The Strange History of the Old East Plaque

The Old Well and Old East residence hall (background) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina.

The Old Well and Old East residence hall (background) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina.

Old East, with a cornerstone laid in 1793, was the first state university building in the United States and is one of the oldest continually used academic buildings in the country. Today it serves as a dormitory, but in years past it has also housed classrooms. Its long history and central location on campus makes it one of best-known and most beloved buildings at UNC.

One of the more interesting stories related to Old East involves the original cornerstone and plaque laid ceremonially in 1793. That original cornerstone is missing. It is speculated that during a planned 1840s renovation of the building (which featured several new additions to the architecture of the building), the cornerstone may have been accidentally covered or perhaps even stolen.  What is known for sure is that by the time the University reopened after closing for several years in the 1870s, the bronze commemorative plaque created for the cornerstone had disappeared completely.

This plaque was 13.3 cm x 19.2 cm and was created by Roswell Huntington, a silversmith from Hillsborough. In 1792, at age 29, he was commissioned to engrave a bronze plate for the cornerstone of Old East. The Latin inscription was on one side, with the English translation on the reverse.

Front Side of the Old East Commemorative Plaque; note the crack across the middle. Courtesy of The North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library

Front Side (English inscription) of the Old East Commemorative Plaque; note the crack across the middle. Courtesy of The North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library

Back Side of the Commemorative Plaque. Courtesy of the North Carolina Collection at Wilson Library.

Back Side (Latin inscription) of the Commemorative Plaque. Courtesy of the North Carolina Collection at Wilson Library.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In English, the plate reads:

‘The Right Worshipful William Richardson Davie, Grand Master of the most Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Freemasons in the State of North Carolina, one of the trustees of the University of the said state, and a Commissioner of the same, assisted by the other commissioners and the Brethren of the Eagle and Independence Lodges, on the 12th day of October in the Year of Masonry 5793 and in the 18th year of the American Independence, laid the cornerstone of this edifice.’

Note that the date is listed as 5793 from the Masonic calendar.

In a strange twist of fate, the plate was eventually found over 40 years after its disappearance in Tennessee at the Clarksville Foundry and Machine Works. The owner of this business was a man named Thomas Foust. One of the metal workers was about to melt the plaque down, but showed it to Foust before doing so. Foust happened to be UNC Class of 1903 and as soon as he saw the plate, he recognized William Davie’s name and knew it had to be significant to the university.

The plate was returned just in time for the 1916 University Day celebrations. It was presented to University President Edward Kidder Graham during the festivities. The 2016 University Day celebrations mark the 100th anniversary of its return.

The Carolina Alumni Review featured an article entitled “The Presentation of the Plate” in the November 1916 issue, with a detailed look into how Foust came to find the plaque and how the university thanked him. The article makes note of the fact that President Graham was presented the plate by A.B. Andrews Jr., a graduate of the class of 1893 and the Grand Master of Masons of North Carolina at the time. The article also quotes a letter written by Thomas Foust concerning the discovery of the plate.

Foust wrote, in part, “Some days ago, the foreman in my foundry stopped me as I was passing through and said, ‘Here is a plate that looks like it might be valuable and I think I will keep it.’ . . . As he handed it to me the name of William R. Davie caught my eye and after a little further examination, for it was so dirty and tarnished that it was almost illegible, I saw that it must be linked with the history of the dear old University and at once carried it to the laboratory of the Red River Furnace Co., where we cleaned it sufficiently to make it entirely legible.”

He further noted that the plate had come to his foundry along with a lot of other scrap brass. It was purchased from a local junk dealer to be melted down into brass castings. He could not determine where the junk dealer had found the plate. After the plate had been cleaned, he showed it to professors at Southwestern Presbyterian University and especially enlisted the help of a Dr. Shaw, who was also a UNC alum, to try to contact the Charlotte Observer and get confirmation that the plaque did have a connection with UNC.

In recognition of his part in returning the plate to the university, President Graham sent Thomas Foust a copy of Kemp Battle’s History of the University with the inscription: “To T.B. Foust, ’03: In grateful acknowledgement of his fine and thoughtful loyalty, that restored to his Alma Mater the plate commemorating the laying of the cornerstone on October twelfth, 1793. This October twelfth, 1916.”

 The plaque is today housed at Wilson Library.

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