Buried in Time

By Meg Pengue’12

A Hamilton Literary Monthly, course catalogues, and a printing block. These are among the artifacts resurrected from the Hamilton College class of 1871 time capsule. September 15, 2011 marked the first time in 140 years that the memories most prized by the class of 1871 were unveiled for eyes to see.

We must take a step back to June of 1871 to imagine the day this group of men buried their memories of college life in a time capsule beneath the sapling of an elm tree.The class of 1871 consisted of approximately fifty seniors who weathered four years of education and impressionable youth during what are now referred to as “The Doldrums” – when Hamilton’s budget ran at a deficit for over twenty years. President Brown (1866-81) governed a student body that returned to the Hill fresh off the heels of the Civil War and the recent assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Despite the national unrest, college life on the Hill continued with the routine grind of recitation and chapel meetings. On campus, the boys of 1871 saw the founding of Theta Delta Chi, although no fraternity houses dotted the landscape until the early 1980s. Boys handled a rigid course load including Greek, Latin, and Mathematics. By their senior year, they had the exciting options of Metaphysics, Commentaries on English Law, and Moral Philosophy.

Following in the footsteps of the graduates before them, the men celebrated their ensuing commencement with Tree Day, a tradition now foreign to the campus. Tree Day, a custom that dated back to 1856, offered each senior class an opportunity to leave to their alma mater mementos from their four years on campus.

Each June, it was customary for the senior class to gather outside on the same afternoon the Clark Prize was awarded for public speaking. The whole school would attend to watch a tree planted and marked with a boulder bearing the class motto – always in Greek – and graduation year.
In time, copper or lead boxes containing class and college records were buried beneath the stones. Each member of the class would take turns picking up the shovel and pouring the earth over their college remains. Fifty years later, whoever remained of the class would reunite on the Hill to resurrect their time capsule and reminisce.

The tradition remained in place through the late 19th century until the Hamilton quad began to resemble a graveyard littered with stones of varying shapes and size. In 1925, Elihu Root organized the removal of most of the trees and relocation of the class stones. It was not until 1978 that Leigh Keno’79 discovered most of the stones discarded in the field behind the cemetery. Keno arranged for the stones to be relocated to the space next to Minor Theater and Bristol Center where they remain today.
Today, as we walk the very same paths as the 200 classes before us, we continue to bear witness to this lost Hamilton tradition. Stone monuments still scatter our campus and preserve the mysteries and secrets hidden within.

What was the intent of these memorials left behind? The tradition gave the men the opportunity to draw to a close one chapter of their lives and prepare for the opening of a new world.
The school’s bicentennial has provided an opportunity to reflect on our rich history. However, much of our great institution’s past is still unclear. Time capsules serve as sacred reminders of a forgotten age. While we have recovered many, there are potentially dozens of these time capsules still hidden below the ground we walk across every day.

Time capsules and their contents can be found in the “Time Capsules and Cornerstones” exhibition in Emerson Gallery through December 16, 2011.