David Thompson built the Malta Avenue School — the new high school for the thriving little mill town of Ballston Spa — at the turn of the last century.
He evidently wanted to be remembered for that, but the fact was lost to history until workers renovating what are now the school district offices unexpectedly unearthed a time capsule in the school’s foundation last month.
The 6-by-4-inch copper box planted behind the corner stone in 1899 is much the worse for wear, but a curator at the Brookside Museum has saved the moisture-damaged contents — including painstakingly reconstructing most of a badly fragmented business card Thompson left in the box.
Thompson also included two pennies, three local daily newspapers from Nov. 8, 1899, and a letter so damaged the experts at Brookside haven’t been able to open it to read.
“We’re afraid it might crumble,” said Joy Houle, director of the museum, which is home to the Saratoga County Historical Society.
Workers struck upon the copper box in September. The school immediately called in the museum, where curator Kathleen Coleman has spent weeks preserving the contents.
“Each item in this buried treasure was meant to tell us a story about that time,” Houle said. “And for us, trying to discover that story so that we can retell it is one of the reasons we exist.”
The newspapers of that last Nov. 8 of the 19th century — the Daily Saratogian, the Ballston Spa Daily News and the Ballston Spa Daily Journal — are perhaps more interesting for their ads than for the news. In the news, the Republican Party had swept the local elections — if you can image that happening in Saratoga County.
The ads, though, tell a little bit about a time before we turned a dial to get warm or saw obesity as an enemy.
“BE PATIENT” pleads an ad from C.W. Edee, who apparently owned tenements for lease. “If our many customers who have not received their coal yet will be patient we will get around to them as soon as possible. Coal cars and [sic] scarce an [sic] consequently coal is coming in slow.”
Another advertisement suggests how differently nutrition and body image issues were.
“WASTING,” is the headline of an ad for Scott’s Emulsion. “Are you nervous, restless, pale and easily tired? Perhaps the scales can tell you why. If your weight is below your average, that explains it.”
Scott’s Emulsion is a “fat-producing food,” the ad copy continues. “You soon begin to gain and you keep on gaining long after you stop taking it. For all wasting diseases, in both young and old, it is the one standard remedy.”
Thompson, who came to Ballston
Spa from Ticonderoga about 1866, also helped build some of George West’s Union Bag & Paper Co. mill, and was described at his death in 1904 as “one of the leading and influential citizens of this village.”
His rather public death — he suffered what the paper called a “stroke of paralysis” at midday at the Medbery hotel — earned a major write-up in that evening’s paper.
The newspapers and other items found in the time capsule will be kept in Brookside’s permanent collection. Plans for a temporary display at the museum are in the works.
The materials are also likely to be on display when the school — closed for the year because of the renovations — re-opens in September 2014.
“We live for this stuff,” Houle told the Ballston Spa Central School District Board of Education.
Meanwhile, the museum is working on preserving some of what’s happening today for the future — it is collecting interviews being done by local high school students with people who have recently immigrated to Saratoga County from other countries. Many of the new immigrants are associated with GlobalFoundries and other high-tech companies.
While the southern and eastern European immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries were sought by employers for their strong backs and work ethics, the new generation is known more for their strong minds — and their strong work ethic.
The interviews are being videotaped and will be saved for future viewers at Brookside.
“It’s sort of a time capsule for the future,” remarked Peter Bardunias, president of the Chamber of Southern Saratoga County, which is helping with the immigration project.
The Brookside Museum is on Charlton Street, in a 1792 hotel that is one of the oldest buildings in the village.