Lost then found: A time capsule revealed in Southern Oregon wildfire debris
Southern Oregon residents recently opened a gift from the past: a time capsule discovered in the ashes of the 2020 Almeda Fire.
The time capsule dates to March 13, 1950. That’s when Southern Oregon residents placed the small metal box inside the cornerstone of a new county building near the town of Phoenix.
It was a moment of pride for the community. The structure replaced the 1907 wood-framed Jackson County Poor Farm, which housed some of the county’s most destitute residents.
The county dropped “poor” from the name of the new, more modern building. The Jackson County Farm Home stood for two decades, offering housing and medical care to some of the county’s neediest residents.
By the 1970s, the building found new life serving students as the Phoenix campus of the Southern Oregon Education Service District. The ESD provides support and materials for 13 regional school districts in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties.
As the years passed, memories of the time capsule dimmed and eventually disappeared altogether.
Then, in September 2020, the ESD building was among the thousands of structures lost in the Rogue Valley’s devastating Almeda Fire. The fire destroyed over 2,000 homes and businesses, including whole neighborhoods in Talent and Phoenix.
The community still hasn’t fully recovered.
Treasures lost and found
After the fire, clean-up crews discovered the hidden time capsule, still tucked into the cornerstone of one ruined wall of the ESD building.
In February, Jan Wright of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, local historians and employees displaced from the burned-out Phoenix building joined in person and online at the ESD’s Medford media gallery center for the planned opening.
“I’m shocked that it survived the fire. It’s incredible it didn’t incinerate,” said Wright. Like so many others in the community, Wright lost priceless personal treasures in the Almeda Fire.
The blaze destroyed not only her home but also thousands of images, documents and artifacts from the Talent Historical Society where, at the time, she was director.
“When my house burned down, I thought the metal file cabinets would keep everything safe, and there were just ashes inside of my file cabinet.”
After delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ESD recently decided to open the capsule and invited Wright to attend. She jumped at the chance. “I said, of course, I want to be there,” Wright said.
So did others.
A message from 1950
In the middle of the room sat an 18-inch copper box, dark with scorch marks and smoke stains. Holes from the fire on the box’s sealed lid hinted at what might be inside.
Wright told the crowd that “the big surprise will be whether anything survived the fire or not. I don’t think there is going to be a gold nugget or anything.”
But she stressed that the capsule’s placement in 1950 and discovery after the fire was important. “The impulse to be remembered is what this is all about,” Wright said.
Once the box was cut open, Wright held up each ash-covered item for the onlookers. As predicted, there were no gold nuggets. Instead, it held written documents from the time period, including local newspapers, a 1950 Oregon Blue Book, a levy asking voters to approve the new poor farm building and a typewritten letter from County Commissioner R. R. Lytle.
The letter read in part, “I’m very glad to see the completion of this new building to replace the old wooden one. We hope it will be the means of helping many who are in need of assistance.”
Lytle’s grandchildren, Cynthia Strandberg and Timothy Lytle, happened to be in the audience. They had no idea the letter existed but said they weren’t surprised their grandfather left something for future generations, saying he was always community-minded.
Timothy Lytle recalled his grandfather delivering homemade pies and extra garden vegetables to neighbors because “you never knew who needed it.”
Despite the devastation of the Almeda Fire, the Southern Oregon ESD plans to rebuild on the Phoenix site, as predicted in Commissioner Lytle’s letter from 1950, saying the building should serve the public until “something newer and better is needed and built.”
Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting