The Story of the Bay Village Volunteer Militia
by Michele Yamamoto
It began with an inquiry from a former Bay Village resident. Steve Gress wanted to know if we had any information on the Bay Village Volunteer Militia. As it turned out, Steve was one of the youngest members of the group.
Not long before this email, I was doing a bit of research in the Bay Village Historical Society archives, searching through the scrapbooks from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Time and again I encountered news articles with pictures of men and women in American Revolutionary War attire, engaging in historical re-enactments. I thought the email was the push needed to explore further. After sending out a call to the community and doing a little searching, we found five former members of the Bay Village Volunteer Militia who were willing to talk with us and share valuable information about this short-lived but quite impressive group of historical re-enactors.
Former participants Bob and Marilyn Finicle and their friend, Rhonda Totten, recall the group being thought up in the late 1960s, during Junior Women’s Club couples bridge games, which took place at various member homes. It was during these games that it was learned at least a few members collected and displayed antique firearms. This unexpected shared interest in history sparked an idea.
Attendees Daniel Warnke and Arthur Totten (Rhonda’s husband) are credited in at least one news article of the time as taking the lead in formalizing the group. Warnke’s son, Daniel Warnke, Jr., and other former members of the group confirm this. Fittingly, July 4, 1968 is the date given by Warnke Sr. as the official start of the Bay Village Volunteer Militia.
“We want to bring a little meaning back to the Fourth of July,” Warnke said in a July 3, 1969 interview with The Plain Dealer. The article goes on to say that Warnke and others were concerned about young people who said they did not see any connection between fireworks and the meaning of the Fourth of July. “Are the colorful flares and rockets and booms at Edgewater Park a reminder of the ‘rockets red glare with bombs bursting in air’ in ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’?” asked Warnke. “Or are they supposed to represent the battles and the mortars that killed the patriots and heroes we are supposed to remember on the Fourth? We want to remind people that these are the weapons that were used to build and defend our country by the men we honor on the Fourth of July.”
The musters and skirmishes of the Bay Volunteer Militia were done during the Vietnam War and perhaps Warnke felt a need to quell any objections to his group when he stated in a July 2, 1972 article in the Chronicle-Telegram, “The group’s re-enactment of Revolutionary War ‘call to arms,’ musters and battle moves are not designed to glorify war, but illustrate a page from our history.” Today, his son agrees with the sentiment and says the Militia was more of a sort of “tribute band” to the American Revolutionary War.
Warnke also mentions in the article the fun of dressing up and acting like a kid again. “It’s fun to play dress up,” Rhonda agreed. “We were all kind of hams, weren’t we?” Marilyn added, as she perused some photos from a scrapbook that she and her husband shared with the Bay Village Historical Society.
The Bay Village Volunteer Militia is listed in publications of the time as having anywhere from 35-50 members. The number of regular participants was actually closer to 35. In the case of the Warnke, Finicle and Totten families, the whole family unit would dress up and participate, at times. Member Steve Gress was only about 11 or 12 when he joined.
Steve remembers having an interest in history and antique firearms at a young age and how it led him to join the Bay Volunteer Militia group. “I’ve always been interested in history,” Steve said. “My parents had bought me a black powder rifle for a Christmas present and I had been down to watch one of [the Militia’s] parades when they went down Wolf Road and I just asked them.” Steve got some pointers on how to make an inexpensive costume and his parents helped him put together a uniform using a ruffled tuxedo shirt, leather vest, altered pair of pants and some moccasins. Steve has fun memories of the Bay Village Volunteer Militia and his time living in Bay. He counts those years as a positive part of his life and something very memorable.
They may have been called a militia but there was nothing combative about the somewhat informal group who met to entertain and enlighten spectators. All of the former participants remember a casual organization and not a lot of regular meetings, unless they needed to practice for an upcoming demonstration. The call went out to be at a particular event and the members would show up. “Which would have been indicative of what it would have been in real life [in the Colonial times],” Rhonda said. “You didn’t get together but, when you got the call, you showed up.” Steve remembered: “It was a very laid-back group and not a lot of egos involved. We all got along, went out there and had a great time.”
The militia would re-enact battles, marches and compete in shooting competitions in Bay (Huntington Park) and further afield. Bob Finicle recruited Bay High School band members to serve as their fife and drum corps. The Bay Volunteer Militia even performed at an Indians baseball game in Cleveland in 1971, mustering and firing right before the game to celebrate the city’s “Super Sesqui Celebration” (175th anniversary) on the field. Both Steve Gress and Daniel Warnke, Jr. remember actors Bob Hope and Tim Conway being there and a very kind Conway taking particular interest in the group, speaking with them at length about it. The stadium couldn’t guarantee dressing time and space and so the Militia needed to come prepared and in costume. Steve’s group had to park about two blocks away from the stadium and walk in to do the show. He remembers, “We were walking down through downtown Cleveland in our costumes, with our rifles, some people carried flintlock pistols, we all had a knife or a tomahawk or both on our belt and literally just walked down through the main streets of Cleveland.”
