Cover story: Courthouse time capsule reveals 71-year-old artifacts

By Gerald Hay

A 71-year-old time capsule has provided a peek into Johnson County’s past.

The copper box, measuring 13-by-10½ inches and 5 inches in height, was assembled and stored in a wall cavity of the courthouse on May 7, 1951. It was discovered in the razing of the old Johnson County Courthouse in downtown Olathe last year and was turned over to Johnson County Museum for safe keeping, additional research and eventual opening.

Anne Jones, Curator of Collections, supervised the opening of the historic cache at the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center, Overland Park, where the Johnson County Museum is located.

Paul Benson, retired conservator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art where he worked for nearly 26 years, was consulted by museum staff about the time capsule, including x-raying the copper box a few weeks ahead of the opening to get a sense of what was inside the container.

“Since the box was small, I wasn’t surprised that it was mostly paper items. I was somewhat surprised that most of the contents were in good condition, but the box was sealed and stored in stone,” Jones said.

Benson agreed. “The copper box appeared to be in very good condition with only minimal corrosion present on its exterior surface. This indicated that the box was kept in a dry environment for nearly all its time in the courthouse foundation. The excellent state of preservation of the box itself was a good indication that the contents were also well preserved,” he added.

“I was not surprised by what was in the time capsule, but I was surprised that it did not contain any metal artifacts such as coins or other dated metal materials.”

Opening of the time capsule required both patience and skill.

Benson took a gingerly approach to cutting open the copper box, carefully using a small metal-cutting hand tools, cutting inch-by-inch, stopping often to peek inside though the emerging small opening slit and ensuring the next cut would not harm paper contents.

“The weight of the box and the material it was made from, copper, indicated that the walls of the box were fairly thin. The x-ray told us where the materials on the inside were located so I knew where to start cutting so I wouldn't damage the contents,” Benson said.

Less time than expected

Paul Benson uses a crowbar to open a copper time capsule

“Once I got a corner cut open, I was able to insert a pair of tin snips and could easily cut through the thin copper sheeting. I could then use a small pair of pliers to peel back the copper sheet as the cutting progressed. It all took less time than I estimated.”

Jones hung back, giving him room to work and patiently waiting to examine the contents when finally revealed.

The time capsule was filled to its capacity with a wide assortment of materials. Everything had aged remarkably gracefully, including about three dozen sealed letters. They were submitted by clerks and mayors from city halls, county commissioners, a county attorney, two district court judges and a probate judge, the sheriff, and a few businesses.

66,000 residents

One envelope had a hand-written address from “66,000 residents of Johnson County.” A few letters had 3 cent stamps.

Back when the time capsule began its seven-decade hibernation in the old courthouse, Johnson County was quite different. The county’s 1950 Census population was 62,783. The population would increase 129% in the 1950s with a population of almost 144,000 in 1960.

Several cities, especially in northeast Johnson County, and Leawood were newly incorporated and created from 1948 to 1951.

The copper box also contained sealed packets with pictures. Writing on the packets indicated the photos were taken as the courthouse was being built in the early 1950s.

“For me, the most interesting item of note was how the ‘packers,’ if you will, wrapped photographs in foil and sealed the seams with melted wax to prevent moisture seeping in,” Jones said.

Yellowed newspapers from Olathe, Spring Hill, Gardner, De Soto and the Kansas City Times detailed plans to install a time capsule on May 7, 1951, in celebration of opening a new courthouse.

Other contents included:

  • A newspaper microfilm reel
  • A district court trial docket dated May 5, 1951
  • Programs from a 1949 Model Airplane Meet, 1950 Olathe Rodeo and the 1948 Old Settlers Days
  • A 1950 Olathe phone directory

Union Station time capsule

Anne Jones holds up an envelope from the 1950s

For Jones, this was the second opening of a time capsule in her career. She was a curator at Johnson County Museum from 1987 to 1999, then worked for Union Station/Kansas City Museum for seven years where was involved with the opening of the century-old 1900 time capsule from Union Station.

“We opened it on New Year’s Day, 2000,” Jones said. “The box was filled with time appropriate correspondence, such as calling cards, type-written and hand-written letters, and ribbons and other novelties added by the public.”

Jones returned to Johnson County Museum in 2011. “This is the first time capsule I have ever opened,” Benson said. “I’m relieved it all went so well.” The time capsule and its contents recently were unanimously accepted by the Johnson County Museum Collections
Committee into the museum’s permanent collections. Completion of official paperwork, called the "Deed of Gift," makes 71-year-old copper box and all materials a part of the Museum Collection in perpetuity.

Once all the paperwork is finished, the museum plans to bring in a paper conservator for guidance on opening specific sealed paper items like the courthouse photographs and envelopes. That process is expected to start in July.

“Museum best practices are to consult with experts for items like those wrapped in foil and sealed with rubber cement. Simply taking the items off without learning the proper techniques could lead to damage. That’s something we will do all in our power to avoid,” said Museum Director Mary McMurray.

Processing of contents

Opening items correctly, scanning contents and making an inventory and condition of materials can take several weeks. Completion is expected by the end of the year.

Scheduling a public display of the time capsule takes longer since the museum typically plans its exhibits 3-5 years in advance. A special exhibit featuring the time capsule and contents is possible in the first quarter of 2024.

“This timeline may seem long, but each step is taken to help preserve the contents of the time capsule and to balance with existing priorities outlined in the Johnson County Museum’s strategic plan and annual goals,” McMurray said.

“Fortunately, we happen to have a hole in our exhibiting schedule that was meant for a traveling exhibit (in early 2024). Since we know how much community members want to see the history preserved in the old courthouse for seven decades, the museum exhibit team has decided fill that existing hole with an in-house special exhibit to share the contents of the time capsule with the public.”

The time capsule opening was videotaped and can be viewed below:

Courthouse Time Capsule