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Ghosts of students past: Time capsule from 1957 discovered at Hamilton Middle School

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Time capsule at Hamilton

Hamilton Middle School sixth-graders, from left, Michael Horvath, Lily Hoke and Lily Bresette peruse items retrieved from a 1957 time capsule recently discovered by construction crews working at the Madison school.

Students at Hamilton Middle School got an unexpected history lesson after workers remodeling the school discovered a time capsule from 1957 behind a cafeteria wall.

In a metal container slightly larger than a cereal box, newspapers, course guides, photographs, classroom rosters, a Bible and other materials gave students, staff and faculty at the Madison middle school insight into the values, people and news of the late 1950s.

Construction workers discovered the capsule last month while working on an addition to the West Side school building, which also houses Van Hise Elementary, Assistant Principal Mike Brown said.

“All of a sudden, they came in and had this box in hand,” Brown said.

Located behind a cornerstone of the cafeteria, the capsule had gone largely forgotten until a former student in his 60s tipped off Brown about its existence, he said. The man, who lives in Colorado, noticed the school was under construction and came in to inquire about the capsule, Brown said.

Acting on that tip, Brown said he planned to devise a program to formally unveil the time capsule. But workers building a new library stumbled across the metal box sooner than expected.

Time capsule at Hamilton

Hamilton Middle School assistant principal Mike Brown examines items from a 1957 time capsule including class lists, newspapers, course guides and a Bible.

Earlier this month, students revealed the contents of the 58-year-old container for their Hawk TV news program, which will air throughout the school sometime in January.

Bob Wiedholz, a sixth-grade social studies, math and reading teacher, led the class that opened the capsule. Students volunteered to take items out and show them to the camera, including a copy of the Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times from Oct. 25, 1957.

Michael Horvath, 12, said he was really excited about the capsule because he got to open the partially sealed box, after construction workers had started the process, with a wire cutter in front of the class.

Another student present during the unveiling, 11-year-old Lily Hoke, said that after weeks of the box sitting in the classroom, she was interested to see what it held.

“I was kind of surprised they didn’t write a letter,” Hoke said. “I thought it might explain some of the stuff, but I thought it was a good idea to put in newspapers, because then you could see about the current events going on.”

The children said they would have liked to see more items not related to the school, which was called Charles R. Van Hise School when first built. That name now refers specifically to the elementary school.

Eventually, Brown said he would like to see a display made, explaining the items in the capsule and preserving them for future students to appreciate.

Another capsule yet to be uncovered

Brown said he recently learned about another time capsule, this one from 1989, buried on school property.

After speaking with his father-in-law, who was the principal around that time, Brown said he found out the relic lies under an “out-of-place” cement slab in the back of the building.

Construction contractors dug 3 to 4 feet down after moving the concrete marker, looking for a similar container, Brown said, but with no luck.

“I grabbed a shovel with the custodian and widened the hole out to make sure it wasn’t something like” the capsule from 1957, Brown said.

Peg Guse, a physical education teacher who started working at the middle school in 1989, contacted some people involved in the capsule’s burial. They told her the box was made out of treated plywood, sealed with tar and placed about 6 feet below ground.

Guse said she knew some of the box’s contents, but to maintain the surprise, she said she thought it best not to share. But that hasn’t stopped some from guessing.

Hoke, the sixth-grader who saw the 1957 capsule opened, mocked 1980s fashion trends and joked that the container probably held hairspray in it.

People will not know for certain until 2039, though. Brown said a plaque, which had corroded off the cement marker, was found in a boiler room, instructing that the capsule not be opened until then.

In respecting the original intentions, he said the plaque will be put back on display, and the search for the box will be put on hold until then.

A piece of here and now

The pair of time capsules has inspired current students, and the school plans to create yet another one. Although no timeline or details have been decided, Brown said he would like students and teachers to collaborate on ideas for what should go in the container.

Students already have thoughts of what to include.

Horvath, the student who opened the 1957 container, said he would like to see something sports-related, specifically relating to the Green Bay Packers or University of Wisconsin Badgers.

“I would like to include artwork,” said 12-year-old Lily Bresette. “They didn’t add that, and I think that’s like a really big part of our school.”

Hoke said an electronic device, such as a computer, to store photos and other information would be a good idea.

Brown said he is not sure where the school would place the capsule, but he said he would like to see it opened in 2039, the same year the 1989 box is due to be opened.

That way, students could compare life in Madison, and at Hamilton and Van Hise, through the decades.

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Logan Wroge has been a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal since 2015.