What these 3 church time capsules say about Utah’s history
The St. George Tabernacle under construction in 1874. A time capsule was placed inside it in 1867, which helped provide an interesting piece of the era it was constructed in. (Utah State History)
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Editor’s note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and US history for KSL.com’s Historic section.
SALT LAKE CITY—Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and a handful of other elected state leaders gathered outside the state Capitol to finish filling a small metal box before it was inserted back into the Utah Capitol earlier this month to be opened a century from now.
This box was a time capsule, stocked with items meant to provide a glimpse of life at the moment for future generations to view. The state Capitol previously had a similar box placed inside the structure back in 1914.
Time capsules are a concept in the US that is about as old as the country itself. History.com notes that Samuel Adams and Paul Revere placed artifacts into a box within the Massachusetts State House in 1795, which is considered the oldest known time capsule in the nation.
Emily Utt, a historic sites curator for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, believes the recent Utah State Capitol capsule refill is a sign that time capsules are having a moment again. She pointed out that pioneers enjoyed this idea, which is why so many of the church’s oldest buildings have them.
So why do people do this?
All the time capsules Utt has helped open in recent years appear to have similarities, she said. They include books, newspapers and coins from the period in which they were compiled, as well as photographs of major leaders and written histories. There also seems to be some level of the unique piece of life for the people curating the capsule.
“What unites us is a common theme of time capsules, and these commonalities seem to exist across time,” she said during a presentation hosted by the Utah State Historic Preservation Office on Wednesday.
Utt added that time capsules aren’t always the best means for archiving history because most contents end up getting damaged between the time they are sealed and eventually reopened. However, she presented the findings of three recently opened time capsules at the St. George Tabernacle, the Kaysville Tabernacle and an old Ogden meetinghouse to help explain how each actually helps piece together parts of Utah history.
Southern Utah’s winey past
The St. George Tabernacle time capsule, which was opened in 2016, wound up to be a particularly special discovery.
Old newspaper records indicate the time capsule was placed inside the building in 1867 as construction continued. It contained books and documents from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and supposedly coins, too.
Yet, what made this capsule unique was that it contained a bottle of wine. This bottle serves as a reminder that Brigham Young intended on making southern Utah a wine-producing region in addition to other agricultural needs, Utt explained. It wasn’t unusual for wine to be used during church sacrament meetings at this time.
“St. George was one of the wine missions,” she said. “Wine was being produced in Toquerville and Santa Clara in the 1860s, and the sacramental wine produced in St. George became the sacramental wine used throughout the church.”
This practice of sacramental wine continued into the early 20th century; however, its last known use was in 1906. The church uses water in these types of rituals today.
Church historians recovered the capsule when construction began to seismically improve the structure. There, they found a sandstone box hidden within the walls by the cornerstone with the wine bottle still intact.
It is one of two known to survive this time period in Utah history. The other is believed to be preserved through a capsule in the St. George Temple, according to Utt.
While placing the bottle in the capsule helped preserve an otherwise forgotten moment in state history, it also proved to be detrimental to the rest of the time capsule. It was erroneously placed on its side, causing the cork to break at some point in time, and the contents of the bottle slowly seeped into everything else inside.
A bottle of wine from the St George area that was placed in an 1867 time capsule for the St George Tabernacle. It is one of the only known remaining bottles from this era in Utah history. (Photo: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
When historians finally opened the box well over a century later, most of the books and other paper materials were completely destroyed.
Still, some of the most interesting discoveries came in the search for the time capsule. Historians found that many construction workers left signatures and carved their initials into the walls of the building.
A stonemason named Charlie Walker left a photo and poem about St. George inside a small tin can within the tabernacle. Harrison Peace, one of the building’s carpenters, wrote a message on a piece of wood also left behind.
Utt said these mini, unofficial time capsules say just as much as the official time capsule. Altogether, she believes these show how much the people in the St. George area at the time wanted to show their connection with the church and Utah territory in their unique setting during a period that must have felt isolating.
A message from a future state leader
The condition of the Kaysville Tabernacle time capsule was much better when construction crews found it also during a renovation. All of the newspapers, papers and books were kept in fairly good condition for over a century.
The photo and a message from the bishop at the time, Henry Blood, were also included inside the tin box. This is significant because Blood would go on to be elected Utah’s governor about two decades after the time capsule was completed.
“This box with its contents is placed with the hope that when it is again brought to light, the contents will prove to be of interest to those who will open it,” the message read, in part. “The history … is not intended to be complete but merely to place before those who in future may read it, some of the facts gleaned from personal talks with those who were acquainted with the early days of Kaysville.”
Some of the items were information gathered by Blood from some of the ward’s oldest residents. His note explained that this is because the remaining ties to the early days of Kaysville — a city settled in 1850 and incorporated in 1868 — were quickly disappearing by 1912. He knew there would be nobody left to tell these stories by the time capsule was opened .
A photo of a Kaysville Milling Company envelope packed with barley that was placed inside the Kaysville Tabernacle time capsule in 1912. Henry Blood, who was the president of the company and the bishop of the ward at the time, would go on to become the governor of Utah in the 1930s. (Photo: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
Blood’s other connection also ended up in this box. He was the president of the Kaysville Milling Company at the time, so he included samples of wheat and barley grown in Davis County. Utt points out that the mill’s history is still very well prominent in the telling of Kaysville’s origin.
Unfortunately, church historians found that weevils and other bugs ended up in the box and ate through the wheat. They also started eating the leather binding of the books.
“What I find very interesting, however, is they did not eat the barley,” Utt added. “The bugs died rather than eating the barley, so we have a completely full bag of 1912 barley from the Kaysville Mill.”
The mysterious ‘whatnots’ in Ogden
Even the youngest of the time capsules offered insight into Utah’s history. In 1962, members of Ogden’s 63rd and 66th wards packed a copper box with a newspaper, church directory, a written history of the wards compiled by historians, and even the building’s architectural plans.
People who attended the time capsule ceremony 60 years ago even signed the outside of the box, according to Utt.
However, it’s the homemade memorabilia — like a pen given to people who paid at least $1 to the fund for the building, a knit potholder, and a fake flower corsage — that makes this capsule special.
Utt explained that the building was constructed at a time when a local congregation needed to come up with part of the funding needed for a new church meetinghouse. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ main headquarters would then come up with the design.
The homemade memorabilia, which Utt refers to as “whatnots,” apparently played a role in getting the church built.
“My guess is these were items you would acquire or that were being made for fundraising,” she said. “So I imagine a member of the ward is making potholders and selling those to put in their contribution to the construction of the meetinghouse.”
This, she added, continues the theme that time capsules included some pieces of the overall church history but also a piece of something unique to the ward packing the capsule.
In fact, this capsule showed a reverse of trends from the St. George one created the century before. Buildings had become standardized by the church while time capsules started to lean more into the local angle.
The Ogden capsule, which was dug up after its building was sold to be torn down, was also one of the last of its kind. While the Church of Jesus Christ continues to include time capsules for every new temple, Utt said the practice for new meeting houses came to an end in the mid-1960s.
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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.