Shovel helps tell history of UNC Charlotte

The 1960 groundbreaking for UNC Charlotte.
The 1960 groundbreaking for UNC Charlotte. UNC Charlotte Special Collections

There’s a lot of hoopla going on right now about a shovel found in August in a rusty, galvanized steel shed on the UNC Charlotte campus.

So far, this well-worn, red-handled tool has been the subject of its own short, nearly four-minute documentary. Archivists have inspected it with giddy fascination, from wooden handle to aluminum blade. It’s gone so far that university officials have hired a craftsman to build a museum-quality case that will house the shovel in its final resting place at Harris Alumni Center this spring.

Why the fuss?

In 1960, university founder Bonnie Cone hiked across a rolling hillside in her business suit, pillbox hat, and high heel shoes with that shovel in hand, and used it to loosen the first scoop of soil during groundbreaking of the site that would become UNC Charlotte.

That makes the shovel a prized relic by those who’ve made it their goal to fatten the university’s archives with items that relay its history.

J. Murrey Atkins Library’s special collections’ shelves are lined with scores of documents tracing the university’s history and culture, but few artifacts.

Among the relics are a coffee can filled with earth from the site of Rowe Building, which was found in the attic of its namesake Oliver Rowe after he died, and the tablecloth Cone used during the traditional beef stroganoff dinners she hosted each May for graduating seniors.

John Cullum, UNC Charlotte director of planned giving, said early university leaders were focused on growing the university, and looking forward, not back.

“There are a lot of missing pieces because early on it was about educating,” Cullum said. “It wasn’t about saving.”

Cullum learned about the possibility of the shovel’s existence this summer, while talking with Cone’s great niece, who mentioned that a retired repairman told her the shovel was up in the rafters of an old campus warehouse. It wasn’t there, but it was next door in a corner of the groundskeeper’s shed among a collection of gray, dulled tools.

To authenticate the shovel, Cullum took it to university archivists, who carefully compared it with the one featured in the images of the 1960 groundbreaking.

“It’s a fairly unique shovel in many respects,” said Dawn Schmitz, digital programs archivist and interim head of Special Collections, who compared the shape of the seal above its blade, the extra long length of the handle, and the evidence of dark paint that could be seen, even in the black-and-white photos.

No one really knows the shovel’s history between the 1960 groundbreaking and its resurfacing this summer, but Cullum is sure it won’t be lost again.

“It’s really our first artifact,” he said. “It was the first thing that made this campus come alive.”

And it has only sparked more interest in digging up artifacts from the university’s past.

“We search for tradition,” said Cullum. “And this, by far, is the greatest element of that tradition.”

Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer. Lisathornton@followmylede.com.

Want to help?

Archivists are especially interested in memorabilia from UNC Charlotte student life: vintage club fliers, photographs, etc. Contact Dawn Schmitz: Dawn.schmitz@uncc.edu; 704-687-1674