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1920’s history lesson

OHS Time capsule, 1920, high school, owatonna, 2024
It was all smiles during the opening of the time capsule found in the 1920 cornerstone of the former Owatonna High School building. From left are school board member Elizabeth Hedlund, OHS Principal Kory Kath, school board member Eric Schuster, director of facilities Bob Olson, and school board member Lori Weisenburger. Staff photo by Kay Fate
Officials unveil time capsule from old high school
Kay Fate, Staff Writer

Bob Olson had the most exciting – and simultaneously nerve-wracking – job when it came to the time capsule from the 1920 Owatonna High School.

The director of facilities, infrastructure, and security for the Owatonna Public Schools, Olson was tasked with opening the 103-year-old metal box found inside the former OHS cornerstone.

About the size of a shoebox, the time capsule was designed to last every bit of 100 years, preserving the fragile items tucked away.

“They riveted it,” Olson said of the builder, “then soldered it all the way around. I used a drill, then tin snips, because I didn’t want to get it too hot – and burn everything up inside.”

So the morning of April 22, hours before it was to be opened prior to the regular Owatonna School Board meeting, Olson drilled holes along the side, then cut a little piece out in an attempt to speed up the public unveiling.

“I’m going to finish opening it here,” he told the crowd gathered inside the chambers of the Charles S. Crandall Center at city hall.

He worked for a few more minutes before bending back the lid to expose the contents.

“There’s some 100-year-old dust,” Olson said, brushing aside some debris.

Inside were copies of The Blooming Prairie Times, the Daily People’s Press, and the Owatonna Journal Chronicle.

There was also a financial statement for the city, bylaws of the fire department and every church in town and lists of clubs and organizations and their members.

The time capsule also held catalogs from Pillsbury Academy and Jostens Manufacturing; financial statements of all county banks; bylaws of the Owatonna Country Club; and coins of 1920: a penny, nickel, dime, quarter, and 50-cent piece.

Perhaps most valuable was the typed roster of contents that was placed on top of it all, compiled by Miss Virginia Woodard and dated Sept. 30, 1920.

“This is a historic event for our community, and certainly for our school district,” Superintendent Jeff Elstad said prior to the opening.

“You know, 104 years ago, probably a group of radical community members decided they wanted to build a high school in the middle of a field. And they did,” he said.

“When we think about the pioneers that they were, and the visionaries about what they thought would be great for our community – because the original Owatonna High School served this community for 103 years. It was a beautiful building, beautiful architecture.”

But at some point, Elstad continued, they had probably also thought of their former high school – the most recent of which had burned down – and decided, “it’s time for us to do something different.”

“All of you here were those pioneers as well in the year 2019, when you said yes to a bond referendum,” he said. “The radical people who wanted to build a high school out in the middle of a field. And they did just that.”

Principal Kory Kath told the crowd that “Owatonna High School has a rich history; that history has spanned multiple buildings and multiple spaces of learning, and so many faces. I think it’s going to be very exciting to see those things emerge in what was collected in this time capsule.”

The documents were in incredibly good shape; aside from some yellowing, there was very little crumbling of the 100-year-old paperwork.

“As a proud Owatonnan and a graduate of Owatonna High School, as we watched the existing high school come down, it was both exciting and sad,” said Mark Sebring, president of the school board.

“It was so important to those of us who walked those halls and graduated from there,” he said. “But it was really exciting the day my phone rang, and Bob Olson said, ‘hey, you’re not going to believe this, but they found the time capsule in one of the footings of one of the pillars of the old high school.’”

The next step, Elstad said, “is identifying which of these documents have direct ties to the school district, and we’ll be curating them.”

The Steele County Historical Society will use the items that relate directly to the city and county for their collection.

“The OPS Museum Committee and SCHS are committed to making sure that this history stays alive,” Kath said. “They’ll help us preserve this and make sure it’s on display for all of our community.”

One thing that appeals to both the city and the school district is the April 19, 1920, copy of The Magnet, the school’s newspaper.

The headline for the top story read, “Big Stride in Owatonna Educational Progress: City Votes $250,000 in Bonds for the New High School.”

The enrollment at OHS in late September 1920 was 327 students; there are more than 1,500 students at OHS today.

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