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A Piece of History Returns to Watertown's Commander's Mansion

The son of a former head of the Watertown Arsenal returned to his old home and brought a piece of history with him.

Recently, two things returned to the Commander’s Mansion in the Watertown Arsenal for the first time since the post-World War II years, and one will remain at the historic house.

Rolfe Gerhardt lived in the house just after the war when his father, Col. William “Dutch” Gerhardt, served as commander of the U.S. Army facility. In mid-January, Rolfe and his wife Susan came down from Maine to look around his old abode.

Gerhardt lived in the house from age 7 to 9 – 1946 to 1948 – and he still remembers the fun he and his brother had in the old home.

“The basement was super spooky,” Gerhardt said. “We would play hide and seek there and have cap gun fights.”

He also found the spot where the family’s Philco Radio stood and he would listen to shows like “The Lone Ranger,” “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy,” and “Inner Sacntum Mystery.”

Fans of historic homes, the Gerhardts enjoyed their tour of the Commander’s Mansion led by Facility Manager Tammy McKenna and Assistant Function Facility Coordinator Rae Grassia. These days no one lives in the mansion. It is owned by the Town of Watertown and hosts weddings and other events – about 125 a year, McKenna said.

Times Have Changed

While the furniture has changed since he lived there, Gerhardt said the place looks much the same.

“I am so glad this has been restored,” Gerhardt said. “It is such a historic house.”

The grounds around the mansion have changed more than the inside, Gerhardt said.

“There were various orchards and gardens and a formal rose garden,” Gerhardt said. “There was a big cherry tree (where the grape arbor now stands) and I built a tree house there.”

Also, the mansion had a little fish pond in the area between the house and the Charles River. McKenna noted that she has been trying to add a water feature for years, but the money has not been available in the town budget.

The Watertown Arsenal was first established in during the Civil War and was the U.S. Army's facility for developing and making guns until the 1980s, McKenna said. That remained the focus when Gerhardt’s father headed the facility.

“The main thrust of the Watertown Arsenal was the large cannons,” he said. “I can remember jumping from barrel to barrel (of the big guns).”

Under Gerhardt’s command the Arsenal was developing a gun that could fire a nuclear shell, Gerhardt said.

“(The gun) was never used, but they had a foundry here where the cannon could be built,” Gerhardt said.

Col. Gerhardt

Gerhardt’s father attended West Point and graduated in three years in 1917 and he immediately went to serve as commander of a cannon crew on the Western Front in World War I. He also served in the South Pacific during World War II.

The Arsenal had well stocked woodworking shop to allow models of cannons to be built. Gerhardt’s father would often spend his free time in the woodshop. He brought back one of the products of his father’s handy work back to the mansion – a silverware chest.

Gerhardt brought down the chest from Maine, along with some photos of his family when they lived in the home and an award presented to his father when he left as commander.

“He would have made this in ’48 or ’47,” Gerhardt said. “It was carefully made for our silverware.”

Gerhardt added that his parents got the set from a decommissioned battleship, so the silverware had a Navy insignia.

The silverware is gone, but the chest has returned to the Commander’s Mansion. 

M C Stringfellow January 28, 2013 at 01:25 PM
Great story. Find more. What happened to the silverware?

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