Indiana State Police.

By Jennifer Zartman Romano

Whitley County Historical Museum director Dani Tippmann made an explosive discovery Wednesday when a box of black powder was discovered in the artifact storage room in the museum's Annex Building artifact storage room.
While working on a project to reorganize some of the museum's artifacts pertaining to local military history, the box of Civil War-style munitions were discovered. Further inspection inside cataloged boxes and on artifact manifests revealed a significant amount of live ammunition on site -- in a variety of shapes, sizes and ages.
Tippmann contacted Columbia City Police Department officer Bill Simpson, a past historical society board member and museum volunteer, and asked him to have a look at some of the items in question.
Simpson felt the black powder was enough of a concern, alone, that he suggested Tippmann contact the Indiana State Police's bomb squad immediately.
Tippmann said the box contained approximately 15 packages black powder wrapped in paper pouches.
"At the very least, it could start a fire...and it could really hurt somebody. Static electricity could set it off," Tippmann said of the black powder that had likely been part of a past Civil War exhibit. The exact origin of the black powder was unknown and it was intially unclear whether the black powder was truly from the Civil War era or whether it was something used by contemporary re-enactors.
On Thursday morning, Officer Mike Lantz of the Indiana State Police bomb squad arrived in an armored vehicle to inspect all of the items in question and determine which items would need to be removed or destroyed.
Lantz spent over an hour, carefully inspecting a variety of items -- including bullets from Civil War up through WWII and beyond. The most surprising find was a full pouch of live ammunition and stripper clips from the Spanish-American War. As Lantz carefully turned the bullets in the palm of his hand, eying them closely, he noted the fissures in the exterior of the bullets revealing the decay and instability of each one.
"We will have to destroy these," Lantz said, carefully placing them into a box. While the smaller bullets would not necessarily cause major damage, he cautioned they could hurt a child or frighten someone if they were dropped on the floor.
"Goodbye, artifacts," Tippmann said, her voice heavy with concern. Many of the items that will have to be destroyed by the bomb squad were cataloged items in the Whitley County Historical Society's
collection, but, she said, safety trumps historical value.
"They do have some historical significance, but we can't keep them," Tippmann said.
Tippmann believes the items were donated over the years, cataloged, put in boxes and largely forgotten about except for being occasionally removed for exhibits or educational programs.
"I think we'll look two or three times at something explosive from now on," Tippmann said.
Lantz said that some of the bullets could be drilled open or fired, emptied of their explosive components. Others, like the Spanish-American War bullets, would need to be entirely blown up.
As Lantz moved the items into a box, museum volunteer Chuck Jones continued searching through archives to find more potential items of concern. Tippmann systematically de-asseessioned each item, declaring it no longer an artifact. At the same time, a museum volunteer photographed the items so at least photographs would remain for the items that had to be destroyed.
Lantz said not everything would need to be blown up at the ISP's secure detonation site in Roanoke. Some of the shell casings and bullets might be able to be saved, including three larger items that did not appear to be live -- two from WWII and one that appeared to be from the Civil War. It was items like these that were of the most concern to Tippmann. To be safe, Lantz took many items with him to review more closely in a sure location at the ISP.
As the country's WWII soldiers pass away, Lantz said family members frequently discover live ammunition among their loved ones' personal effects. Museums are also frequent recipients of donated military items, some of which occasionally include a variety of bullets, grenades and bombs that may or may not have been deactivated. Lantz advised having professionals evaluate the items to make sure they are safe to keep. He added that some items, however, are difficult to evaluate for their safety -- particularly since some de-commissioned items are occasionally modified by individuals at home.


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