The muskets used were from the Revolutionary and Civil War eras and were all muzzle-loading. Dan Warnke, Jr. remembers he and his father using flintlock muskets of the type used in the American Colonial era. The Civil War era guns, such as the type the Finicles used, were percussion cap muskets. Although not a flintlock mechanism, as would have been used during the actual Revolutionary War, it still required the user to pour the black powder in the muzzle for every firing. Obviously, no bullets were inserted for demonstrations at events. Traditionally, a wad of cotton or paper would be packed down over the powder with a ramrod. Dan Jr. remembers his father being very safety conscious and insisting they carry their black powder for each firing in a piece of aluminum foil, wrapped up like a Hershey’s Kiss. The emptied foil was then rammed down over the powder instead of cotton or paper so as to prevent accidents from smoldering embers remaining inside the muzzle from the previous firing. For the percussion cap muskets, the percussion cap piece, which contained a small amount of powder, was placed on the nipple of the gun. The force of a hammer hitting the cap provided the charge needed to spark the black powder in the barrel and cause the bang and smoke required to put on a good show for the spectators. The ramrod needed to be placed in front of the shooter between firings, stuck upright in the ground, as a visual safety check in case it was left in the muzzle and became a dangerous projectile. The final effect was that of merely shooting off fireworks and so the muskets were designated as such for the events.
Before the skirmishes, the commanding officer would call out for the group to load and fire three times, then he would command the group to “fire at will,” at which point the participants would approach the opposing line and discharge the muskets, never aiming directly at a person. Some would run away or fall “dead” until it was over. Many “battles” or skirmishes in Bay involved eastside Bay members versus westside Bay members battling. When fighting in another town, the Bay Village Volunteer Militia would “lose” to the opposing side as a courtesy but always “won” in their own hometown.
The muskets were a challenge to use. They were very heavy to carry, difficult and time consuming to load. In addition to the loading issues, these old guns would not have been very accurate. If you feel the heft of the old firearms and imagine the stamina needed to march with and load and use these in battle, it gives one an appreciation for the challenges our forefathers had to overcome during war. “How they fought a war with this, I’ll never know,” Bob Finicle remarked while showing me his flintlock muzzle-loading pistol from the mid-1700s. A petite Marilyn Finicle recalled challenges she had with using the old-style guns, “When we put on a show at the stadium…the gun’s very heavy, even though I shot the shorter plainsman rifle. I got it up on my shoulder, I shot it once and it’s so heavy it went down. I just got it back up and thought, ‘I have to shoot this thing again!’ I don’t think anyone noticed but I only shot it that one time and we were supposed to shoot three times.”
The group also had a cannon that would be fired during demonstrations. The Militia first used one on loan but then raised $950 to have their own designed and made to Revolutionary War standards. It was built by the owner of the Heavy Carriage Company, William D. Lentz. The loading of the cannon was not unlike that of the muskets, except they used larger amounts of foil-wrapped powder packages that would later be pierced through the fuse hole, in preparation for igniting. Practice firings were done at the old Bay Gun Club, overlooking Lake Erie. When the cannon wasn’t in use, former Bay residents recall it resting at Bay Village City Hall.
The Bay Volunteer Militia got a lot of attention during its lifetime and even became an official member of the United States Marines, named the First Battalion Continental Marines, a unit first authorized by the Continental Congress in 1775. It was the first unit of the Revolutionary War period to adopt a Marine Corps identity. The designation was announced in the June 1970 edition of Marine News. Although honorary in nature, it was noted that if the British ever dared to attack our shores, Bay Village would be ready for them.
All of the former members I spoke with agreed that the Militia stopped meeting and performing sometime after 1972. Daniel Warnke was the leader of the group and the glue that kept the organization together. After a time, perhaps because of family obligations, Warnke wasn’t able to devote time to organizing the militia. The kids involved were becoming busy with high school activities and Steve Gress’s family moved away from Bay. Rhonda Totten and the Finicles both agreed the group gradually came to a halt.
Unfortunately, founders of the Bay Village Volunteer Militia, Daniel Warnke Sr. and Arthur Totten, have both since passed and of the original members of the Militia that we were able to talk to, all five have left Bay. Rhonda Totten, born and raised in Rocky River, lived in the Bay Village area for 63 years and now lives in Westlake. Bob and Marilyn Finicle, high school sweethearts and both from Lima, Ohio, were in the process of moving away from Bay Village as of June, 2023, after being residents for 57 years. They are celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary this year! Young members Steve Gress and Daniel Warnke, Jr. live in Colorado and Florida, respectively.
Come see a bit of costume history now at the Rose Hill Museum. The Bay Village History Society has on display now a uniform in the style of the Revolutionary War era as well as various dresses from the 1860s-1960s in our exhibition Beadwork: The Beauty of Small Things. The Rose Hill Museum in Bay Village is open from 2:00-4:30 p.m. every Sunday through December (closed holiday weekends). Admission is free and our docent guides will be happy to direct you. Contact us by phone at (216) 319-4634 or email email@example.com, with any questions.