GILLETTE — A fire that destroyed a home and workshop earlier this year has not deterred Karl Milner from doing what he loves: teaching kids how to safely shoot off mortars and cannons.
“Kids are curious, and if you don’t guide them and give them some direction on how to be safe, then they’re going to experiment on their own and maybe not be so safe,” he said. “It’s pretty important that adults who have the experience step up and start sharing that experience.”
Among other interests, Milner builds cannons. He and his wife, Kathy Fleck, run educational classes for kids and adults, including a cannon shoot for children the third Saturday in August. In past years, the high-caliber event at the Rusty Buffalo Gun Range — the largest range in Wyoming, located about 20 miles southwest of Gillette — has drawn national interest.
Just a few months ago in mid-March, however, Milner’s home burned down after a computer numerical control machine component in his workshop caught fire. A CNC machine is used to automate the control of machine-powered tools.
The fire caused about $1 million in damage to his home, shed and tools, and it left the family homeless just days after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Nothing was salvageable,” Milner said.
Almost five months later, the world is still dealing with the pandemic and he is continuing to rebuild. After living in a hotel room provided for by the Red Cross of Wyoming, he moved into a camper, which he still lives in as he waits for Campbell County to finish its code inspections as he and his wife attempt to rebuild.
“In the long run we’re going to be better, but it’s hard right now,” Milner said. “It’s kind of one step at a time. You have to get water, electric, sewer lines. We had to redo our sewer system and put a cap on the riser on the septic tank, (just) a couple of little things to bring it up to code.”
People have donated clothing and money to help Milner and his family. They also helped them find a mobile home that’s been placed on their property.
“The community has been great, and that is the joy of living in Gillette,” he said. “If it had been any other state we would have been on our own. Being in Wyoming, it’s a whole different ballpark. Everybody chips in.”
About 20 years ago, Milner was involved with hunter education for troubled youth in Campbell County. Kids who got in trouble with firearm-related issues were in the program and Milner taught them about firearms.
“At the end of the 12 months, they have to do 12 community service projects, most of which are Game and Fish-related,” he said.
Those who successfully completed the course were given a firearm of their choice and they got to go hunting with it.
“My theory on it is, if you tell a kid all guns are bad, curiosity kills the cat. They’re going to want to get into it, whereas if you educate kids they’ll respond much better to it,” Milner said.
Toward the end of successfully completing the program, a group of kids talked about building a pipe cannon and then shooting it off.
“I told them, ‘No, no, no, that is way too dangerous,’” Milner said.
Instead he created a blueprint for a cannon and then helped them build it under his supervision.
“I basically showed them how to build a safe cannon,” Milner said. “Once we had the design they asked, ‘Can we build it?’ I said sure, we can build anything. We sat down and built that first cannon and fired it off.”
On the same weekend the next year, the third weekend in August, he designed and built another cannon and let a handful of kids fire it off. Every year the event has grown.
“As we got more cannons (the kids) wanted to invite their friends,” he said. “It’s better than building that pipe cannon at home where you read and hear on the news of kids getting hurt. I told them, bring your friends and we’ll get this curiosity out of their systems.”
Milner did not decide to host this year’s 18th annual kids cannon shoot until several weeks after the March fire.
“I thought about not putting it on, but with COVID-19 and travel bans and everything else, these kids are stuck in Gillette with nothing to do,” he said. “It seemed to me that the right thing to do was put this on and let them come out and have some fun.
“In May, I made the final decision to give ’er a go.”
Not only is Milner putting on the event, he is funding it himself. The cannon shoot typically costs about $24,000.
Gunsmithing services that Milner provides for people will help pay for it, he said.
Milner has not asked businesses to donate this year because many of them have been struggling because of the coronavirus.
It’s been hard for businesses to survive during the pandemic and to ask for a donation would be an unreasonable request, he said.
Milner expects 400-500 kids to show up next weekend. In the past, some have come from other states like Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
“Kids will be able to shoot off longboard cannons and mortars,” he said. “It’s kind of a nice last hurrah before school starts. Send them back to school with a hell of a story to tell.”
A couple of changes to this year’s canon shoot include providing hand sanitizer and spreading out the mortars.
“We’ve never done that in the past, but we don’t want anyone to get sick doing this,” he said.
Milner will be working hard the next couple of weeks with his son Teddy Milner to get things ready. This will include putting in 12-hour days the week before the shoot.
Karl Milner also needs some local volunteers. People across the state have assisted him in the past, but they won’t get as much help now because of the coronavirus.
“Just a few of us will be helping so we know we’re not bringing in a bunch of sick people,” he said. “Most of the help come from areas where COVID is kind of high. We’re not going to bring them in.
“Things are going to be a little slower, but kids will still have fun.”
Despite everything that has gone on between the fire and COVID-19, Milner will do his best to make sure kids have a blast, which is a given, as about 2,800 pounds of black powder will be used to shoot off the cannons and mortars.
“What the kids need mainly is supervision, then they need instruction,” he said. “If you provide those for kids, they’re going to soak it up like a sponge and have fun doing it.
“Besides that, it’s just fun to make boom.”