After about four hours of searching with sonar equipment and two holes dug in the wrong locations, a time capsule buried at a former Center Grove elementary school was recovered.

In 1976, students at West Grove Elementary School buried a time capsule on the school’s front lawn, with letters, drawings and audio cassettes inside. The capsule was supposed to be unearthed in 2000. However, because the three trees that had been used to mark the location of the capsule were cut down around 1990, no one was able to find the spot in a nearly 4,000-square-foot area.

The former school building, which is on Smith Valley Road east of State Road 37, was sold to Southland Community Church in 2013. Once the church was contacted about the search for the capsule, they worked with a former West Grove Elementary School student who organized the search and gave tours of the building to former students and teachers.

The desire never went away to find the time capsule and return the items inside to the students who filled it about four decades ago. George Broyer, the school’s principal from 1969 to 2002, came back in 2010 to attempt to locate the capsule. But after using a metal rod to search under the soil in several locations where he thought it might be, he left empty-handed.

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A couple of weeks ago, Tom Britt, who was a fourth-grader at the school when the capsule was buried, decided that another effort should be made to locate the capsule. He began contacting alumni and former teachers, and they worked with Blood Hound, a Brownsburg company that specializes in locating underground utilities, to search the area with a sonar device capable of detecting items buried underground. The goal was to find the capsule and then return the items inside, including letters written by the students, to alumni, Britt said.

About 50 people showed up for the search on Monday, a testament to how close-knit the Center Grove community was, Broyer said.

Memories differed on where the capsule was buried. Some said it was straight out from one of the school’s entrances, others thought it was more to the west. One photo from the 1976 ceremony showed the tree line on the south side of Smith Valley Road, providing one way to potentially line up where the initial hole was dug. Scott Brown, one of the students responsible for digging the hole, said he couldn’t recall the location, just that it was buried a couple of feet deep.

Because the capsule was filled with items that were mostly paper and had been buried in a plastic container, using a metal detector to locate it wasn’t an option, Britt said. And while the sonar device can detect items underground, it didn’t have the ability to differentiate between rocks, the capsule or other items, he said.

After a few key areas were checked, with a metal rod pushed into the dirt to feel for the capsule, Blood Hound employee Brian Clem began a thorough, back-and-forth search across the area, with the intent of creating a map that could be later used to help locate the capsule.

They dug two holes into the ground where the sonar machine indicated something might be underground, but nothing was found both times. In a third attempt. the container was unearthed under about four feet of dirt.

While the capsule itself was in good shape, the items inside were not. A stack of papers had become moldy, and they don’t know if the audio cassettes will be usable, Britt said.

The plan is to take the papers to the Johnson County Museum of History, to see if any of them can be salvaged, he said.

Even if the capsule hadn’t been found, the former students and teachers said the search became an impromptu reunion as they swapped stories while Clem wheeled the sonar device back and forth across the grass lawn.

Greg Jones, a youth pastor at Southland Community Church, said they were more than willing to allow the search to take place, especially since several church members had either attended or taught at the school.

Church member Bob Gerlach’s three kids were students at the school when the capsule was buried. They weren’t able to come on Monday, but had asked him to check it out and see if anything they had placed in it had survived.

Tom and Marsha Merrick, self-described history buffs who attend the church, wanted to come out for the capsule search as soon as they heard it was happening, eager to get a chance to see a part of Johnson County history.

Because the items inside the capsule, which hadn’t been sealed properly, aren’t in good condition, Britt says he will be working to determine if anything can be salvaged. While the papers are damaged, they can make out some information on them, such as a newspaper and what they believe was a yearbook.

Their best chance at restoration might be with two audio cassettes, which contain recordings of each of the students at the school, he said.

Britt plans to contact the museum to see what assistance they could offer with the restoration. If they can identity any items, they will try to get in touch with students and return them, Britt said.

The church has also offered to let Britt have an open house at the site, he said. A date hasn’t been set, but a potential open house would allow them to show off what they found in the capsule as well as a short documentary made about the search, he said.

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Jacob Tellers is a reporter at the Daily Journal. He can be reached at jtellers@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2702.