St. Leo alumnae dig for time capsules
For two hours last Thursday morning, July 20, four people dug for memories on the grounds of the old St. Leo School on North Main at Elm Street. Two of them, Sarah Kesten and Melissa Wells-Strauss, were St. Leo alumnae. They were joined by Kesten's son, Ethan, and James Phelps, who brought two metal detectors and shovels and gloves for all. They began at 9 a.m., before the day grew too hot, and were able to work in the shade at first. Sarah Kesten said she'd been to the site a month or so before and saw Phelps waving his metal detector around. She asked him what he was doing - then, remembering the time capsule her fourth-grade class had buried in the 1981-82 school year, asked if he could help find it. Phelps said he'd gotten permission for the first search from Jack Kain, one of the then-owners of the property. (Kain and two other investors, Fred Seitz and Tim Cambron, sold the property to the city of Versailles for what they'd paid for it a few weeks later.) Phelps said the day he met Kesten, he found $26 in change and, in a corner by a privacy fence, a small flat button with inscription that later research showed was at least 180 years old. "So you know, every day we walk across history and we've eradicated so much of it with bulldozers and backhoes and progress, which is just part of what we do. That's one reason I like to use a metal detector, because once in a while, you can rescue a small piece of that," Phelps said. What he hoped to help them find on his second search was far more valuable. "(Sarah) told me all of her classmates had written letters and put them in a time capsule, but then she said that some of (the classmates) had passed away since then. And so I kept thinking about how much it would mean to the parents to have those letters ..." Phelps said. Phelps said he'd be glad to help. After the property changed hands, he got permission to get on the property from Versailles Mayor Brian Traugott, who opened the gates and stood by during most of the dig. Around 9:30 a.m., a shovel struck something hard on a grassy stretch near Elm Street. It was an old, brown brick. They kept digging. Every 15 minutes or so, Phelps and Ethan Kesten moved metal detectors around the area where the flagpole once stood, hoping for pings and getting a few. They knew they were looking for at least two time capsules. Wells-Strauss remembered burying one in the fall of 1987, when she was in sixth grade at St. Leo's. She'd already posted messages on a Facebook page for St. Leo's alumni, asking for tips and anecdotes. "I remember the ceremony. Miss Snipp was our sixth-grade teacher. She remembers ... and she does recall that we did it around the flagpole," Wells-Strauss said. "Now, we're doing a debate on whether the flagpole was there or right here, but I do remember, we had a little ceremony, we put all our stuff in it and we buried it." After an hour or so, Traugott tried to relieve the tension. "It's kind of like Al Capone's vault, isn't it?" he said, referring to the infamous Geraldo Rivera television special in which the mobster's vault was opened, after much ado, to reveal ... nothing. Wells-Strauss asked Traugott if they didn't find the time capsules, whether the city would take measures to save them during further excavations. Traugott said he'd ask workers to make sure they only dig six or 12 inches at a time. An onlooker joked, "If you let them (Kesten and company) go long enough, they may do it for you." "There's no telling how many times a class buried something out here," Traugott said. A few minutes later, they found another brick. This one was gray. For Kesten and Wells-Strauss, the work brought back memories of their school days. "This used to be the side that the boys played on, and the girls played in the back, because we were separated as children to play. And it's nice," Wells-Strauss said. "I miss walking across (Main Street) to the church to go to church. That's what we used to do. The sisters' house is gone, which is depressing." So was the fact that no one knew of what material the capsules were composed. "I kind of suspect they're made out of plastic, because it needed to be something that would seal. And if there are only letters in it, we're probably not going to find it with a metal detector," Phelps said. A metal detector pinged and Phelps dug carefully. He found a piece of rebar. "Well, I thought we might get lucky," he said, wiping sweat from his forehead. Kesten said she also didn't know how deeply the time capsules were buried. "I'm almost 45 years old, and this was 35 years ago. I didn't even remember the flagpole part. I thought they were over there, next to the sisters' house," she said. After two hours, countless turns of shovels and several gallons of sweat, the crew of four called it a day. Wells-Strauss said she was a little disappointed, "Because I was hoping for at least one time capsule. To not find one of them was a little heartbreaking." Since then, she's posted photos of the dig on the St. Leo's Alumni page and spoken with school officials. She said another search may be scheduled soon and that school officials may join them. They'd long since decided they were looking for more than old essays about what the students wanted to be when they grew up. Kesten said three of her classmates have died since their days at St. Leo, one of them recently, and Phelps said again that they were a large part of the reason he was helping. "I'd love to find them for those parents whose kids have passed away, because there's a lot of memories, a lot of emotion that goes with that. So I think it would mean a lot to them. I don't know if we can," he said.