Digging Up the Past

Fifty-one years ago, duringthe summer of 1961, Mobilians gathered at Ernest F. Ladd Memorial Stadium for six nights of revelry. They sang, danced and were feted with parades and pageants. But this was no Mardi Gras celebration. This was something much more important than the annual carnival carousing. It was a salute to the 250th anniversary of the city’s relocation from 27-Mile Bluff, which occurred in 1711.

Never willing to pass up the opportunity for a party, the good people of Mobile pulled out all the stops for the celebration, which lasted several months. Women dressed in antebellum gowns, and men grew out their beards. There were ostentatious parades and lectures on the city’s history. For the big finale, the city hired a professional to produce “a grand climatic pageant of Mobile’s history.” Called “Heritage and Horizons, ” the six-night affair drew thousands to the stadium.

On the final night, June 17, 1961, the anniversary committee buried a time capsule next to the stadium to be opened in 50 years. They filled it with various items of local importance, newspapers, and “letters to the future.” A shiny bronze plaque marked the location of the capsule.

In 2002, the city chose to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the original settlement of Mobile, rather than wait until 2011. So last year’s anniversary of the relocation from 27-Mile Bluff went mostly unheralded. The notable exception was in October when city workers and staff of the History Museum of Mobile gathered to unearth the capsule at what is now Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

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It’s dirty work digging up the past, and occasionally things aren’t quite as grandiloquent as advertised. For generations, both the size and contents of the capsule grew with each retelling. It was reported to be a 12-foot metal tube with thousands of items. Not quite.

The repository for history was actually a 4-foot piece of concrete pipe. Thousands of letters, you say? More like dozens it turns out. Nonetheless, items in the capsule serve as a window into a Mobile, and a nation, that in many respects no longer exists.

A great deal of the chosen printed material reveals the persistent anxieties over the ongoing Cold War. Copies of the Mobile Press-Register carry ominous headlines about ever-looming Soviet threat. Letters from national leaders reflect their concern on the topic as well. Mobile Congressman Frank W. Boykin wrote of the nation’s “grave problems, both foreign and domestic.” Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower penned the hope: “Let us pray that when this time capsule is opened … all Americans shall be living in a world of peace with justice and liberty for all.”

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson contributed perhaps the most prophetic letter of all: “When the time capsule is opened, enough years will have gone by to have produced the answers to so many of the problems and controversies which we, in 1961, cannot see clearly.”

Johnson went on to say that we, of course, would confront our own difficulties, likely far different from those 50 years ago. The soon-to-be president was right on both accounts.  Letters from Mobilians were, for the most part, both more hopeful and personal in nature.

Margaret Overmeyer composed a message to Claire and Marie Holt, her grandchildren living in Meridian, Miss. “When you read this in 2011, you will probably have grandchildren of your own. I could ask nothing more than that they bring you as much happiness as you have given to your grandfather and me.”

Delia Gordon Dodd’s letter to her grandson, Donald, tells him about the grandfather he never knew. “He was rather a wonderful person and would have loved you so much had he lived to know you. I have a feeling you will grow up with some of his splendid characteristics.”

Others, like Randall Hollinger, were more pragmatic than poetic: “Hope I’m still around!”

Several letters included hopes for the Azalea City’s future. “Please keep Mobile the best place to be, ” wrote local M.J. Cook as a request to his then unborn grandchildren.

Consider all that has changed in Mobile since 1961. When the capsule was buried, Brookley Field was the city’s largest employer. The University of South Alabama did not exist. A three-man commission governed the city, and Mobile, like most Southern cities, still had a slate of segregation ordinances on the books.

Fifty years later, the jobs at Brookley Field are a distant memory, and the upstart University of South Alabama is a major economic contributor to the area. Since 1985, the city has been ruled by a districted city council, and the halls of government have been opened to both African-Americans and women. Mobile has become larger geographically and more ethnically diverse.

Above Left The 250th celebration kicked off in 1961 at Senior Bowl halftime ceremonies. The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library / USA Archives Top Right Former U.S. President Harry S. Truman contributed a letter for the time capsule. History museum of Mobile Above Right Henry Luscher Sr., mayor of Mobile in 1961, is seen here wearing his 250th anniversary tie. A similar version was found in the time capsule. The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library / USA Archives

Grand Opening

Of the many people gathered to watch the opening, perhaps no one was more concerned than David Berthaume. Fifty years earlier, his father, Arnold, a chemical engineer at Brookley Field, had constructed the capsule. His father, who died a few years ago, always told him, “If they dig it up and it’s a pile of mush, just walk away.” But Arnold Berthaume knew what he was doing. His son beamed as the museum staff pulled the mostly-intact contents from it. 

The contents of the time capsule will soon be on display in a special exhibit located in the lobby of Mobile’s Government Plaza. Afterwards, the artifacts will become part of the History Museum of Mobile’s permanent collection.


Scotty E. Kirkland

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