CLINTON — From a bucket hat and class yearbook to copies of the local newspaper and a unique cylinder object, a large crowd gathered before the steps of Hamilton College’s Burke Library July 10 to witness the opening of the Class of 1890 time capsule.
A crew from Central Paving working to expand and reconstruct Campus Road for the county Department of Public Works, unearthed a bit of history on June 29 when their shovel glanced against a copper box. Buried by members of the Class of 1890 a few days before their graduation, the box had remained buried beneath a stone marker for 128 years.
Associate Director for Planning & Project Management Barry Rivet, who is overseeing the road project for the college, alerted Eric Teller of Delta Engineers, Architects & Land Surveyors, who is managing the project for the county, to “keep an eye out for the time capsule.” As the excavator removed the stone and continued digging, Teller used a shovel to make sure any buried capsule would be retrieved unharmed.
After only a few minutes, he found a copper box. Director of Special Collections Christian Goodwillie and Special Collections Coordinator Mark Tillson took the box and began the process of drying it.
Tillson assisted with the opening of the capsule July 10, but it was Hamilton President David Wippman who stole the show as he revealed each object removed from the box to a large crowd that had gathered both in and outside the library.
“We never know what we’ll find here at Hamilton College, but we’re not encouraging you to go digging random holes around campus,” Wippman joked to the staff and students present.
But before revealing the contents, Vice-president for Libraries and Information Technology Joseph Shelley thanked the crew from Central Paving and gifted them with Hamilton insignia ball caps. Tillson then explained how the capsule was X-rayed so staff could figure out how to safely open the box without damaging it. The analysis showed that the box was made mostly of copper, he said, and that one box acted as an “outer shell” for the capsule to help protect the contents.
“Some water got in” the capsule, “but it doesn’t look like there’s much damage,” the special collections coordinator said.
Tillson said according to a local, now-defunct newspaper of the day, the Utica Morning Herald, June 24, 1890 was a hot, 90-degree day on which the “campus-day exercises” were held two days before commencement. At the conclusion of the “literary exercises,” the class marched, following the college band, to an area near the entrance to the college where the engraved 1890 stone marker had been placed. They positioned the box beneath the stone, and each member took a turn shoveling earth on top of the capsule.
The 40 members of the class came from Boonville to Wampsville and from Bulgaria to Brooklyn, but primarily from towns throughout central New York.
As he opened the box, President Wippman informed those who gathered that the college decided to open the capsule outside the library so that any mold or mildew could dissipate into the air.
“I was told the box could have dangerous mold and they didn’t want to lose any important members of the community,” Wippman joked as he explained why he was chosen to open the capsule and reveal the contents.
The president then proceeded to ask the crowd what they thought might be found inside.
As random answers were shouted, “I’m not hearing my favorite candidate — money,” Wippman laughed. “Wow, just kidding.” He then proceeded to remove a bucket hat and copies of the Utica Morning Herald.
Wippman then revealed a metallic cylinder that looked like a horn with a separated mouth piece.
“Look, it’s a kazoo,” he joked. “Or perhaps it’s a whistle of some sort.”
College Archivist Katherine Collett explained that it was parts of a noisemaker.
“The metal objects, we think, are parts of a noisemaker in two pieces, the mouthpiece with whistle, and the horn to amplify the sound,” Collett said. “From the inscription, it seems to have been stolen by Frank Gibbons, Class of 1890, on Sept. 16, 1887, as part of the class rivalry between the Class of 1890 and the Class of 1891.”
A list of additional items found in the time capsule:
• Issue of Hamilton Literary Monthly, May 1890
• Hamiltonian for Class of 1890
• Class Catalogue for the 1889-1890 school year
• Menu for the class banquet of the Class of 1890 in 1887.
• A copy of the Utica Morning Herald for the two days before the time capsule was buried, June 23 and 24, 1890.
• Bucket hat
• Many copies of advertisements, presumably used as packing material, including one for “Best in the world anti-rusting tinware.”
• Blob of solder
When the banquet menu was found, Collett read some of the dishes featured aloud, such as fried frog legs, green turtle with old sherry, broiled Kennebec salmon in shrimp sauce, tenderloin of beef larded with mushrooms, peas, mashed potatoes, and among the desserts, strawberries with cream and Charlotte de Russe.
Collett explained that the college has at least 4-5 other time capsules from the late 19th century that still need to be opened. Those include the years 1865, 1871, 1873, 1877-79 and 1884-87. But staff continues work to make sure the contents of the 1890 capsule and others that have been opened are digitized for the college archives.
“We are moving forward to digitize various college publications and other records, some of which is already available online. You can see some of what we have in the archives at this website: https://www.hamilton.edu/offices/lits/special-collections/college-archives, which includes a link to the digital collections: https://elib.hamilton.edu/college-archives,” she said. “The few college publications that have been digitized and added to Digital Collections are here: https://elib.hamilton.edu/college-publications. We have started digitizing the student newspapers, Hamilton Life and the Spectator, primarily, but the process of putting them into digital collections with all the proper metadata takes a while.”
There are still various class stones around campus, probably originally marking where a class tree was planted.
“Some of these stones may have time capsules buried under them, but some probably do not — either because the class did not create one, or because at their 50th reunion they dug it up, which was always the intention,” Collett said. “And, because some of the stones have been moved, there may be a few time capsules in unmarked locations around campus.”
Plans for a time capsule exhibit at the library are in the works for next spring.
“We haven’t yet planned the time capsule exhibit for next spring, but it will probably include the contents of some of the opened time capsules and at least one or two of the unopened ones,” Collett said.