Gaye LeBaron: To be timeless, a time capsule needs certain essentials

From left, Santa Rosa city workers Chris Jensen, Garth Stedman and Kent Lantz dig out a time capsule from Old Courthouse Square, Feb. 1, 2018 in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2018


There were a dozen or so curious scholars (which is a redundancy because if you aren’t curious, you aren’t a scholar), a couple of city officials past and present, and the usual hang-arounds from the press in the anthropology collections room at Sonoma State University, looking on expectantly as the lid of the 50-year-old time capsule containing all of Santa Rosa’s secrets was pried open.

What they found was a message from the past – literally – saying: “Do not remove contents for 72 hours.”

This was Tuesday. A new gathering was promptly planned for Saturday.

Now, I am not a Saturday writer, therefore I can’t tell you that I held a copy of the 1968 General Plan in my hands or gazed at the precious text of a speech made by the manager of the Chamber of Commerce. The whole truth of the Courthouse Square time capsule will be reported by others.

But, along with the wait-don’t-touch note there was a list of the capsule contents, slightly damp from 50 gloomy years underground beneath a bunya-bunya tree on the Third Street side of the square.

Those of us who were there in 1968 when the capsules, including one meant to be opened in 2068 (and 72 hours?) were buried already had a vague idea, eroded by 50 years of remembering.

It was never a secret. The content list had been reported by a “cub” reporter for The Press Democrat named Pete Golis. (I don’t think he looks that old. Do you?)

* * *

DESIGNED TO explain to future generations what kind of town this was in 1968, the capsule was buried 50 years ago next month in the historical center of Santa Rosa as part of a centennial celebration of the town becoming, officially, a city — as well as 14 earlier years of false starts and political maneuvering to establish a proper town and become the county seat.

This orchestrated look back at Santa Rosa’s beginnings piqued my curiosity. A trip to the archive at the Schulz Library turned up an 1867 newspaper story about the city fathers’ desire to decide how to use their share of road tax money collected by the county. In order to do this, they had to ask the state for a city charter and elect their own governing body, freeing road tax and other government issue from the purse strings of the Board of Supervisors.

Thus, the official request to the State to become a charter city, which was granted the following March, just behind Healdsburg and several years after Petaluma.

Santa Rosa had a population of about 900 at the time and those citizens were eager for civic improvement. It was reported that “Petaluma was still larger but not for long.”

The first important council action, Ordinance No. 1, had to do with the control of “animals at large,” identified as “wild cattle, hogs and vicious dogs.”

A riffle through Dee Blackman’s index of the early newspapers turns up the warning: “Persons having hogs or cattle running at large in the corporate limits of Santa Rosa had better look to them at once. Ordinances are to be rigorously enforced.”

* * *

WE ARE coming on 150 years and the streets seem relatively free of cattle and hogs. And we will all have a chance to see the contents of the time capsule from 1968, once it is removed with proper scientific respect. Everything that comes out whole will be displayed all summer long at the Museum of History (the old Post Office to you, Pete, and all the other “old folks”) starting at noon March 24 with a 2 p.m. reception.

Perhaps the most important archaeological bit of business in there is the specially-made container with 200 negatives, half black-and-white, half color, showing views of Santa Rosa. They were taken by architectural photographer Don Meacham and packed away in a vessel devised by Optical Coating Laboratory. Meacham considered it an experiment to see if Kodak negatives could survive underground for 50 years. (Ironically, Kodak as we knew it in ’68 has not survived.)

Visitors to the exhibit are going to find, if the contents haven’t crumbled, molded or disintegrated, a collection of official documents that would gladden the heart of the most austere policy wonk.

If the city had been completely destroyed by another earthquake, dare-we-say fire or a cataclysm-to-be-named, everything is there that is necessary to re-establish the government as it was to that point:

An Act of Incorporation for the town and description of the original township from 1850; charters, proclamations, a copy of the general plan, maps, a deed to the square, an industrial survey, a chamber of commerce brochure, a “Believe It or Not” cartoon in tribute to native son Robert Ripley (but nothing on the list about Luther Burbank), the city budget for 1968-69 (THAT will make good reading!), and something from the Masons and the Church of the Incarnation, which was 100 years old that year.

There are congratulatory messages from President Lyndon Johnson and Gov. Ronald Reagan, lots of transcripts of speeches given on and around the centennial event, including the keynote by Appellate Court Associate Justice Joseph Rattigan and an address the previous day to business leaders by U.S. Rep. Don Clausen; copies of The Press Democrat with the story of the celebration and, from the wider world, a current issue of U.S. News and World Report.

Oh yeah, and at the bottom of the list we find campaign cards from Councilmen Charles DeMeo and James Groom, who were running for re-election, business cards from Dan Galvin, Bill Pedersen and Mike Panas and, in what looks like a burst of spontaneity, a Master Charge card belonging to Mayor Hugh Codding.

I expect it has expired. I mentioned it to his widow. She wanted to know what the limit was.

* * *

BUT IF you expect to learn what life was like in Santa Rosa in 1968, some essentials are missing.

We coulda-shoulda included a pink Rosenberg’s box or bag, a city map with red circles around every service station in the city limits – with the brand names – green circles around every home-owned drug store and blue ones around the family-owned markets. The brilliance of it all would shock the shoppers of today.

And if it had been buried a couple of years later there could have been room keys, bar napkins, hand towels or anything at all that came from either the Occidental or Santa Rosa hotels, a photo of Sam Levin’s hardware store, a sales slip from Keegan Bros. or Lou’s Sporting Goods, or anything else from the blocks of business district that disappeared as a result of the October ’69 earthquake. (What IS it about Octobers here?)

That very year they could have put in a burger wrapper from Eat ’n Run or a menu from the Topaz Room. Maybe a Slinky from Hal’s Toyville in the Village or some Silly Putty from Toy and Model on Fourth and a pizza menu from Johnny & Red’s.

Make your own list. It will be like a game of History Jeopardy, a proper title because we have no idea what jeopardy lies ahead.

That may be a good thing.