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In the Niche of Time : Decaying Documents, Coin, Are 88-Year-Old Time Capsule’s Treasures

Times Staff Writer

The archivist was ready with tin snips to cut open the 88-year-old time capsule as the small metal box was pulled out of the cornerstone of the old Orange County Courthouse on Thursday. But the cutting tools weren’t necessary.

Rust had eaten gaping holes into the time capsule--which was little more than a tackle box--and the hinges had nearly disintegrated. Still, it was what was inside that was important, and about 500 people on the front lawn of the red sandstone courthouse held their breath as county officials dipped into the box and pulled out pieces of Orange County, circa 1900.

For all the fanfare and expectation accompanying the opening of the time capsule, the contents were not only damp and deteriorating but rather weighty as well--official lists of county officers, a register of voters, a manual for school instruction, a blank marriage license and several newspapers. The choicest item was a 200-year-old Spanish silver coin from the rubble of Mission San Juan Capistrano after the 1812 earthquake.

But county officials were just happy anything was there at all.

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“We were worried we’d open it and it would be another Al Capone’s vault,” said Gabrielle Carey, county archivist.

The time capsule was buried July 4, 1900, during festivities at the construction site of what was then the 11-year-old county’s new courthouse. Before the cornerstone was set in place, the time capsule was placed in a rectangular hole, approximately 8 by 11 inches, chiseled into the top of a granite block. According to county historian Jim Sleeper, a newspaper at the time said the capsule was “hermetrically sealed.”

It was pulled out Thursday as part of the yearlong celebration of the county’s centennial.

“It’s a good thing we got this thing out when we did,” Sleeper said. Looking at the decaying box, he added, “looks like the county might have gone to the lowest bidder on that. . . . It was a little easier getting into than a can of soup.”

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Sleeper and the County Historical Commission were fairly sure of what was inside, having researched the matter through old newspaper accounts. Still, there had been rumors that the box had been moved to a higher place during the flood of 1938.

But when masons cut through the mortar and loosened the stone earlier this week, officials peeked and saw that something was in the carved niche--although until the box was opened, there was no guarantee that everything had not disintegrated into dust.

Among the items unveiled were:

- A listing of the county’s assessed valuation from 1890 to 1900, when it totaled $10.26 million. (Today it is $104.56 billion.)

- A list of the people in charge of the July 4, 1900, festivities. (The day’s events, according to Sleeper, included fireworks, a parade and a hot-air balloon ride that ended in tragedy when the balloonist plunged to his death.)

- The 1890 and 1896 register of voters. The rolled-up papers were damp and stuck together, but Sleeper said the county already was showing its Republican persuasion. In the 1900 presidential election, the county vote was 2,185 for Republican incumbent William McKinley and 1,804 for the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan. While party affiliations were not noted, vital statistics were. Sleeper said the tallest voter was 6-foot-6 and the shortest was 4-foot-8.

- A blank marriage license (known as a “baby permit” in those days.) About 400 were issued in 1900, when the divorce rate was one in 10, Sleeper said. In 1900, the cost of a license was $2; today it is $35.

- A number of newspapers, including a July 2, 1900, edition of the Santa Ana Evening Blade, in which the lead story involved the trial of a man who had “brained the superintendent of the Port Blakely Lumber mill with a fragment of iron pipe.” During the trial, the superintendent “was shown to be a tyrannical supervisor.” The employee was acquitted.

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- A relic from Mission San Juan Capistrano, a silver coin dated 1788. According to a letter accompanying it, the coin was donated by M.A. Forster and found in the ruins of the mission church after the 1812 earthquake.

Missing was the autograph of the county’s oldest resident in 1900, a 103-year-old man, but several papers were stuck together and perhaps it will still be found, officials said.

The ceremony Thursday was especially meaningful to Murray MacNeill Patton, 72, whose grandfather, Chris MacNeill, was the general contractor for the courthouse.

“This is great. This is further recognition of grandpa.” he said.

The time capsule items will be on display at the courthouse museum after archivist Carey dries and logs them.

“This was the first time capsule I’ve ever opened,” Carey said. “It was fun and intriguing to see what someone 88 years ago thought should go in.”

New items will go into another time capsule, to be fitted into the same cornerstone niche sometime soon. The new items will include newspaper articles about the reopening of the old courthouse in 1987, a copy of Sleeper’s pamphlet on the courthouse, photos of the building’s restoration and a piece of the original courthouse latticework.

“I’m just hoping we have picked the right things to bring about the same excitement (when it is opened) that we saw here today,” said Jane Gerber, chairwoman of the Orange County Historical Commission.

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The items will be fitted inside a custom-made $1,000 box of heavy steel that will be hermetically sealed and filled with argon gas to prevent deterioration, Carey said. The new time capsule should fare better than the old one. The manufacturer of the box has promised that it is rustproof, she said.

“Of course, I won’t be here in 100 years to find out if they were telling the truth,” she said.


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