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Where did the time (capsule) go? Key West learns some of its history is missing

a man in a blue t-shirt stands by a flagpole at mallory square in key west
Nancy Klingener
Paul Menta is heading up Key West's bicentennial celebrations and is planning to install a granite time capsule, above ground, near the flagpole at Mallory Square.

Key West will celebrate its bicentennial with a time capsule. But locals are learning that an earlier capsule marking the island's 150th anniversary is AWOL.

Key West is celebrating 200 years since the American flag was first raised over the island.

The celebrations include sealing up a time capsule, like these kinds of anniversaries often do.

Paul Menta is chair of the committee for the celebrations. And he started hearing questions about another time capsule — from when the island celebrated its 150th birthday in 1972.

"They were just like, 'Mmm ahhh — do you know where it is?'" Menta said. "And I was like, 'No!'"

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Newspaper stories from the time described it as going into a new development called Old Town Square. Fifty years later, there's no such place. Menta went looking in the area the stories described.

"We're on this corner here at Duval and Front Street and I'm kind of wondering, like, you know, where the hell could it be?" he said.

It turns out that losing track of time capsules is pretty common.

"Sometimes they don't get buried or they get stuck on a shelf somewhere. Often they're put in the ground but they don't mark the spot," said Knute Berger, a writer and historian in Seattle who is a founding member of the International Time Capsule Society and headed up Washington State's centennial time capsule project.

"They run out of money for the plaque, or they just never get around to putting it in because the ceremony's over and everybody forgets. The person in charge of the project quits, and pretty soon nobody remembers where it was," he said.

a newspaper story describing the time capsule from key west's 150th birthday celebration in 1972
Key West Citizen
Monroe County Public Library
A 1972 story from the Key West Citizen described the time capsule's location and contents.

Menta is determined that this time capsule — the one for the city's 200th — will not be lost. He plans to place it at Mallory Square on Key West's harborfront, in a prominent location, under the flagpoles.

It will also be above ground. Most time capsules are buried.

It "probably stands about chest-high because in 50 years, we're wondering if it's going to be a reef, or possibly part of the pier with the water encroachment," Menta said.

He's referring to sea level rise. But water encroachment, or at least moist conditions, are apparently a common issue with time capsules buried in the ground, according to Berger. And water is not good for documents.

"Many people open the time capsules and literally all that's in the capsule is a bunch of green slime," Berger said.

a man working on the granite time capsule that will be installed for key west's bicentennial
Paul Menta
Sculptor Craig Gray puts the finishing touches on the granite time capsule that will be installed above ground at Mallory Square for Key West's bicentennial.

This is Key West's first bicentennial. But not Menta's.

"I grew up in Philadelphia, so in 1976 when we did the Bicentennial was like the best year of my life. I lived in Philly, right by the Liberty Bell," he said.

He calls Ben Franklin his "ultimate superhero." On his right arm, he's got a tattoo of the Liberty Bell. And underneath that, a Conch shell, the symbol of the Keys.

Menta's recruited four local kids, ages 9, 10, 11 and 12, to be ambassadors for the island to provide their accounts of island life now — and be on hand when the time capsule is opened in fifty years.

"Think of how pivotal these last couple of years are, for the kids to tell the story of the pandemic and how everybody pulled together and all the real positive things that kind of went on. It will be great when they're in their 60s and get to open it up and be like, 'hey!'" he said.

The time capsule includes a contribution from Key West High School, created by senior Rosa Nafrere. It's got a photo of the high school, and on the back she wrote about what life is like there now.

She's 17, too old to be one of the official "ambassadors" when the time capsule is opened in 2072. But she said she'd like to be there.

"I definitely think that would be so cool, to like come down and just like reflect on it, see how things have changed," she said.

Alex Vega is a retired Key West firefighter and local historian. He told Menta about the time capsule from 1972. And he knew about another time capsule that went in when the city built a new city hall and fire station in 1962.

Those buildings were demolished almost a decade ago.

"When they put in the new fire station and they tore down old City Hall and all, they couldn't find that one either. They hid them so good nobody knows where they are," Vega said.

This bicentennial is the beginning of a bunch of anniversaries for Key West that could lead to more time capsules. Vega founded a museum in one of the island's old firehouses, and he has his eye on one of them.

"In three years, it will mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of Key West Fire Department — 2025. So I definitely will have to do something," he said.

Berger says the effort of making a time capsule has value — even if they get lost.

"There's some way about the community gathering, putting the effort into how it wants to be remembered. There's a sense of community and the continuity that provides, both with the past and with the future," he said.

There's still time to find that time capsule from 1972. According to the Citizen stories from 1972, it's got letters from President Richard Nixon, Governor Reubin Askew, Congressman Dante Fascell and the editors of South Florida newspapers, written to their counterparts when Key West celebrates its tricentennial. That will be in March 2122.

Want to keep up with the latest stories out of the Florida Keys like this one? Sign up for The Tieline, our newsletter focused on all things Keys and Monroe County. The newsletter will arrive in your inbox twice a month and is written and curated by WLRN’s southernmost reporter Nancy Klingener. She shares her reporting, the latest news out of the Keys and much more. Head here to sign up.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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