A time capsule unearthed in April near the Washington County Free Library downtown branch was forced open on Thursday, revealing a slice of the community from 45 years ago, including books, photographs, a phone directory and more.
Library board President Art Callaham joked about having a Geraldo Rivera moment, referring to a 1986 TV special about the opening of what was supposed to be gangster Al Capone's secret vault. The live show flopped when practically nothing was found in the vault.
Undeterred, library officials held their time capsule opening live on Thursday morning at the Bridge of Life church, a block from the library site on South Potomac Street.
The metal box had been placed in the ground in August 1966. But records about the capsule were not clear, including its exact location, so it was a surprise when a crew working on the expansion and renovation of the downtown library branch discovered it.
An X-ray of the box at Meritus Medical Center revealed little, but a computerized axial tomography, or CAT scan, showed a spiral binding on a book and what looked to be magazines or pamphlets.
On Thursday, with about 60 people looking on, Jim Widmyer, the library's lead maintenance technician, tried to pry and cut the metal box open.
Jim Miller of After Five Productions filmed the effort and broadcast it to a large screen, so the audience could see.
After about 10 minutes, the first signs of the box's contents were visible. There was a city directory inside, with an ad for The Cavetown Planing Mill Co. on the side.
Widmyer used a gripping tool to peel back the box's metal edges, which had been double crimped, or pressed and pinched, he said. He turned to a rotary cutting tool for more help — opening the box "like a canned ham," he said.
The metal container's seal was far from perfect. As the top layer was exposed, Carol J. Appenzellar, who works on special historical projects for the library, looked at the pile of books and papers and said: "It's a soggy mess."
With the box fully open, Appenzellar and Elizabeth Howe, an archivist in the Western Maryland Room and reference librarian, slowly and carefully separated the pieces.
Moisture had taken a toll; some papers were delicate and damaged, although not a complete loss.
Howe said she got advice ahead of time from Nancy Purinton, who has a preservation business in Frederick, Md. One tip was to place the rescued documents in separate bags and freeze them until there's a longer-range plan for saving them.
Howe also talked to Paul Storch of the Minnesota Historical Society, who told her about the International Time Capsule Society.
Hanlin said a July Herald-Mail story about the time capsule generated much interest. People contacted the library from all over, including Texas, California and Sweden, to say they or someone they knew had a connection to the time capsule.
"People were invested in it," he said.
One was John Earley of Arlington, Texas, who attended Thursday's capsule-opening while in town for a Class of 1971 Boonsboro High School reunion.
Earley said his family business, Norman S. Earley and Son, built the downtown library branch in 1965. He has donated family mementos to the library.
As Howe, Appenzellar and Widmyer gingerly worked to free more pieces from the time capsule, Hanlin read the full list of items to the crowd.
It turns out the list was available in library records. However, library officials weren't certain until the box was open that the list matched the contents.
The library plans to make a new time capsule, or more than one, when the renovated branch reopens.
Sam Cool, a member of a committee working on the idea, said Washington County school children will be asked to contribute.
There will be an electronic copy of their work, along with video interviews and a laptop computer, in the next time capsule, he said — although there's no guarantee of what the next generation's technological limits will be.
"I doubt we'll be running Windows 7 50 years from now," Cool said.
Time capsule contents
Among the items that were in a time capsule uncovered near the Washington County Free Library branch in downtown Hagerstown:
"Bridges: Our Legacy in Stone"
Chamber of commerce bulletin
City directory of 1965, including Hagerstown and nearby towns
"History of City Park" by John S. Kausler
Fashions from "Katy O'Connell's"
Telephone directory, Washington County, August 1965
Washington County Museum of Fine Arts: The Twenty-Fifth Year
Washington County schools personnel directory, school calendar, television report
Photograph of Washington County Free Library at 21 Summit Ave.
Brochures, program, photographs and newspaper coverage about new library building and dedication
Library business forms