Every year Carolina celebrates the historic laying of the Old East cornerstone as a symbol of the birth of the nation’s first public university.
But for decades, the centerpiece of that ceremony 227 years ago — a brass plate commemorating the occasion — wasn’t even in Chapel Hill, but 500 miles away as scrap metal waiting to be melted down in a foundry in Clarksville, Tennessee.
“That plate is the most precious artifact that UNC has because it’s a direct link to the founding moment of the University,” said Speed Hallman, a Carolina alumnus and member of the Freemasons. “It’s an artifact that goes to the very beginning and it’s the centerpiece at the founding moment.”
Laying the cornerstone
The laying of Old East’s cornerstone was not a frivolous occurrence in 1793. It was celebrated with a formal ceremony conducted by the Freemasons of North Carolina and their leader, Grand Master William Richardson Davie, who is often credited as the founder of the University.
“Masons are encouraged to study the liberal arts and sciences,” Hallman said. “It’s an integral part of our tradition. It makes sense that the Masons wanted this new state to have an institution of public education for the teaching of the liberal arts and sciences, and also to train leaders for the state.”
Following the traditions and methods of medieval stonemasons who built Europe’s great cathedrals in the Middle Ages, the Freemasons took the laying of the cornerstone with great importance.
In Davie’s first public appearance as Grand Master, the Freemasons consecrated the cornerstone with corn as an emblem of plenty, wine as an emblem of joy and gladness, and oil as an emblem of peace. Then, they inspected the stone using traditional stonemason tools.
“We measure the stone symbolically to make sure that it’s square, level and plumb, so that the building is off to a proper start, and there are prayers given,” Hallman said.
The cornerstone was more than just a block. It also serves as a time capsule of sorts.
“Cornerstones typically have a hollow place inside, and the Masons will seal mementos of the day, such as coins, a newspaper, personal items and a printed program from the ceremony, in a copper box and put it in the stone,” Hallman said.
Inside Old East’s cornerstone was also the 13-centimeter by 19-centimeter brass plate. As the cornerstone was put into place at the southeast corner of the building, the plate was sealed into Old East.
For nearly a century, the University and Freemasons figured all was well with the cornerstone and its plate.
‘A series of chance encounters’
It may have been a thief during the Civil War or a mistake made during a construction project in the late 1800s, but the plate and cornerstone went missing.
“When they renovated the building, they may have been chipping away at that cornerstone or they may have exposed or come across the plate, and that may be how it came to disappear,” Hallman said. “Some blame the loss on the Union soldiers who occupied Chapel Hill, but no one knows.”
The next time the plate was seen was at Clarksville Foundry and Machine Works in northern Tennessee. Included in a pile of scrap brass bought from a local junkyard, the plate was to be melted down for various castings.
“It could have ended up as a doorknob,” Hallman said.
But the foundry’s foreman had found a use for the plate: using the flat piece of brass as a tool to help smooth out other castings. Eventually, the foreman realized the plate may be valuable and took it to Thomas Foust, the owner and proprietor of the facility.
A Carolina graduate, Foust immediately recognized Davie’s name at the top of the plate and cleaned off the tarnish to read the markings. Realizing its significance, he then took the plate to another local alumnus, A.R. Shaw, who wrote a letter to the Charlotte Observer about the discovery.
A.B. Andrews, the Grand Master of North Carolina Masons and Carolina graduate, saw the letter and reached out to Shaw and Foust. Within a few weeks, the corner plate was back in Chapel Hill.
“It was a series of chance encounters and occurrences that made a tremendous difference,” Hallman said.
At Carolina’s 123rd University Day celebration, Andrews presented the plate to UNC President Edward Kidder Graham, more than a century after it was first placed in the cornerstone.
Today, the plate is housed in Wilson Library along with a Masonic apron worn at the cornerstone laying ceremony.
“This is the most important artifact that we have,” said Linda Jacobson, keeper of the North Carolina Collection Gallery. “It is the most important three-dimensional object that we have that is related to the University.”