Time took a toll on Stillwater time capsule

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 23, 2008 - 1:04 AM

An old flag, Civil War ribbons and a few bits of newspaper survived being destroyed by moisture during the 90 years the capsule was underground.

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The Minnesota Historical Society’s Carolyn Phelps sifted through items that were found in the time capsule. Buried time capsules often fall victim to moisture, a peril that modern methods try to avoid.

Photo: ELIZABETH FLORES, Star Tribune

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The copper box, tarnished green from seeping water, tells the story.

Most everything inside this time capsule, entombed in 1917 in the granite base of a Civil War monument in Stillwater, succumbed to moisture.

"Mucky, basically," is how senior objects conservator Paul Storch of the Minnesota Historical Society described the contents when they arrived in his St. Paul laboratory last summer. "It's fairly common when they use copper boxes that have been soldered or crimped and then they're buried. It seems all it takes is a pinhole."

Now the contents of the copper box -- intended to preserve memories of early Stillwater and Washington County -- are back home at the county's Historic Courthouse.

Saved: A miniature silk American flag with 48 stars. Three Civil War ribbons that say GAR, meaning Grand Army of the Republic. A vague image of downtown Stillwater. Bits of newspaper society notes for readers who don't mind sentences cut down the middle.

Lost: Fifty-six photographs by John Runk that recorded principal buildings and streets in Stillwater and its lumber mills, once the chief commerce in the city. "These photographs constitute a very valuable record of our varnished industry," Orris Lee of the Washington County Soldiers' Monument Association was quoted as saying in 1917 in the Stillwater Gazette before the metal box was tucked away inside the monument.

Also lost: Original articles of incorporation of the monument association and various lists, pamphlets, postcards, directories and financial statements meant to remind future generations of early life in the county.

Last summer, dozens of eager people came to the Historic Courthouse to await the golden moment when they could pop the lid on 90 years of history. A crane lifted the giant bronze Civil War soldier off the monument, allowing access to the alcove underneath it. Out came the box, suspiciously sloshing.

"They were all disappointed and surprised when they opened it up and found a big ugly mass," said Carolyn Phelps, coordinator of Historic Courthouse.

Storch said time capsules that are "buried" -- meaning inside monuments, building corners and other places where water invades -- usually will result in ruined contents. Such placement was common years ago, he said, but should be avoided today.

Phelps said she doesn't know the origin of the silk flag or the GAR ribbons, which weren't on the list the monument association compiled 90 years ago. And she doesn't know yet if any of the ruined items, such as Ruck's photos, were original.

"There could be some historical loss but we're still going through it," Phelps said.

Modern methods allow separation of individual items inside time capsules to prevent chemicals from interacting and thereby inviting deterioration, Storch said.

Public interest in time capsules "comes and goes," but tends to relate to 50- and 100-year anniversaries and the opening of new buildings, he said. A few years ago, for example, he helped the St. Paul Police Department plan a time capsule that includes uniforms and other police memorabilia.

Fascination with time capsules began with the earliest civilizations when vaults of artifacts were preserved for future generations. It continues today as people collect evidence of their existence and lock it away.

"It's the mystique of archeology," Storch said.

Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554

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