SHERIDAN — In August 1812, the Navy frigate Constitution engaged in battle with the British warship Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia during the War of 1812. According to witnesses, shots from the British cannons seemed to bounce off the Constitution, giving it the nickname Old Ironsides and launching it into American naval history.
While the British ship was almost destroyed, the Constitution suffered minimal damage.
According to History.com, it continued in military service until 1855 and then enjoyed a career as a training ship and national landmark. It is today the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat.
Almost 80 years after the war that made it famous, through an unknown connection, a piece of the famed ship was buried in a time capsule box in Sheridan under the town’s first brick school building, Central School, on May 25, 1891.
More than 120 years later, the box and the piece of wood from the ship resurfaced on a shelf in THE Wyoming Room of the Sheridan Fulmer Library.
“Last fall, we were cleaning the back room, moving boxes and making more space for collections and it was sitting on a shelf in the storage room with no label,” said The Wyoming Room Director Judy Slack.
Ironically, Slack knew what the box likely was, as she had been contacted months earlier by Sandy Baird, secretary for Sheridan Masonic Lodge No. 8, asking if she knew about the time capsule.
According to Baird, former Sheridan County Museum Director Nathan Doerr had found an old photograph with local Masons and sent it to former Masonic Grandmaster Jimmy Jon Dunlap for help in identifying the men in the photo and the occasion for which they had gathered. Dunlap searched the group’s archives and found the photo related to the laying of the time capsule, or a cornerstone ceremony, the Masons had conducted.
Official minutes from the ceremony were located in Mason records, which outlined what was contained in the cornerstone box, including two historically significant pieces of wood.
“The time capsule ceremonies are actually Grand Lodge ceremonies,” Baird explained. “Historically, public buildings were often dedicated with a cornerstone ceremony provided by Mason Lodges.”
Slack briefly examined the contents and found that the box contained an assortment of Sheridan-related history including lists of members of the Sheridan Lodge of International Order of Oddfellows, members of the Women’s Relief Corps, a map of Methodist Episcopal churches in the U.S., a list of students and teachers at the school, a list of local and state elected officials, a list of Mason Lodge members and the bylaws of Sheridan Engine and Hose Company No. 1 of the Sheridan Fire Department (including Edward A. Whitney who is listed as an honorary member) and the bylaws of the Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 of the Sheridan Fire Department. The lists contain many familiar names of town fathers, such as Lonabaugh, Loucks, Metz, Alger, Perkins, Thurmond and Henry A. Coffeen, who served as Deputy Grandmaster at the ceremony.
“We have bylaws and membership lists of various organizations in town that we might not have had otherwise and because we are a genealogy library, it is great to have lists of names,” Slack said about the lists.
And the box did in fact include two small pieces of wood, as the Mason minutes suggested. A handwritten note (see left), found on the back of a copy of the bylaws of the Grand Army of the Republic John Schuler Post No. 67, noted that Comrade A. Bishop, quartermaster of the post, donated the two pieces of wood.
One is a piece of the Constitution and the other is a piece of the apple tree at Appomattox where Lee received a letter from Grant in response to a letter he had written the general, requesting a meeting. The tree was subsequently cut down and pieces divvied out to souvenir seekers.
Much is still unknown about the box, including any information about A. Bishop. The school, which stood where the new post office is now, on Loucks between Gould and Scott streets, was torn down in 1929 or 1930, though it is a mystery where the box resided before eventually being given to the library by an unknown person.
Slack said that the box contained a note from previous THE Wyoming Room director and local historian Helen Graham with a copy of an article from the May 30, 1891 Sheridan Enterprise newspaper describing the ceremony and the contents of the capsule when it was buried. The note suggested Graham had looked through the contents and mentioned that some of the items that the newspaper article listed were in the capsule, were not there when she received the box. However, there is no explanation of when the box was given to the library or who donated it.
“It’s very possible somebody had it for several years before they brought it in, likely sometime in the 1970s or 1980s,” said Slack. “We want to know if anyone knows who had it or was the caretaker of it for all those years.”
“The next step we will take is take them out and flatten them, get them in archival sleeves, scan and catalog them,” she added, noting that the sheets will be placed in a container and suspended above a pool of water in order to re-hydrate the frail sheets and make them more pliable. “I would like to put them in a shadow box and get them framed.”
Slack said the documents and pieces of wood will eventually be put on display in THE Wyoming Room for viewing and research. Baird noted that the Masons will provide a cornerstone dedication ceremony, likely in August, for the opening of the new Henry A. Coffeen Elementary School.