Time Capsules Bring Family Together

Create your own farm collectible with a time capsule.

The last eight steps being paced off.

The last eight steps being paced off.

Photo Courtesy Clell G. Ballard

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People now of retirement age grew up around individuals who lived through the tough times of the Great Depression. That almost decade-long event made such an impression on those people that many of their conversations focused on “doing without” and life changes designed to protect themselves from another occurrence. It is easy to understand why.

My grandmother, widowed in 1925 as a young woman with seven small children, managed to eek out an existence on a dryland farm in Idaho. By 1931 she had saved a few hundred dollars but the bank it was in shut down without warning and she lost it all.

It was not unusual to hear Depression survivors expound on how they would never trust a bank again. That meant that any money they didn’t need immediately had to be stored somewhere else. Today we might think it somewhat humorous that many spoke of putting it in their mattress. A loose brick in the fireplace surround could camouflage a place where cash could be stashed. Burying money in the backyard was also a consideration.

This article has to do with burying something, but it isn’t money and it isn’t in the backyard. Most of you are familiar with time capsules that are buried to be retrieved years later. A recent well-known example of that was a city in Oklahoma that created one in 1957 to be dug up in 2007. When the time capsule was exhumed, it was discovered that the container was not properly sealed and the contents had been ruined. Considerable attention was focused on a 1957 Plymouth Fury automobile. New when interred, it was to be given to the individual (or his descendents) who most closely guessed the city’s population the year the capsule was opened. Unfortunately the water that entered the capsule almost totally destroyed the car.

That sad example should not deter you from doing what I am recommending. You should bury your own family time capsule. Many readers of Farm Collector live in or have ties to rural areas. With a little creativity, you could find a place to bury a capsule so it won’t be disturbed until the predetermined time has elapsed. I know that it is possible because my family has done it. Few things a family can do together compare to the satisfaction that results from such a project.

Laying the groundwork

Anything that is to be buried in the ground for a long period of time must have a super good seal. What you choose will be determined by what you have access to. In our case, we had access to an 81 mm mortar shell case made of plastic with an impressive rubber seal. Industrial plastic is impervious to moisture, and we added an additional silicone seal to the one the case already had. The container’s small size dictated what we put in. A small memento from each family member — the parents and five children — was included along with pictures and news items of the day. The little tube was packed tight.        

An equally important consideration is where to bury a capsule. It needs to be somewhere that it can still be retrieved after the passage of time. That precludes placement inside a building or near a noteworthy tree. Who knows if that building or tree will still exist decades later? Most rural areas have some permanent physical landmark that can be used as a reference point so a special map can be created — almost like a family treasure map! It is best to seek out a high point because such a place will be less likely to be exposed to a lot of ground water. If possible, the site should be at a place where there is no record of human activity occurring. An example might be a rocky corner of a fence row or a little piece of land that has never been farmable. Use your creativity.

How long should you leave it buried? In our case we chose 20 years. In May 1991 we buried our family time capsule on the very top of a mid-sized hill (little or no ground water problem) in an area where there was no nearby civilization. The actual day was our youngest son’s 13th birthday. We wanted to dig the capsule up while the parents were still around so a longer time was rejected. The boy’s birthday was an easy date to remember. A retrieval manual was created and included a hand-drawn map. Every family member received one with the admonition that one or all were responsible for the retrieval 20 years hence.

Fast-forward a bit

You’ll be surprised how quickly time goes by. The year 2011 arrived and all children had married and most lived out of state. Many grandchildren were now part of the family. Assembling them all proved impossible but the parents, four of the five adult children and several older grandchildren made up the capsule retrieval crew. What would we find?

Excitement built as the map’s steps were paced off. Digging began and early on it appeared that we wouldn’t find the capsule, but finally the shovels struck something. Retrieving the small mortar case from the ground where it had lain for 20 years was a dramatic event. Did our treasures survive?

Our preparations had been good and everything was in pristine condition. The grandchildren had some difficulty understanding why the adults were so happy and enthusiastic as they relived a moment in time 20 years earlier. They won’t, however, forget the family gathering they participated in.

A newer and much larger time capsule containing small mementoes from each of 29 family members (the original seven plus spouses and grandchildren) was buried in the same spot as the original. The date for it to be dug up is scheduled for 2031. At that time the grandparents might not be still around and the youngest grandchild will be 20 years old. Whatever happens, you can be sure that family excitement will exist then too.

What better farm collectible could there be than one you and your loved ones create? If you make the effort to assemble and bury a time capsule, its retrieval years later will be a highlight of your family’s history. FC 

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.