On April 22, 2013, family, friends, historians and church members huddled around a copper vault in the basement of the First Lutheran Church of Oklahoma City, anxiously waiting to find out what had been tucked inside 100 years before.
To preserve the memory of the photos, audio recordings and documents found in the vault, the Oklahoma Historical Society is producing a documentary about the Century Chest, as the time capsule was called, for the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority — with plans to finish by the end of the year.
The director of the Oklahoma Historical Society’s research division, Chad Williams, who was involved in the excavation, is also writing a book about the Century Chest. He and other historians hope these efforts will increase people’s knowledge of and interest in this important piece of OKC history.
“We got great press. OETA showed it live on their website and thousands of people watched it at home and at school,” Williams said, recalling the 2013 excavation. “Thousands of people know about this even outside of the state, and even still when I give a program, maybe 25 percent have ever heard of it.”
Century Chest a unique look into the past
The idea for the Century Chest first came from First Lutheran parishioner Virginia Bland Tucker Sohlberg and the chest was buried on April 22, 1913. The project was originally planned as a fundraiser by the Ladies’ Aid Society to pay for a new church organ. Then it quickly became a city-wide affair.
After an eight-and-a-half-hour excavation in 2013, historians were able to learn about previously unknown details about life in Oklahoma 100 years ago, only 24 years after the Land Run of 1889.
“OU helped with ground penetrating radar from the archeological school, and they could kind of see what we were looking at. Then we drilled holes and put a camera in there and it was just complete concrete,” Williams said, describing the excavation. “There was even an ear of corn that was still completely yellow because of how well everything was preserved.”
The chest was filled with hundreds of letters, photos, newspapers, audio recordings, books and documents, giving the historical society a wealth of information about the individuals, organizations, and Native American tribes that lived in Oklahoma City.
The First Lutheran Church of Oklahoma City made certain that the Century Chest would not be forgotten. Former Pastor Jerry Peterson was put in charge of keeping the chest at the forefront of the community and the church’s mind for 26 years.
“Given the fact that it was down there for a century, we had a pledge that was read every year around April 22, so for the congregation, it was never on the back burner,” Peterson said. “The day that it occurred, we really didn’t know what to expect. We had a booklet that listed all the stuff inside, but even that didn’t come close to seeing what was in it and to see that everything was in pristine condition…. It looked like it did the day that it was put into the chest.”
‘I wanted people to see it all’
The Oklahoma Historical Society has helped ensure that people who lived more than 100 years ago are still remembered. At the Oklahoma History Center, an exhibit transports visitors to the world of the early 20th Century Oklahoma.
Because so many of the artifacts were documents — multiple pages of letters, books and other items that can’t be touched in a museum but should be explored — Williams scanned every page to create an online collection for the world to see.
“This project was my baby and I wanted people to see it. Most of the time, you look at an exhibit, you can’t see the next page of the book on display, and I wanted people to see it all,” Williams said.
Though Oklahoma City is sure to look much different another 100 years from now, the church decided that this was a once-in-a-lifetime project.
“It was considered to make another [time capsule] but this was such a unique event,” Peterson said. “They had a vision to capture the first 24 years of the history of Oklahoma (…) and they did it so well and with such high standards to put in the most important things that showed the progression from open prairie to the start of a city. And it is pretty amazing.”