MOSCOW, Idaho – Colleges will open a lot of gifts from donors this year. Most of them will be checks, but some of them will be artifacts, authors’ papers, historical documents.
It’s safe to say that not many will come in 55-gallon drums.
The University of Idaho is in the midst of unpacking 17 steel barrels, donated a half-century ago by a Seattle inventor with no ties to the university. Inside is a wide range of memorabilia from the first half of the 20th century – magazines, newspapers, menus, milk bottles, boxes of cereal, World War II artifacts.
The donor, William C. Cheney, gave them to UI in 1961 with the stipulation that they not be opened until 2010. His motives were murky – he talked about a desire to preserve “an authentic cross-section of events,” but that doesn’t speak to his reasons for storing the items in barrels for 50 years, nor for why he would choose UI. Some have speculated that he might have feared an enemy attack and wanted to preserve pieces of everyday life somewhere inland.
But that’s just guessing, as is almost everything about Cheney and his strange donation. Little is known about his life, and the university has not found any descendants.
“We really have no context” for the materials, said Kathy Aiken, historian and dean of UI’s College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences.
And so Cheney’s gift – intended to preserve a piece of history – also reinforces a truth about the past: History is often defined as much by mystery as by knowledge.
It also says something about the changing times in American colleges. If you tried to donate 17 industrial barrels to a university today, sight unseen, with the stipulation that they couldn’t be opened for 50 years, you might have a hard time finding takers. It’s a good thing Cheney wasn’t a mad bomber.
“We would ask a lot different questions now than we did 50 years ago,” Aiken said. “I don’t think they asked much at all.”
Colleges spend a lot of time pursuing gifts – though usually they’re hoping for cash. Items of scholarly or research interest are also donated to universities, such as a large collection of Potlatch documents recently given to the UI that deal with the company’s history in the region, Aiken said.
The occasional gift from left field is part of college life, as well. Eastern Washington University has received donations of a church and a one-room schoolhouse, as well as fuel cells and a British colonial dining set. A southern Idaho couple recently donated 25,000 bushels of wheat to UI. Students will market the wheat and use the proceeds to set up a research effort on – what else? – potatoes.
But Cheney’s gift is in a class of its own. In 1960, he wrote to UI President D.R. Theophilus, offering the barrels and his conditions. Cheney was not a UI alumnus and apparently had not even visited the Moscow campus. It is thought that he sent similar letters to other colleges; the UI may have been the first, or only, taker when the Board of Regents voted to accept the barrels.
The barrels were stored in the library basement until February, when library staffers began opening them. Most of the items were in good condition. There were some Edison Records – wax phonograph cylinders that were the precursor to the disc record – that had degraded. There were magazine covers with Marilyn Monroe and Jackie O. There were personal letters and correspondence. There were milk bottles, World War II ration cards, letters, bills, ads, toys and cereal boxes.
“Some of the cereal boxes still had cereal in them, which was kind of nasty,” Aiken said.
The university has put some of the items on display in its library and is working to finish cataloging the items.
As for Cheney himself, according to UI and to the Oregon State Historical Society, to which he donated a film archive: He was an Oregon native, born sometime around 1898, date and place unknown. He married; his wife’s name is unknown. He moved to Seattle sometime in 1933. He was a machine shop worker, businessman and inventor, and he had a wide range of interests, from science to mountaineering. “He was known by his friends to be a quiet, philosophical genius,” the Oregon historical society says.
The items Cheney saved are interesting, but it is the man himself who provokes fascination in this case. As with any mystery. What we cannot know compels us – just as it did with Cheney himself.
“Cold-wet-dull Sunday afternoon,” he wrote on a piece of cardboard about a month before the UI accepted the barrels. “Have about half of these papers packed. Wonder if they will be preserved until 2010 A.D.? Bill Cheney.”