Time tells little

The last century hasn't been kind to the bundle of newspaper clippings and books housed in a tin time capsule beneath the Stevensville Junior High School. The artifacts, laid out in the Stevensville Historic Museum's attic, are stained and crumbling. The Bitterroot's soil has even reduced a tiny American flag to mere scraps of red, white and blue fabric. Time, it appears, is no patriot.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Missoula conservation technician Audra Loyal huddles over what's left of the items buried under the building's cornerstone by members of Montana's Masonic Lodge on July 4, 1901. The most valuable relics, monetarily, are a pair of turn-of-the-century coins and a small flake of gold. But the paper objects are too far-gone to restore. At this point Loyal is simply trying to identify each object to determine what Stevensville then was trying to tell Stevensville now. So far, she's stumped.

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"A.J. Gibson was the architect for the building, so I was really holding out hope we'd find some A.J. Gibson material in here," Loyal says. "But there's nothing really super unique. I'm sure I could find copies of most of these documents elsewhere."

Historian Chris Weatherly wrestled the time capsule from the wreckage of the school when it was torn down in late January. He knew instantly the contents were compromised, as the lid of the tin box had been crushed during or after its interment.

"When I saw that time capsule I got goosebumps," Weatherly says. "It was like a hand reaching out at me from history."

Conservationists in the area eventually referred Weatherly to Loyal's Vespiary Book Restoration and Bindery for restoration work. Loyal did some preliminary research on time capsules and found that the Masons buried such boxes during dedications of new civic buildings.

"It seems like most of these that are unearthed are from about 100 years ago," Loyal says. "So I don't know if it was a fad or what."

Weatherly spent several days leading up to the school's demolition stripping the building of fixtures like handrails. He says he plans to display them in a special exhibit at the museum this summer, alongside any pieces from the time capsule that can be partially restored.

The coins and flake of gold, however, are going "straight into the safe deposit box at the bank," he says.

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