Owatonna opens time capsule tucked in the high school a century ago

A simple metal box tucked into a cornerstone of a building built in the middle of a cornfield more than a century past has captivated the community of Owatonna.

Owatonnans filled that box back in 1920 with rosters from local volunteer organizations, a history of the city's founding, a list of local officials and financial statements from the city, school district and area banks.

The rusted box was unearthed earlier this year by workers in the middle of demolishing the old Owatonna High School. Owatonna Public Schools officials unveiled the time capsule's contents last month, garnering national attention at a peek at what life was like in this southern Minnesota city 100 years ago.

"I don't know that this is something you find very often in these times," Owatonna Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Elstad said.

School officials held a ceremony April 22 to open the capsule, which also included area newspapers, a pin from the Grand Army of the Republic group of veterans from the Civil War and a coin from the 1920s (though three coins were listed on the inventory sheet). The box even included an old photograph of the leader of one of the fraternal lodges in town.

According to the district, workers demolishing the old high school were told to take special care to preserve the building's cornerstone, which they had planned to repurpose. But workers called district officials in early February with news they found something in the stone.

"There's this pioneering aspect of where you build something new," Elstad said. "I guess the expectation in Owatonna is our high schools are going to last us 100 years. That's certainly the expectation here."

It was common practice to hide time capsules in cornerstones of buildings like the old high school, according to Jennifer Thiele of the Steele County Historical Society. But Owatonna officials had no record of a time capsule hidden anywhere on the property.

The capsule itself is a treasure-trove of information, from bylaws and agenda items of organizations to full listings of the people involved in city affairs from 1920.

"It's quite significant for the community just because there's so many fraternal organizations and different societies that are no longer in existence in Owatonna or Steele County," Thiele said. "We'll be able to tell not only who was a part of them but also what their missions and purposes were."

It also shows how much Owatonna has grown. A 1920 financial statement showed the city's budget to be a little bit over $530,000, paying for everyone from the police chief to people trimming light lamps. When adjusted for inflation, that's the equivalent of $8,276,798 today. This year, the city's budget is close to $50 million.

The school district ran on almost $120,000 during its 1919-1920 fiscal year for its 300 students. The student body has grown fivefold, while the annual budget has skyrocketed to $80 million. So per pupil spending has grown from $400 per student to $53,333 per student.

The capsule contents have dried out — the metal box did little to prevent rust damage, mold and mildew as it was cracked open at the bottom — and are on display while the historical society orders protective sleeves and other preservation materials.

The society and the district are in the midst of negotiating possession over each item — some of the community-centric documents will stay at the historical society, while items belonging to the school district will either go on display at a museum inside the new Owatonna High School or be part of a new district office to be built at the former high school's site.

Some items might even go into a new time capsule, according to Elstad. He hopes the new time capsule can carry on those generational stories.

"My hope is that 100 years from now, people look back upon us and say, 'Wow, there were some people that decided in our community it was time for a new high school and they did this,'" he said. "Now the contents will look a lot different, but hopefully the spirit will be the same."