Volume 35 , Number 2 , Fall 1995
Working in the Records
by Mariona Henshaw
Researchers of all kinds know the joy of working in records for local and genealogical history. It is certainly one of my favorite things. I am fortunate enough to be an archivist in the Missouri Local Records Preservation Program with the general mandate to make available for research all the open, permanent records possible.
My usual attire is jeans, a T-shirt, a sweat shirt and old shoes. On top of that, I add a denim pocket apron and white cotton gloves. I am the dinosaur of Missouris innovative program, joining it during its first pilot year during 1986-1987.
My work space is often make-shift using whatever I find in the record storage area. Sometimes I use boxes. Sometimes I am innovative and put an oversized post and binder ledger across the top of an air conditioner. Sometimes I simply work on the floor.
I climb ladders. I climb wooden shelving. Once in awhile I use step ladders with floor-gripping feet.
I have worked winter months in vaults with no heat. I have worked summer months in vaults with no air conditioning. Sometimes, by the end of a workday, I resemble Pigpen in the Snoopy comic strip.
Our records projects are always challenging. I helped county volunteers move their records from a storage room of the county health department back to the courthouse. I organized and filed marriage licenses. Mybiggestundertaking was segregating judicial from executive records and moving them to central storage in the courthouse. Before the records reached their final destination, the courthouse custodian, a new county records manager and I moved those 400 plus bound volumes seven (7) times!
I have worked next to a box of dynamite.... Ive found an employee sound asleep on the floor underneath a desk
-- I knew where she was when I saw her high-heeled feet sticking out, and then I heard the snoring. ... Ive met a sheriff who uses his handcuffs to keep his chair in his office at night. ... Ive worked in a vault where plaster kept falling on my head. ... Ive worked in areas where I armed myself with a trouble light, a fly swatter, a can of Raid, and stomped my feet as I walked among the records.
Public records are fun! Let me share a story or two. If you are planning a fund-raiser or public event, you might like to use this recipe found in early twentieth-century Henry County records. It is for Burgoo Soup, spelled just like it sounds. First you need:
300 pounds soup bones and 2 turkeys for goodmeasure. Then add 75 cans of tomatoes and corn; 200 pounds cabbage; 50 bunches celery; 1 bushel carrots; 1 bushel onions; and 2 bushels of beans. You have to use your own judgement on the amount of liquid youll need. Cook all the ingredients over open fires in large, black iron kettles for several hours. And, begin before dawn. To be authentic, you should serve this in tin pans or bowls.
My favorite records are county court dockets. These books provide a distinctive look at a countys history, and many times, are the only record a county has of poor farm records and outdoor relief for disadvantaged citizens. In one county the dockets traced an individual for several years at the county farm, recording room, board, clothing and tobacco. The last entry was the purchase of a coffin. The next term of court revealed that the county assumed responsibility for his widow.
County court dockets reveal expenditures of another time. Early 1900s items included wood for county offices, travel expenses for indigents, rope furnished for elections (I wonder if they were planning to hang the politicians?), livery hire, coal oil for lamps, and blacksmithing for the county. Those were the days when you could get a bucket for 30 cents, clocks fixed for $1.00, and six cords of wood for $10.50.
Sheriffs records are another interesting world. When the Hotel Jennings in Seymour, Webster County, went on the auction block in 1919, the sheriff publicized the sale:
6 slop jars, 1 oil stove, 3 heating stoves, water coolers, flour chest, cuspidors, wash basins, and looking glasses. Everything in the hotel was sold proceeds totaled $1.00.
Sheriffs records indicate that things were different in the 19th century. Life was simpler, less complicated, and justice was really justice! Or was it?
One sheriff made 9 arrests for rape between 1881 and 1892. Journal entries read like this: John Doe arrested for rape November 9, 1881; the accused made bail and was released June 1, 1882. Another John Doe was arrested for rapes committed March 23, 24, & 25, 1882, and the accused was released March 25, 1882, after giving bail.
The sheriffs records list numerous arrests made for the same offenses we read about today -- rape, murder, and robbery. Some common 19th century offenses include:
disturbing religious worship gambling
playing cards on Sunday
Poisoning chickens was serious business. The accused was arrested on October 16, 1889, and was not discharged until April 18, 1890. When discharged from jail, the prisoner began a two-year term in the penitentiary. Unlike the rapists, the chicken poisoner did not get out on bond.
Some entries are humorous. Sheriffs records are quite descriptive. One accused miscreant was described as "extremely ugly."
One county court record gave a detailed report of the deathbed confession of a county court judge who
embezzled thousands of dollars from his county. Wanting to clear his conscience before he "met his maker" the judge gave details, named accomplices, and begged for forgiveness. Then, to his horror, the worst thing happened to him -- he didnt die!
Public records record unfortunate tragedies. The recorder in Stone County has one. In the late 1800s, a father gave up an infant son for adoption. Then, a subsequent entry a couple of years later, recorded an adoption for another child, this time a toddler belonging to the same father. Scanning ahead, I noticed records for 3 more adoptions from the same family. The last adoption was for a twelve-year-old daughter.
I pondered this incredible record and returned to the first entry. I noticed that the mother died duringthe birth of the infant son. Through the ensuing years, one by one, the father gave up his children for adoption. He tried to keep his family together, but alas, could not. He must have struggled day in and day out to provide for them until he had to let the oldest child go -- the daughter who had most likely helped him care for the other children as long as he had.
County court records. Tax records. Sheriffs records. Poor farm records. Stray records. Public records. They are an important testament of our heritage. But, public records would not be important without the people they represent.
And, the people all have names. Among them are Blouville P. Twilligean. Chauncey Clay. Cora Celia Daraline. Late. Leopold Piontkowski. Loyal. Lucy Etta Charles Barber Meadows. Moody. Pauline Pauline. Paney. Pharoah. Queen Elizabeth England. Temperance. Tennessee Jackson Hartley. Thomas Alexander Nicoll Sampson. Welcome. Whiner.
Names of past generations are written in our records. Records and information are facts of life in all local governments. Without good records, no local government can render good public service. Records and information are the memory of local government and constitute the record upon which history of your community will be written.
Invaluable collectibles are hidden in the archives of your local government ... they are waiting for your own discovery of the past to enjoy today.
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly
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