The Missing Time Capsule of 1969
The year is 1969. Neil Armstrong sets foot on the moon. MLK's killer is brought to justice. The Beatles new album, Abbey Road, is pouring out of speakers everywhere. Hitting the airwaves is the Manson murders, continued coverage of the Vietnam War, and the Stonewall Riots. The Love Machine by Jacqueline Susann is the bestselling book of the summer, Nixon is president and people party hard (and some die) at Woodstock.
In our small corner of the world, Derry NH, Benjamin C. Newell, along with a motivated planning committee, gear up for the 250th anniversary of Nutfield (a community that includes present day Derry, Londonderry and Windham). The celebration will go unrivaled and span all three towns. Proud townfolk will showcase everything from the site of the planting of America’s first potato to the farm of Robert Frost.
Festivities of the weekend are widely documented and feature:
Field day events, a beard judging contest (Brothers of the Brush), a costume contest (Sisters of the Swish), a “10 generations costume ball,” historic tours, fife and drum exhibitions, talent shows, hootenannies, parades, and the selling of memorabilia (like the commemorative coins specially made for the event by the Greater Derry Arts Council).
Check out a glimpse of Nutfield's 250th Anniversary Festivities
At the end of the whirlwind celebration, on Sunday July 6th, beards are shaved, the sisters of the swish perform a final show, and a time capsule is prepared and buried at MacGregor Park.
Or at least, that’s what’s reported in the The Derry News and other local papers.
After the celebration(or before, it's hard to know because the message is not dated), Ben Newell leaves this letter for the 300th committee chair. It states that the 250th committee has left items in a time capsule in the basement of the Derry Town Hall.
Unfortunately, that’s where the paper trail pretty much disintegrates.
Now, jump to the summer of 2019. People are bouncing to The Raconteurs, Billie Eilish and Khalid. Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is hitting bestseller list after bestseller list. News reports of the southern border, big data and personal information in jeopardy clog our newsfeeds.
And here in Derry NH, the heritage commission gears up for the 300th anniversary of Nutfield, only to find an empty box no one really knows the history of tucked into the corner of the public library’s NH Room.
The box in itself is a conundrum. It’s marked 300th instead of a date tying it to 1969. Indeed, a plaque above the safe does indicate 1969, but a simple examination of the frame shows that the woodwork is from 2002.
News travels fast and far (Check out WMUR, Union Leader, Boston.com, CNN etc) proclaiming a 1969 time capsule found empty, and they're quick to point out that anyone could have accessed the safe in the NH room, seeing as the passcode was taped to the back. However, most librarians here find this puzzling and unlikely because the thief would have had to know that it was in the NH room (it is not cataloged). They would have had to know the passcode was on the back. They would have had to know how to open the complicated combination lock, and they would have had to smuggle the goods out in their clothes, since NH room users are required to leave their bags at the reference desk when they sign-in.
Of course, there is also the obvious: the time capsule shown in the coverage of the 250th looks nothing like the 300th safe and probably would not fit inside the box unless all contents were taken out.
It's not impossible that the time capsule contents were transferred to this safe at one point ....but why?
Once the news of the empty safe hits the airwaves, Library Director, Cara Potter fields phone calls right and left. Callers are from the Readers Digest, CNN, locals and people from way-out-of-town. Everybody who was around in 1969 remembers… only they don’t remember the same thing.
- The Time capsule was never buried. It was just ceremonial.
- The time capsule was dug up by a thief before it was moved to the town hall.
- Feuding town historians with vendettas were involved. One stealing it so the other would look bad.
- The safe marked 300th was a prank put on by committee members, who were also part of Brothers of the Brush, and the original remains buried in MacGregor Park.
- The capsule was dug up during the 1989 library expansion and hidden behind drywall at the bottom of the old stairs
- Ben Newell was asked to unbury it during the library expansion of 1989 (Ben Newell passed away in 1988).
- It was stored in the municipal building and buried with a newer time capsule in the early aughts.
With every viable theory, librarians dig into the archives, pour over blueprints, track the past and phone elders. They learn how to use a metal detector, compare bricks in old images to bricks still standing, and try to rule out some theories. At least the ones at their fingertips. They check MacGregor Park in the place where the time capsule was presumably buried.
They locate lots of dirt, bottle caps, Christmas lights. They become familiar with the sound of shovel hitting rock as opposed to brick (brick sounds so much more promising).
In the boiler room, they hook up an endoscopic camera to their laptop and check the drywall. They locate lots of pipe, much fiberglass, rusty water….
But a time capsule? No. No one spots the elusive time capsule from 1969.
Perhaps it's long gone.
Then again, perhaps not.
Perhaps it’s still out there in the park, just a bit to the left or the right of the root system of that giant coniferous bush on the corner of the old MacGregor building. Or perhaps it was stored in the basement of the Town Hall and moved to storage when that building was torn down to make room for the CVS. Perhaps after the whirlwind of the 250th weekend, Ben Newell stopped by the Mason’s lodge, where he was a 50 year member, and left the time capsule in a forgotten corner (and left a DaVinci-Code-sized-plot for the rest of us).
Either way, we’ve brought this little treasure hunt as far as we’re able and now we want to hear from you. Swing by our table at Derryfest to look at memorabilia from the 1969 festivities, vote on your favorite missing time capsule theory, and then write your own theory in our book, to be archived in our NH room.
We promise to leave a paper trail.
Erin Moulton Robinson