Dozens of residents of Glen Echo and other parts of Montgomery County gathered Saturday in the parking lot at the Irish Inn at Glen Echo, some standing while others sat on folding chairs and picnic blankets. The crowd of people of all ages was there for the same reason—to watch the opening of an 83-year-old time capsule encased in a copper box that was found at the site of the original firehouse of the Glen Echo Fire Department.
As the crowd watched, fire department President John Witherspoon, local developer Aaron Hirsch, and Martha Morris, a Glen Echo resident and museum studies specialist, armed themselves with tools, mainly hammers and picks, and approached a table to begin the excavation of the concrete-encased box, which had been found when the former station was being demolished for new construction a couple of months ago. The young children, many of whom had been sitting on a grassy hill near the lot, pushed their way closer to the table while the elderly residents, some in their 90s, squirmed in their lawn chairs, positioning themselves to get a better view of the box.
Hirsch began striking the box with a hammer. Chunks of concrete soon fell to the table and the ground, leaving just the copper box. The crowd fell silent
Morris slid off the top of the box, revealing business cards, meeting notes and fire department documents, all dating back to the 1930s.
“I figured it would probably be just some paper work and the other thing being, the fire department being the fire department, I figured there might be something goofy in there, but it looks like they were pretty serious,” Witherspoon said.
While the contents of the time capsule may not have been as thrilling as some had hoped, those watching were still enthused by the fact that the box, engraved with the date “1935,” had survived relatively intact and its contents—from the very air inside to the paper the documents were printed on—were older than many of the audience members themselves.
“It’s not every day you get to open a time capsule in Bethesda,” Witherspoon said in his opening remarks.
The event also served as a reminder of the history and events that led to the founding of the Glen Echo Fire Department. Eighty-eight years ago almost to the day, all but one of the members of the Moxley family, who lived in Glen Echo, perished in a house fire that ripped through their Tulane Avenue home on June 1, 1930. The fire led to the formation of the community’s fire department, which had its first firehouse on Vassar Circle beginning in 1935.
“The citizens in Glen Echo were outraged by this and they said to themselves, ‘We’re never going to allow this to happen again, we’re going to build ourselves a fire department,’ ” Witherspoon said.
In 1954, the Glen Echo Fire Department moved to its current location at 5920 Massachusetts Ave., leaving behind almost all of the history of the original fire house site. When demolition began at the Vassar Circle site a couple of years ago to make room for new housing, the time capsule was found in concrete a corner of the station.
“I can’t believe there is a box in this cornerstone,” Witherspoon said about his reaction to finding the box. “I was jumping up and down.”
For those who attended the opening of the time capsule, especially those people with ties to the original fire department location and the new location on Massachusetts Avenue, hearing the names of old friends and family members read from the letters that were found in the box reminded them of childhood memories.
“It takes me back to the old days at Glen Echo. I lived not too far away, so I was at Glen Echo Park all the time, so now I see where it was,” said Jim Campbell, who lived in Rockville and was a member of the volunteer fire department during the early years at the department’s Massachusetts Avenue location. “Just being here is what I wanted.”
Dave Power, who joined the Glen Echo Fire Department at age 16 after the Massachusetts Avenue location was built, went to the Vassar Circle location frequently as a child, attending Halloween parties and other community events.
“These guys, my parents knew and I knew, I knew these people, so it was kind of nostalgic,” Power said.
Witherspoon said the fire department may create a montage of the discovered documents to be hung at the Massachusetts Avenue location, and fire officials plan on scanning the documents and archived news articles to be put on the department’s website.
“There’s so much history associated with the fire service and to have something like this where you can actually look back and see what was actually going on at the time, is really fun,” Witherspoon said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of John Witherspoon’s name and some details about the Glen Echo Fire Department.