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100-Year-Old Letters Revealed in Detroit Time Capsule

Aired January 1, 2001 - 4:45 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Folks in Detroit are getting a glimpse of their city's past by reading some long-sealed letters. Now, those letters were not ones lost by the post office. They were part of a time capsule which was sealed on New Year's Eve 100 years ago. The capsule was unsealed yesterday as part of a celebration marking Detroit's 300th birthday.

Among the letters was one from Detroit's mayor at that time. He spoke of advances in communications that allowed telephone calls and telegraph messages to reach across the country. Imagine if he knew about the Internet. At the turn of the last century, stove-making was among Detroit's chief industries. The Ford Motor Company would not be founded for a couple more years.

And so we want to check in now with somebody who was part of the celebration opening that time capsule today. Mary Banks is communications director of the celebration, Detroit 300. And she joins us on the telephone line now.

Mary, can you tell us about some of the other letters that were in this time capsule?

MARY BANKS, COMM. DIRECTOR, DETROIT 300: Well, really, all we know about the time capsule -- up until last night, that is -- is that we had a collection of both letters and documents that really talked about the social life, the business life and of cultural life of the city of Detroit in 1901.

As you mentioned, we did have the text of Mayor Maybury's letter to his successor in 2001 because it had been published the day after the century box was sealed in 1901 -- 1900, actually. It was January 1, 1901 that the newspaper account quotes the letter. And so we had the text of that. But as far as the other letters, all we had were some sketchy titles and some of the authors of those letters.

And so we are going to be examining the contents of the box on Tuesday morning at the Detroit Historical Museum. They are going to be opened. And conservators will be there, as well as archivists. And it should be very exciting to read those letters.

CHEN: I bet. So you don't really know what kinds of other people -- maybe regular citizens -- were asked to write letters, anything like that? BANKS: Well, as a matter of fact, I can tell you that there were some general titles that were printed in these newspaper reports -- for example, James Scripps. You probably know that name as the person who founded the newspaper empire.

CHEN: Scripps Howard.

BANKS: Wrote a letter entitled "Prophecy for Detroit as a Metropolis." Clarence Burton, who is our city historian, wrote about real-estate titles in Detroit: past, present and future.

Some of more interesting letters, though, were written by -- for example, a woman wrote about women's suffrage, retrospective and prophecy. One of her counterparts wrote about motherhood in the 19th century. We have letters about the arts, social organizations of the city, ethnic heritage, schools and education and so forth. But it really should be a kind of an exciting way to look at what Detroit was in 1901, and will give us some maybe sobering thoughts about what we're going to do in closing this tricentennial year with our own tricentennial time capsule in December 31 of 2001.

CHEN: Now, I have got to tell you, as kids, we probably all did this. We loaded up what we thought were little time capsules in shoe boxes and buried them in the ground. And they probably all deteriorated by now. But did you all know that this time capsule was put away? And was it put away for this particular date? Or did you just choose a date to open it?

BANKS: No, actually, we were very, very fortunate. This century box is a small copper box. It's very, very unassuming. It's about the size of a shoe box. All of these years, it has been in the vault of city treasurer's office in Detroit. Detroit has been blessed that we have had no floods, no major catastrophes in all of those years. So the box was safe and dry and was kept very well. So we have no doubt that the letters will be in excellent condition.

(CROSSTALK)

CHEN: Did they tell you to open it on this date, though?

BANKS: Yes. As a matter of fact, in his letter, Mayor Maybury asked that his successor open the box actually on New Year's Day. But, as you know, football has come into our lives. So...

(LAUGHTER)

BANKS: So we beat him by about an half-an-hour last night. But it is a beautifully written letter. It is almost like a -- the tone of a kindly uncle. It's both humbling and charming to read it. But he starts off by saying, "To his Honor, the mayor of Detroit in 2001, and the generation whose privilege and, I trust, pleasure it will be to read the content of this box, health and greetings."

And then he goes on, as you mentioned, to talk about what an amazing life they are living in 1900: that they travel by railroad and steam and power from Detroit to Chicago in less than eight hours. CHEN: But they didn't have football, Mary, so...

BANKS: No, they didn't have football.

(CROSSTALK)

CHEN: All right. But I'm sure they'll forgive you for that. Mary Banks, I'm sorry. We are going to have to leave it there, Mary Banks. Maybe we'll hear more later about what happens when they open up a little bit more of the contents of that time capsule in Detroit.

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