Most important buildings have a cornerstone which contains a box full of items representing the significant people and events of the date of construction. Both the 1883 capitol and the 1934 capitol had cornerstones inserted in the beginning of construction and the event was cause for celebration.
In 1883, the laying of the cornerstone coincided with the arrival of the special train carrying former president Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Villard, president of the Northern Pacific Railway, and other important gentlemen to the ceremony celebrating the completion of the Northern Pacific in the state of Washington. For forty-five minutes, these men, and local dignitaries including Sitting Bull and Dakota Territory Governor Nehemiah G. Ordway made speeches about the great future of the territory and the railroad. Anyone present was invited to throw a small card with their name on it into the copper box which would be placed in the cornerstone. In addition, newspapers, coins, the program of the day were placed in the box. Indians attending the ceremony placed beads, rings, and pieces of cloth as remembrances of their participation in the ceremony.
In 1931, after fire destroyed the first capitol, the copper cornerstone box was opened and the contents were turned over to the State Historical Society of North Dakota. At the same time, plans were being made to place another copper box in a cornerstone of the new capitol.
The date was set for October 8, 1932. Governor Shafer declared it a state holiday. Vice President Charles Curtis, the first Native American (Kaw) to hold that high office, attended in place of President Hoover. The copper box was 12.5 inches by 23.75 inches and 15.75 inches high. The contents included the Governor’s and Vice President’s speeches, newspapers, state documents, and photographs of former governors, legislators, and capitol custodian William Laist.
Governor Shafer recognized the importance of the new capitol as a symbol of the modern era. He said:
As we look upon these scenes today, we are keenly conscious of the definite passing of the pioneer period in the development of North Dakota and the Northwest. While there are some among who personally witnessed, and other who actually assisted in the locating and building of our first state House on these grounds, and whose presence here this day is a delight and inspiration to us all, yet we know we have entered another era in our history and that soon all touch with pioneer past will be but a memory, found only in the records of yesterday.
Perhaps concerned that the modern design of the building would offend more traditional citizens, Shafer also offered his interpretation of the architecture:
. . . it will offer an imposing salute to the grandeur of the past in a form of such imposing dignity as to challenge the respect and inspire the reverence of every person who gazes on its classic form. In its qualities of efficient utility and elements of modern convenience, it is believed to be the superior of any public building in America, and for absence of extravagance and maximum economy of space and use, its design will ever remain a brilliant tribute to the artistic skill of the architects who conceived it and to this efficiency of the artisans and engineers who constructed it.
This cornerstone did not last long. It was vandalized (the box was not damaged) and had to be replaced in 1933. This time, in a much abbreviated ceremony, Governor Langer dedicated the cornerstone on the fiftieth anniversary of the dedication of the territorial capitol cornerstone. Stone mason Hynek Rybnicek of Mandan selected the stone from a Morton County field and cut it to the exact shape. Rybnicek remembered this as a particularly difficult job because the new cornerstone had to fit into a space in a building that was nearly half completed.
Today the cornerstone and its contents remain in place in the capitol foundation. At some time in the future, the contents will be opened to reveal a little bit about the people who saw the skyscraper capitol rise during the Great Depression.
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