Messenger - Vol. 1, No. 2, Page 31
Winter 1992
The case of the missing capsule
     It sounds like an old Nancy Drew mystery-an intrepid, young woman
detective follows a trail of tantalizing clues to locate the elusive,
mysterious time capsule. And, as always happens in the last chapter of
the Nancy Drew mysteries, after unexpected twists and turns, the
mystery is solved by diligent detective work and a certain amount of
     In this case, the detective was Allison Wehr-Elterich, Delaware
'88, a graduate student in the Center for Historic Architecture and
Engineering of the College of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. The
object of her quest was a time capsule that she suspected was
somewhere in the Old County Building in Dover.
     The search began last summer. An art history graduate,
Wehr-Elterich accepted an internship at the state museums and historic
sites bureau to fulfill a requirement for the University's Museum
Studies Program.
     Her project was researching old jails in and about the Green in
Dover. One jail, built in 1871, was dynamited in 1931, and in the
debris, a box turned up. A time capsule of sorts, the box was personal
in nature and contained a variety of objects, from advertisements for
a dentist and a grist mill, to samples of printing and a billfold.
There was also a letter written by Henry Todd, a Dover surveyor,
giving a personal view of history and his own experiences.
     The Old County Building was moved to the site of this jail in the
'30s to make room for a road. In researching the buildings,
Wehr-Elterich discovered, coincidentally, that both buildings had the
same architect, Alonzo H. Reynolds of Port Deposit, Md.
     She discussed her research with local historians, and a few of
them mentioned that a time capsule might have been placed in the Old
County Building as well as the old jail. When she consulted Thomas
Scharf's History of Delaware, published in 1888, there was further
     Scharf wrote: "A metallic box was placed in a corner-stone in the
southwest corner of the base of the second story, containing a copy of
all the newspapers of the state, names of the Levy Court
commissioners, names of all state and county officers, population of
Dover and various other things."
     The paper chase was on for Wehr-Elterich. She believed the
capsule and enclosed papers and documents were somewhere in the
building, although not where Scharf indicated, and that a thorough
search should be made.
     The Old County Building was being renovated as the Sewell C.
Biggs Museum, and this presented an opportunity not to be missed.
Wehr-Elterich sent a memo to the museum staff, stating "I believe it
is important to investigate the possibility of finding these
documents, which would be 133 years old" and pointing out that since
the building was in a stripped condition, the work would cost only "a
little time and muscle."
     The museum staff agreed that the search was worthwhile and
suggested asking the Dover police to help, using metal detectors.
Again Wehr-Elterich's search was frustrated. Iron, as well as brick,
was used in the construction of the building, and the standard metal
detectors went off constantly.
     So, Officer David Pallam's personal, more sophisticated detector,
one he uses in his hobby of looking for old artifacts, was brought
into the search.
     Proving the old adage, "if anything can go wrong, it will," on
the day the search was planned, Wehr-Elterich's car broke down. "I
just left my husband with the car, jumped out and ran the two miles to
the Old County Building," she recalls.
     She arrived in time to witness the successful end of her quest.
The box was not located in the bottom of the second story, but about
seven feet up from the floor. As parts of the bricks were chipped
away, the bread box-size container came into sight and gave a hollow
sound when struck.
     The box could not be removed instantly because the walls first
had to be shored up. Once removed, the box was X-rayed at Dover Air
Force Base. By this time, the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration entered the picture because inspection at first showed
the box to be air-tight. NASA took samples of the air to compare with
air today. However, when the box was opened revealing some silverfish,
it was determined there had in fact been a leak.
     The box was laid in the building on Sept. 10, 1858, by the Kent
County Levy Court commissioners. The year was "distinguished above all
others of the present century" by the completion of the laying of the
electric telegraph between Ireland and Newfoundland, they wrote. The
document continued: "Through the favor of Almighty God, the United
States of America are at peace with all the world, and their existence
as a Nation in the original form projected by those who achieved their
Independence, furnished to the other Nations of the Globe satisfactory
evidence of the capacity of Man for self-government."
     Among the historical artifacts in the box were a unique census of
Dover, population 1,140; some uncut Delaware shilling notes from 1776,
bearing the warning, "To counterfeit is death"; several newspapers
from Delaware, Philadelphia and New York; Delaware Railroad Co.
memorabilia; a list of state and county officers; obituary addresses
for John M. Clayton, the U.S. Secretary of State from Delaware; and a
business card for Richardson and Robbins, a stove company that
probably made the metal box.
     Wehr-Elterich says she hopes to include an interpretation of some
of the capsule's memorabilia in her master's thesis.
     As for the time capsule and its contents, they will eventually be
displayed in the Sewell C. Biggs Museum, in the new visitors' area of
the building, close to their dwelling- and hiding-place for so many
     -Sue Swyers Moncure