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Discovery Park exhibit displays time capsule from Dresden church destroyed in tornado

Discovery Park of America

A new exhibit at Tennessee’s Discovery Park is offering a unique glimpse into an area church’s past made possible by the 2021 tornado outbreak.

Dresden First United Methodist Church was destroyed during the disaster, but demolition efforts uncovered a copper box that had been bricked into the house of worship in 1923. Now, park goers can get a glimpse at the contents of this nearly century-old time capsule by visiting the “Inside the Cornerstone Box” exhibit. The temporary installation opened in late January and will remain on display until May 21.

The Dresden church was one of many landmarks in the town destroyed during the disaster, and the town is still recovering.

Church members were shocked when a demolition crew uncovered the box.

“The odds of finding it if the church had not been destroyed were practically zero,” said Jamie Kemp, chairman of the church’s trustee board. “The last time the box was even mentioned in any articles was in 1983.”

Some church leaders attempted to open the box, before contacting Discovery Park historians to help preserve and document what was inside. Discovery Park employees’ research discovered a 1924 Dresden Enterprise article detailed the church’s dedication, including the cornerstone and its contents.

Jennifer Wildes, Discovery Park’s senior director of collections and exhibits, remembers being excited and nervous when her team fielded the call from the church.

“Since there was no way for us to know the conditions inside the box until opened, we had to make sure the entire process wasn't rushed and that we were as prepared as we could be for multiple outcomes,” she said.

Once the Discovery Park team had extracted the box from the destroyed church and researched its background, they opened it safely at the park. Inside they found well-preserved artifacts, including Methodist hymnals and songbooks, copies of the Dresden Enterprise newspaper from 1924, copies of Methodist newspapers, a tube containing a document from the Boy Scouts of America, a correspondence relating to the building of the church, a 1920 photograph of Norma Leone Lewis found inside a hymnal and official church rolls for 1923-1924.

The strangest thing found in the box, though, was an ear of corn with a letter wrapped around it. The letter – written by E.E. Ellis, the Weakley County agriculture agent at the time – identifies the ear of corn as being of the Little Willice variety and includes a prayer for the area’s future.

“May God’s richest blessings be with each farmer and those that depend on farmers as long as good old Weakley County continues to be populated with people,” Ellis wrote.

Wildes was particularly moved by a letter from S.L. Jewell – the pastor of the church at the time – that was also found in the box. Jewell’s letter, she said, recounted a brief history of the church, though the pastor notes it was “hastily written for the information of someone who may in coming years look in the box.”

Kemp said emotions were high as church members watched Discovery Park employees extract the box and they couldn’t help but think of the church’s future in the wake of the disaster.

“The way we described it is there was almost like a ray of hope in the middle of all of the despair and struggles that we had gone through from leaving the church,” Kemp said. “It just gave a sense of uplifting feelings that everyone was needing at that time.”

Dresden First United Methodist Church will be rebuilt in the same place, with construction slated to begin this spring. Following the discovery of the cornerstone box, church leaders have decided to create a new time capsule including items from the 1923 box and some new additions from church members.

The church is accepting donations to help its rebuilding efforts through or mailing checks to:

Bldg & Renovation Fund
Dresden First United Methodist Church
411 Morrow St
Dresden, TN 38225

Zoe Lewis is a first-year sophomore at Murray State University from Benton, Kentucky. She is majoring in journalism with a minor in media production. She enjoys reading, going to movie theaters, spending time with her family and friends, and eating good food. Zoe is an Alpha Omicron Pi sorority member in the Delta Omega chapter. She is very excited to start working at WKMS and work while learning more about NPR, reporting, journalism, and broadcasting.
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