Vol. II, No. 3, Winter 1989


Ozarks View

Local Records and the Ozarks Past

by Gary R. Kremer



The learned geographer, Carl Sauer, spent part of his early professional career trying to understand and explain the Ozarks. Late in his life he reflected on the value of studying local geography, history, and culture."There is no substitute to my mind," wrote Sauer, "for knowing some part of the world well, by intimate and repeated observation. Obviously," he continued, "this cannot be a great part and probably it will be by comparison of rather small parts."

Sauer's counsel to try to understand first the parts and then work toward the whole have become for me a beacon of light guiding my attempt to understand Missouri life and culture. The "small parts" which make up Missouri -- the counties -- I find endlessly intriguing. Perhaps it is a function of my growing older, but I am drawn more and more, both emotionally and intellectually, to the place of my birth ---Osage County, in the northern, German, Ozarks.

The place Osage County and its history are so much a part of my middle-age life that I cannot explain who I am without talking about the five generations of my family who preceded me there and the experiences they encountered. Consequently, the more that I discover about the place and its history, the more I discover about myself. It is a never-ending, always rewarding process.

But what if I could find no records which told me about the place and its people? How could I know it and them? How could I know myself? The answer, of course, is that I could not. And that, it seems to me, would be the ultimate indignity that could be perpetrated against the past: literally and absolutely to lose it.

This issue of OzarksWatch is devoted to the Madison County probate records, their richness as historical documents, and the public and private efforts to save them. There may be more important sources for writing local social history than county probate records, but if there are, I've not yet found them. There may be ways to write local social history without consulting county probate records, but if there are, I've not yet seen them. There may be local records that are more fun to read than county probate records, but if there are, I've not yet used them.

From the Robert M. Frier estate papers.

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County probate records are some of the clearest windows to the past we have. They summarize and mirror people's lives. They can tell us about the houses people lived in, the housewares and furniture they used, and the tools and livestock they owned. They can tell us about relationships within the family, both nuclear and extended, about gender roles, and about race relations.

It was the recognition of the great historical value of probate records that prompted the Missouri State Archives, in conjunction with the State Court Administrator's office, to become involved in 1985 in the microfilming of probate court records. It was at that time that the Supreme Court issued an amendment to what is known as Administrative Rule 8, specifying that probate court case files could be destroyed fifty years after a case was closed. Secretary of State Roy Blunt's ardent advocacy of the microfilming of these endangered case files has preserved a great body of material for future generations. Thus far, however, fewer than twenty-five percent of Missouri's counties have become involved in the project.

County probate records are one of the single most valuable bodies of records available to historians and genealogists. But they are not the only local public records that are both useful and endangered. Some Missouri counties (such as Madison) which have been fortunate enough to escape courthouse fires have land records dating back to territorial days. Likewise, marriage records are extremely valuable in a state which did not do a very good job of keeping track of its citizens until the early twentieth century.

Most counties had poor farms or some similar pre-New Deal way of responding to the needs of the incapacitated or destitute. Poor farm records exist in many courthouses and reveal a great deal about the local presence of and response to poverty. School records not only verify the existence of masses of school-age Missourians over time; they also document educational changes which occurred as the state became more urban and commercial. Tax lists, minute books, circuit court files, even coroners' reports are rich in content and context.

Over the past two years, the Missouri Historical Records Advisory Board (MHRAB), chaired by Secretary of State Roy D. Blunt, has examined the quality of historical records keeping in our state. One of the findings of this group, contained in a recently-issued report entitled A Future for the Past, is that documents housed in courthouses and other local repositories throughout the state are in great jeopardy. In some cases Missouri's rural counties are in such financial straits that they cannot afford to keep the courthouse doors open year round, much less provide environmentally-controlled vaults and massive deacidification treatment for deteriorating historical records. Employment of well-trained archivists and conservators are beyond even the wildest imagination in those repositories.

One recommendation offered by the MHRAB to remedy this situation is to attach a filing fee to specified documents recorded in counties and to use that fee for the conservation and preservation of these and other permanently-valuable documents. An underlying assumption behind this fee proposal is that persons who generate documents which must, by statute, be kept permanently ought to share in the cost of that perpetual care. Perhaps some legislative initiative will be made during the 1989 session of the General Assembly to establish such a program. OzarksWatchers throughout the state and nation can assist in the preservation of local public records by supporting such a venture.

Whatever strategy is eventually arrived at for preserving Missouri's local historical records, the Secretary of State's office and the Missouri State Archives will continue to play a strong leadership role. One of Secretary Blunt's most creative initiatives to preserve local historical records, the Local Records Analyst program, has been a successful and well received project. This program, begun in 1986, has sent five part-time local records analysts to twenty-five courthouses throughout the state, where the analysts have advised and assisted local custodians on the proper arrangement, storage, and preservation of records. Unfortunately, five persons working part-time cannot assist 114 counties and the City of St. Louis simultaneously.

Neither the Secretary of State nor the State Archives can do the job alone. Indeed, the Madison County probate records have been preserved for posterity because of the merging of the efforts of a state official (Secretary of State Roy Blunt), a local official (Probate Judge Don U. Elrod), and private volunteers (Lynn and Kris Morrow and Rick Bo-land). This project can serve as a model for similar efforts in the future.

We OzarksWatchers need to do all we can to preserve our local historical records. It's the only way we can really understand from whence we came.

Dr. Gary Kremer was appointed Director of Missouri State Archives in 1987. The Archives address and phone:
P.O. Box 788 Jefferson City, MO 65102,
(314) 751-3280.

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