Historic photo reveals hidden history in walls of facility

Story and photos by Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

On a recent warm summer day, employees at Sierra Conservation Center gathered to crack open a time capsule which had been sealed away in a wall for 50 years.

Jerry Hathcoat, with Plant Operations, used a drill and cutters to get inside the sealed metal time capsule.

Warden Heidi Lackner and Chief Deputy Warden Joel Martinez read an item from the time capsule.

Warden Heidi Lackner and Chief Deputy Warden Joel Martinez read an item from the time capsule.

“This is so exciting,” said Warden Heidi Lackner. “This had been mortared in the wall so it took some work to get it out.”

Slowly, Warden Lackner reached inside the jagged edges to remove items placed inside during the 1965 dedication.

She and Chief Deputy Warden Joel Martinez described the items to the dozens of employees.

One of the items removed was a copy of the first edition of an inmate-produced newspaper called The Nugget.

“Inmates were here before it was officially dedicated,” CDW Martinez explained.

Also inside were signed copies of legislation related to the conservation camps, a Department biennial report, newspapers with stories about the planned opening of the facility and a tube of microfilm of the original architectural plans. The box also contained a list of all the activation staff and an invitation to the 1965 dedication ceremony, as well as a list of the first citizens’ advisory council members.

“This is so cool,” Warden Lackner said. “These are original signatures on this Senate Bill.”

Finding history

The time capsule may have remained hidden in the wall of SCC if the wife of the first superintendent hadn’t dropped off a box of mementos her husband had squirreled away.

SCC staff attempt to remove the time capsule, which had been mortared into the wall behind the 1965 plaque (courtesy photo). February 2015.

SCC staff attempt to remove the time capsule, which had been mortared into the wall behind the 1965 plaque (courtesy photo). February 2015.

“Zelpha Comstock, the wife of Howard Comstock who was our first warden, or superintendent as they were called then, came in to give me some items she had in her attic,” recalled Lt. Robert Kelsey, SCC’s Administrative Assistant and Public Information Officer. “While looking through some old slides through a hand-held viewer, I saw what appeared to be a time capsule being filled with items.”

He took the slide to Warden Lackner and Office Technician Darla Haggerty.

“They viewed it and saw that the 1965 plate in front of the institution was removed and there was a hole in the wall in the picture,” Lt. Kelsey said.

In February, they extracted the time capsule, which was solidly embedded in the wall.

“We had Plant Operations come up,” said Lt. Kelsey. “They thought they would simply remove screws but found it was mortared into the wall.”

Hathcoat and Warden Lackner spent an hour chipping away at the wall.

“They alternated hitting it with a sledge hammer,” Lt. Kelsey said. “It was quite the show.”

For future generations

The items inside the 1965 capsule, as well as historic photos, will be displayed at the institution.

Employees gather around a table to check out the time capsule's contents.

Employees gather around a table to check out the time capsule’s contents.

“We need to share our story,” said Warden Lackner. “We are very proud to work here. … When planning for our 50-year re-dedication, we had to dig through boxes to find photos. They should be on display.”

They also plan to tuck away a new time capsule during the re-dedication ceremony in the same spot they found the original.

The re-dedication ceremony is planned for 1:30 p.m., Oct. 9, in front of the institution.

“The new time capsule is being built by our welding department out of stainless steel from an older washing machine,” said Lt. Kelsey. “Once it’s done, our auto body shop will be putting a vinyl wrap on it with the date and SCC logo.”

Warden Lackner said they plan to add various items to the box, including coins, but things are still in the planning stage.

“What we put in the capsule,” she said, “will be for our future correctional partners.”