An Akron comedian told a complicated joke in 1914. A century later, we finally got the punch line.
It’s the kind of thing that happens once every 100 years.
Los Angeles blogger Matt Novak reached out to Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic this month for a story headlined “The Most Exciting Time Capsules Being Opened This Year.” Novak specializes in “past visions of the future” as the writer and creator of the Paleofuture blog for the tech site Gizmodo — http://paleofuture.gizmodo.com.
Novak found a 1914 article in the Anaconda Standard newspaper in Montana that sounded interesting. The item was headlined “1914’s MAYOR TO MAYOR OF 2014: Letter Telling of Akron’s Debt to Remain Sealed a Century.”
According to the story dated Jan. 24, 1914:
“Mayor Rockwell wrote a letter yesterday to the person who will be mayor of Akron 100 years hence. The epistle tells the future mayor of the present debt, the names of all city officials, the problems confronting the municipality, and the political situation in Akron in 1914.
“The letter will be sealed, addressed to ‘His Honor, Mayor of Akron, 2014,’ marked with instructions not to be molested or opened until that year, and placed in a bank-deposit vault to lie for a century. The salutation in the letter will fit either a man or a woman.”
Novak sent a media inquiry to Mayor Plusquellic, attached a copy of the 1914 article and asked: “Are you aware of any such letter?”
Plusquellic, who has been in office since 1987, had not heard of a time capsule, so he enlisted the aid of retired Deputy Mayor David Lieberth, a local historian and author of the new book Inventive. Industrious. Inspired: The Story of Greater Akron.
Lieberth and a dream team of local researchers, including Judy James, special collections manager at Akron-Summit County Public Library, retired Akron Police Sgt. Tom Dye and Beacon Journal librarian Norma Hill looked into the matter.
Mayor Frank W. Rockwell (1851-1917) was a former executive of the Akron Sewer Pipe Co. and Robinson Clay Product Co. and former president of the Akron Board of Education. Elected mayor in 1911 and re-elected two years later, the Republican shepherded the city through labor strife and the flood of 1913.
Akron built its waterworks plant north of Kent during Rockwell’s four-year tenure and named the reservoir Lake Rockwell in his honor.
Rockwell, 62, died of heart disease Feb. 9, 1917, at his home at 833 E. Exchange St. The Beacon Journal’s eulogy was brusque: “He was not a great man nor did he make a brilliant mayor, but he did his own thinking and lived up to a rugged code of conduct which he had set for himself with but slight regard to what anybody else thought of it.”
Did Rockwell write a letter three years before his death? If so, where did he put it? In 1914, the Central Savings & Trust Co., Depositors Savings Bank, Dime Savings Bank, First Second National Bank, People’s Savings & Trust Co. and the State Bank were all located in downtown Akron.
The logistics were sketchy. Who would pay the annual fee for the vault? If the bank closed or moved, who would oversee the letter’s transfer?
Sgt. Dye, a history detective, also found the 1914 story in the New York Times, Washington Herald, Atlanta Constitution, Boston Evening Transcript, San Francisco Chronicle and the Municipal Journal & Public Works.
But, strangely, it didn’t appear in the Beacon Journal.
Hill checked the newspaper’s index of articles and Lieberth and James scanned January 1914 newspapers on microfilm. The search widened to the Akron Press, Barberton Herald and Cuyahoga Falls Reporter.
Every path hit a dead end.
“I would like to see the letter,” Dye noted. “I will continue to think about possible ways to search for it.”
The Akron Weekly Times is the only local newspaper from that era not on file at the downtown library, so James contacted the Western Reserve Historical Society Library in Cleveland for help. Reference assistant Vicki Catozza searched the January 1914 editions to no avail.
“They checked and they didn’t find anything,” James said.
Dye went to the University of Akron Archival Services and sifted through the City Council minutes of 1913 and 1914, where he learned of a rift between the mayor and the council.
According to Dye’s research, the City Council passed five ordinances Nov. 24, 1913, that raised the salaries of the city solicitor and city auditor, reduced the salaries of the director of public safety and director of public service, and abolished the office of mayor’s clerk and the subdepartment for purchase, construction and repair.
Mayor Rockwell vetoed the ordinances Dec. 3, but the City Council overrode the vetoes Dec. 19.
“Although I could not find any mention of Mayor Rockwell’s letter in the minutes of City Council, there is reason to believe that he might have been angry with its members because of legislation and rule changes it had enacted just before Jan. 24, 1914,” Dye reported.
That seemed to be a two-way street.
“People just didn’t like him,” James said. “I mean, he vetoed everything that came across his desk.”
James was just about ready to start calling Akron banks when she decided to take one more look at microfilm.
“It was sort of eating at me,” she said. “I thought ‘Maybe we missed something.’ And I went back and found the little blurb.”
An item Jan. 26, 1914, in the Beacon Journal was headlined “MAYOR DENIES THAT HE WROTE EPISTLE.”
According to the story: “Mayor Rockwell has been the subject of a great deal of publicity the past few days on account of a ‘fake’ story that was printed in a local paper a few days ago to the effect that he had written a letter to the Mayor of Akron to be in 2014. The story was clipped by papers all over the country and the Mayor has received a number of inquiries from his friends regarding the matter. He has informed them that he did not write the latter.” [sic]
There was no letter in 1914. There is no time capsule to open in 2014.
“Do you think he was pranked by his political enemies?” Dye wondered.
“It was a hoax,” Lieberth agreed. “Sgt. Tom Dye found evidence in the City Council records that the mayor and council were at each other’s throats at the time. Maybe some political retribution?”
One of Rockwell’s detractors apparently planted a satirical story that was reprinted in newspapers across the nation. A century later, we fell for it all over again.
“Isn’t it hilarious?” James said.
All that research, all that energy, all that time … for something that never existed!
“We tried,” she said. “I was so hopeful that we would find the letter, but alas.”
The only thing left to do is pay it forward.
Attention, Akron residents of January 2114. There is something waiting for you in a bank-deposit vault.
Have fun searching for it!
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.