College of LAS « Illinois

Cover Story

People of the Time Capsule

What we know (and don’t know) about two people whose memories were preserved within the walls of the Natural History Building.


It’s too early to say if the University of Illinois will even try to open a nearly forgotten, 122-year-old cornerstone box enclosed in the foundation of the Natural History Building, but already its discovery has opened a window on life on campus in the late 19th century. It has also brought life back to one of the most colorful characters of that era—while creating a mystery around another.

Among the contents of the box (a handwritten list was found in the U of I Archives after architects discovered the capsule’s existence through old newspaper clippings) is a photo of “Besse” Wilder, whose significance is not known. 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.

Little else is known about her. Champaign County, Ill., records show that she was the daughter of Charles and Martha Wilder, and we know that on June 13, 1900, she married Louis Dixon Hall, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agriculture at Illinois in 1899 and 1906, respectively. He also served for a while as an assistant professor of animal husbandry at Illinois, though they eventually settled in Washington, D.C., and raised three children, named Dixon, Charles, and Elizabeth.

There is no photo of Ms. Wilder on record—aside from what may be in the cornerstone box—and no record of why her photo was selected for the box. She is not listed in any Illinois alumni directory, except as the wife of Mr. Hall.

Other documents and newspaper blurbs reveal that she was a member of the Young Women’s Christian Association and, later, possibly studied in Natural History Building, but there is no indication why she is the sole person whose image was preserved in the cornerstone.

Much more is known of James H. Brownlee, who was the star of the show on March 9, 1892, when the cornerstone was ceremoniously buried. Records reveal Brownlee as a charismatic professor of rhetoric and oratory who believed in the power of words so strongly that by one firsthand account it saved him from his would-be deathbed.

There were music and speeches the day they buried the cornerstone, but Brownlee was at the center of attention as he presented the items for the copper box. Included among them was a letter to the future he wrote which struck a chord when it was made public.

“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,” the letter read, according to the student newspaper, The Illini. “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.”

People were drawn to Brownlee. He had served in the Civil War, both as a private in the 17th Regiment Kansas Volunteer Infantry and as a drill sergeant for the 10th Regiment Kansas Infantry. He served as superintendent of several school districts prior to arriving on campus in 1885, and by 1891, in addition to his role as professor, he was mayor of Urbana (1891-1893).

He was wildly popular with students, the relationships with whom he cherished for the rest of his life. For years after his departure from Illinois in 1893, Brownlee remained in contact with former students, who invited him to class reunions and even offered to pay his fare and accommodations.

One of the more remarkable stories about Brownlee was retold by his youngest daughter, Mary, who provided the account a half-dozen years after her father died, as the University of Illinois set up a symposium in his honor.

The story occurred prior to his death, when Brownlee was stricken with partial paralysis that his family blamed on an old Civil War wound. Sometime in 1915, when he was just shy of 70, his condition grew so dire that doctors declared he was dying. Brownlee’s breathing became fainter and fainter, Mary recalled in a letter to friends, until his two daughters took his hands at his bedside and implored him not to die.

“He rallied and said, ‘And Pharaoh dressed a dream and behold he stood by a river,’” Mary wrote. “You will probably recognize this as a quotation from Genesis 41-1. He loved that story of Joseph in the King James version and knew it by heart.”

Indeed, with those words Brownlee did rally. He grew stronger by the day, and he lived another nine years.

> Read about the renovation of NHB.

> Read about the time capsule that was discovered in NHB.

By Dave Evensen
Winter 2015