BICKNELL — From his office at City Hall, Mayor Thomas Estabrook reads aloud letters written by grade school students in 1969.

“Here’s one that talks about the Apollo mission,” Estabrook says. “My favorite astronaut is Alan Shepherd.”

Being able to read and share these 50-year-old letters, Estabrook said, is proof that not all was lost during a recent, and rather disappointing, public opening of a time capsule buried in 1969.

Though much of what was buried in the Bicknell Centennial vault was lost to water damage, some gems — like these children's letters — surprisingly survived intact.

The time capsule vault was unearthed and opened on Sept. 1 during the Bicknell Heritage Festival and the city's 150th anniversary. 

A crowd of hundreds had gathered at Southside Park to see the historic opening and search for long-ago memories and messages from the past. 

But they were left devastated when the vault was opened and water began pouring out; everything was floating in sludge.

A flawed vault sealing method used in the 1960s allowed the burial structure to become waterlogged, ruining most of the contents inside.

The Sexton Wilbert Vault Corp. drained the water onsite and took the vault back to its headquarters in Bloomington. After the capsule dried, employees slowly removed the remaining items caked in mud at the bottom. 

Those items were recently returned to Bicknell, and the arduous task of very carefully sifting through clumps of paper began. 

Estabrook’s own family stepped up to the task. His mother sat often at a folding table in the fire station, gently pulling apart pieces of paper to see what salvageable messages might be revealed.

Back in City Hall, Estabrook points to the neatly organized stacks of dozens of handwritten letters that span half the length of a heavy wooden table. 

“All of these letters written by kids were stuck together between newspaper, and somehow the newspaper and water suctioned around them, preserving them,” the mayor said.

In 1969, first-graders were prompted to speculate about what Bicknell would look like in 2019. They wrote things like, “There will be sidewalks in Bicknell.”

Estabrook laughs, saying, “We had sidewalks fifty years ago.”

Other letters included pictures drawn at the bottom; the colors still so bright the picture could have been drawn yesterday.

While the letters written by school children in 1969 are some of the only items to clearly possess a rightful owner — each has the former students’ first and last names at the top — other unique pieces of Bicknell’s history survived as well.

On one of several folding tables in the firehouse, an odd assortment of items are spread out. There’s a green, inflatable Sinclair gas station dinosaur. A lady’s garter with a centennial button attached sits next to a glass ashtray. Dozens of wooden nickels, marking Bicknell’s Centennial celebration, fill the lid of a cardboard box.

And there are pages of delicate pages of newspaper spread across two tables.

While most of the newspapers placed in the time capsule were ruined, some that survived share stories that range from local wedding announcements to the Kennedy assassination in 1963. 

Those who wrote letters as students in 1969 are welcome to contact City Hall at 812-735-4636 to see if it is one of the many that survived.

For the remainder of the artifacts, Estabrook is planning to construct display cases in City Hall so that all Bicknell residents have access to these pieces of the city’s history.

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