College of LAS « Illinois

Cover Story

The Natural History Building: ‘One Glance into the Beautiful Land of the Past’

Renovation of NHB unveils a forgotten time capsule.

NHB dedication

Amid the excitement about the future of the Natural History Building, there’s more reason to be intrigued by its past. Before the renovation began, architects discovered the existence of a copper box filled with items that were ceremoniously preserved within the northeast corner of the building’s foundation some 122 years ago.

No decision has been made yet whether to extract the box, but records of the March 9, 1892, cornerstone ceremony on file at the University of Illinois Archives provide clues of its contents. It contains documents, coins, newspapers, a letter, and other things, including, mysteriously, the photo of a young woman whose significance is unexplained.

Her name, “Besse” Wilder, shows up on a handwritten note of the box’s contents, and through a process of elimination using student records, Archives staff have concluded that she is Elizabeth Cutler Wilder, a Champaign, Ill., native who studied English and modern languages at Illinois in the early 1890s but did not graduate. The reason her photo was selected for the time capsule is unknown.

According to a story in the Illini (later named the Daily Illini), the cornerstone ceremony was well attended, filling a chapel near the future site of the Natural History Building. The board of trustees, faculty, and others were on hand as the University band provided music. Dr. T.C. Chamberlain, president of the State University of Wisconsin, delivered a speech called “The Moral Influence of Scientific Study.”

The man in charge of presenting the box was James H. Brownlee, a charismatic and beloved professor of oratory and rhetoric who was a Kansan drill sergeant during the Civil War, and wounded in action. He was also serving as mayor of Urbana, Ill., at the time of the ceremony. (See more about Brownlee in the following story.)

According to the account in the Illini, his letter for the box reads as follows:

“To him that shall read these lines, greeting: I, James H. Brownlee, of the University, write to say that you will do well to avoid the error of believing that the past time was devoid of light, sweetness, and joy. You are cheered by many comforts we did not have, but you cannot enjoy your work more than we did ours. When you read these lines the hand that wrote them will long since have crumbled into dust. Vouchsafe, then, one glance into the beautiful land of the past, and drop a tear for your dead correspondent, James H. Brownlee.”

Contents of the Cornerstone Capsule

According to records on file at the University of Illinois Archives, contents of the box embedded in the foundation of the Natural History Building include:

  • University of Illinois Catalogue, 1890-91
  • Laws of the U.S. and Illinois pertaining to the University
  • Roster of Military Battalion
  • Program of Exercises
  • Copies of Herald, Gazette, and Quincy newspapers*
  • Illini from January 16, 1892
  • Rules for government of students
  • 50-cent and 10-cent coins dated 1892
  • Picture of Besse Wilder
  • Three circulars of the University of Illinois

*The exact newspapers are unclear from the listing. In 1892, these area publications existed: Quincy Daily Herald, Quincy Daily Journal, Champaign Daily Gazette.

> Read about the renovation of NHB.

> Read about the people of the time capsule.

By Dave Evensen
Winter 2015