Joe Dierdorf was excited when a piece of Clay County history, although in poor condition, was stumbled upon during his last year in the recorder's office.
Now, Dierdorf, the county auditor, can look at the newly leather-bound, two-volume collection with admiration. The salvaged collection of deeds span back to the origins of the county, when it was founded in 1825. Back then, the county seat was located in Bowling Green.
"These are the oldest county records, to my knowledge," he said on a recent trip down the hall to visit his former office in the Clay County Courthouse on East National Avenue, the fifth county courthouse.
The large and heavy original record book of land ownership and transfers had its first close call at the end of November, 1851, when fire destroyed the county's second courthouse, a brick structure.
Abstractor Frita Modesitt pointed out that all the county records went up in flames then, except for those in the recorder's office. And those were only salvaged because he had taken nine volumes off site to his home, a task Dierdorf finds puzzling.
"There were rumors about the fire," Modesitt laughed. One was that a former county official had set the blaze, she explained. The other was that an accused murderer destroyed the building, hoping to destroy any records against his case.
While recorder, Dierdorf was involved in a campaign to get all the office's records transferred over to microfilm. That's when the 175-year-old treasures appeared from out of nowhere. All records after 1986 were routinely put on microfilm, but nothing before that. Therefore, Dierdorf was concerned that the oldest deed section was in jeopardy. Matt Brown, of Business Records Corporation, discovered the records during his inventory work at the courthouse.
With money specified for such projects in the county's Perpetuation Fund, a Vermont restoration specialist, Browns River, was contracted and personally came to town to pick up the records and hand-delivered them when they were finished. The entire cost was around $2,500.
"How do you place a value on that?" Dierdorf asked, indicating that most courthouse records typically span back to the 1850s. In most cases, the rest are unaccounted for.
The restoration process was complex. First, the original cover was unbound. All the information was logged, the book was dismantled, threads removed from binding and sheets water washed, removing years of accumulated oil, dirt and lime. The pages were deacidified. Finally, to keep the documents well-preserved for many more years, the pages were inserted into plastic protectors, or mylar encapsulation pages, where they can be removed if needed. The process took three months.
"The most important thing is that they were found," Dierdorf said. "They have historical value to the county."
When the original volume was located, current recorder, Bill Purcell, remembers it was so deteriorated that no one could use it.
He thinks the money was well-spent in the preservation process and points out that fires and other disasters are no longer a concern posed to recorders. In the age of electronic bookkeeping, there's always a backup computer file kept off site.
"We can't do it for all the records, but in this case it was important," Purcell said, leafing through a volume with Dierdorf.
Both agree it's important for the restored records, all handwritten, to be available to the public who can view the records anytime during business hours.