One for the record books
By ANDREW MCGINN
When James H. Phillips affixed his John Hancock to Greene County’s first real estate transaction on Sept. 9, 1854, it was assumed that his signature would stand the test of time.
And it has, 163 years and counting.
That signature, however, is worth a lot more than the paper it was written on, which is why it distresses Phillips’ modern-day counterpart, County Recorder Marcia Tasler, to see shards of brittle paper left behind whenever someone flips through the county’s earliest land records.
The recorded history of Greene County’s land is slowly eroding.
“Your whole county history is right here,” Tasler explained recently, standing inside the vault in her office at the Greene County courthouse. “By law, we are to maintain these records and make them available.”
Tasler is hoping to digitize the county’s land records, not only as a way to preserve the original documents but to make it easier for anyone to search them.
At a cost of $100,535, Cott Systems, an Ohio-based public records management company, would scan thousands of pages of records on site held by the county recorder and county auditor, making them available online to the viewing public.
“Trust me,” Tasler said. “This is a great thing.”
The county is applying for a grant from the Greene County Community Foundation to help defray the cost.
As you might expect, Tasler’s vault is the mother lode of records — some 91,000 pages of deeds recorded between 1854 and 1988 will need to be scanned and turned into an online database searchable by name or location.
Deeds from January 1988 onward have already been scanned, she said.
Arguably one of the project’s biggest selling points is that it would create a reliable backup of records should disaster ever strike the courthouse.
When Tasler first took office in 1987, the only means at the time of preserving records was microfilm.
“It was what we had at the time, and we made it work,” she said.
Local land records going back to 1854 are indeed all on microfilm. Tasler’s office has one set of film, and the county pays $100 annually to have another set stored in what Tasler described as a climate-controlled cave somewhere in Kansas.
The thing is, in the year 2018, the county may as well be storing big stacks of VHS tapes in that cave.
“It’s archaic. Is that the word?” she said.
Tasler’s office had the last microfilm reader in the courthouse. (Note the word had.)
“We’re just trying to keep up,” she said. “There are modern ways of doing things and they’re pretty awesome.”
For the first time, the public would be able to easily access the recorded history of Greene County land from the comfort of home.
It all started when Abraham Davis and wife Frances sold two parcels of land in present-day Grant Twp. to a James H. Barngrove for $300 “this sixth day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and fifty four,” as the deed puts it.
The first white settler arrived in Greene County only five years before.
Davis had obtained the original rights to the 40 acres (known as the land patent) from the office of U.S. President Franklin Pierce for $1.25 an acre.
As the county’s first joint recorder/treasurer, Phillips dutifully recorded the deed a few days later on Page 1 of Book A of Greene County records.
Digitizing the records would be a boon to genealogists, in particular, who frequently visit the courthouse from across the nation to pore over the 650 books of records kept in the recorder’s vault.
The recorder also maintains vital statistics — records of births, marriages and deaths — as well as military discharge papers of veterans who provide the office their separation document, the DD 214, for recording.
Books of “miscellaneous records” contain anything and everything from fence agreements to drainage agreements.
For good measure, the recorder’s office also takes passport photos.
Only the deeds would be digitized in the proposed project.
“This would be a better keeping of records than microfilm,” said Adam Pedersen, who, as abstracter with the Mumma & Pedersen Law Firm, works extensively with county land records. “Digital space is so cheap these days.”
However, even a microfilm reader doesn’t guarantee that a user would actually be able to decipher what’s on the screen, according to Tasler.
Some of it was so poorly photographed that local records are virtually unreadable in spots.
Tasler remembers her predecessor, Mary Batcheller, who held office from 1971 to 1986, informing her that the county originally hired a “fly by night” company to photograph the earliest land records for microfilm.
Many of the original records are difficult enough to read as is.
“I think you had to know calligraphy to work here,” Tasler said, referring to the flowery handwriting adorning many records.
Combine that with shoddy photography and you may as well be trying to decipher some ancient text.
In his line of work, Pedersen prefers to access the original records, but can’t imagine having to rely on the microfilm backups should there ever be, say, a fire in the recorder’s office.
“That,” he said, “would be interesting.”
When genealogists venture in, they typically want a copy of a particular record to take with them.
“They want a nice looking copy,” Tasler said. “They don’t want something that’s overexposed.”
For a time, Tasler permitted users to lay the record books directly on the photocopier — but that, in turn, only contributes to the deterioration of the documents.
“These pages are very delicate,” Pedersen said.
Tasler recently purchased an iPad for her office, allowing her to take a photo of a particular document for someone, which she then can email to herself and print out.
Digitizing the land records would reduce the wear and tear on the books, which would also cut down on costs to rebind them.
Tasler in January 2016 went completely digital with records of mortgages, citing the fact that it costs $250 to place hard copies in book form and that mortgages have grown in length from just one or two pages to a present-day average of 10 pages thanks to government regulations and legal jargon.
Tasler’s decision at the time would have left James H. Phillips shaking — for the first time since 1854, a county record didn’t have a corresponding paper copy.
“It’s the world we’re in now,” she said.
“We took the plunge,” she added.
Tasler, 60, who will be seeking re-election in the fall, has safeguarded the county’s records longer than any other officeholder.
“I’m responsible for these records,” she said.
But in their current form, the information once painstakingly inked by hand into the pages of history is vulnerable.
“I could sleep at night knowing I had a backup,” she said.