On the early spring evening of April 22, 1913, a large group of Oklahomans gathered in the basement of the First English Lutheran Church to bury history.
The group included Oklahoma Gov. Lee Cruce, and Oklahoma City Mayor Whit Grant, along with church members and other interested citizens.
The program included an invocation by the pastor of the church and baritone and soprano solos from choir members. At the conclusion, the tomblike copper Century Chest was sealed in layers of concrete.
A century later, the Century Chest has been excavated from the church basement and will be opened, revealing its contents, at 10 a.m. Monday at what is now known as First Lutheran Church of Oklahoma City, 1300 N Robinson Ave.
The Century Chest was part of a 1913 fundraising effort by the church to buy a new Mueller pipe organ for its sanctuary. The organ is still in use today.
The intriguing concept of the chest came from Mrs. George G. Sohlberg. As the excitement of the chest heightened, it became a citywide project, and later, a project that involved people from across the state. Sohlberg and then-Rev. Newton Hoyer canvassed Oklahoma City in an early electric car to boost interest.
“That's one of the most amazing aspects of the chest,” said Chad Williams, Oklahoma Historical Society research director. “That they were able to raise the funds and acquire these items in such a short amount of time says a lot about how quickly excitement built.”
Early 20th century technological artifacts
At the time, there was contemplation of what people would think about the items in the chest in the future. Organizers also wondered what people a hundred years earlier in 1813 would have thought of the gadgets they were burying with the chest.
“Those who open the chest 100 years from today, what will be their feelings? Will they look upon the wonders of 1913 as crude?” an editorial in The Daily Oklahoman read.
Williams said contemplation is one of the most intriguing aspects of the Century Chest.
“I was really taken by their thought process,” Williams said. “They talk about having skyscrapers and the telephone. They were wondering what we would think of those things.”
Included in the chest were items that were at the time cutting edge while also foreshadowing gadgets that would be improved upon or invented over the following 100 years and beyond.
“This chest represents what Oklahoma was in 1913,” current First Lutheran pastor Jerry Peterson said.
Some of the items in the chest include:
- Phonograph and three voice recordings: A wonder at the time, tin phonograph records eventually gave way to vinyl. Eight track and cassette tapes later became trendy before they were made obsolete by digital recordings that can be played on devices the size of bottle caps.
- A 1913 Pioneer Telephone: At the time, residential phone service was sparse but growing rapidly. A century later, people can call virtually anywhere in the world on their cellphones while watching video or taking pictures simultaneously.
- Kodak camera: Although no specific model is listed, it is described as the “latest and smallest model” at the time. Many cameras of the time still used plates rather than film. Today, film is used mostly by photography enthusiasts, while most people use postage stamp sized memory cards that can hold thousands of high-resolution images.
Unlikely partners in the project
Included in the Century Chest are numerous American Indian artifacts, including a plate with the seal of the Chickasaw Nation, a message from Victor Locke, chief of the Choctaw tribe, pictures of Quanah Parker and a beaded garter.
While the military conflicts between the U.S. Army and tribes had been over for decades, there was still tension.
“It's amazing the tribes wanted to be involved at all, given what had occurred prior to this period in history,” Williams said. “There were still many who had been alive during the peak of the conflict with the United States government.”
Also included in the chest are numerous documents relating to tribal government. But Williams said Indians at the time likely saw it as a means to ensure those in the future would have a better understanding of their culture.
“They weren't even sure their culture would exist 100 years later,” he said. “They saw it as an opportunity to plant elements of it in the ground and preserve it.”
Caretakers of history
The chest is 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet in depth. Engraved on the outside is the date it is to be opened. Church members took oaths to pass the knowledge of the chest to their descendants who would open it on the appointed day.
Williams said there are no members of the church from that day who are known to be alive, but current members still consider keeping the chest intact as part of their duty to their community.
“The way in which our members have viewed it is we have been basically caretakers of the items buried smack dab in the middle of the basement,” Peterson said. “It makes a big impression. It's a case where they made history then, and we are part of the state history now.”
All of the items in the chest will eventually be displayed at the Oklahoma History Center. They are expected to be well-preserved, but will likely need some tender loving care.
“There is still some conservation that will need to be done,” Williams said. “Some of the documents will likely have been rolled up, and some work will be needed to get those to a point where they can be displayed. But when it's finished it will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see some pretty amazing things.”