Monday, January 6, 2014

Timeline of the Destruction of 100 Year Old Franklin County, NC Records

Cover Up?
County management destroys 100 year old records

December 8, 2013 at 11:33pm
I am Diane Taylor Torrent  with The Heritage Society of Franklin County, NC.  I want to thank everyone for your involvement and the help that each of you offered us on Friday, December 2013 when the Franklin County management acted upon their decision to destroy the 100 year old records discovered in the courthouse basement. This has been a long 7 months and we were hopeful up to the end that the outcome would be different.                                                                                                
I know you have a lot of questions so here is a timeline of what lead to this event. In May, a new Clerk of Court (Patricia Burnette Chastain) was appointed following the resignation of the long serving clerk, Alice Faye Hunter.   Mrs. Chastain soon discovered that the basement had been unopened for some time. Upon opening the basement we found stacks and stacks of books, boxes, loose papers, ledgers, etc. dating from approximately 1840's to the 1960's. They were strewn everywhere. There was obvious mold in the back section and evidence of water damage.              

After much investigation it was revealed that through the years the basement had been used for overflow of records awaiting retention dates as well as other items deemed unnecessary or non-vital. They were then forgotten.  The basement was also used for storage of old furniture, cleaning supplies, broken or no longer used doors, and whatever else there was no room for upstairs.  The two rooms were in a mess.  We could barely open the door and had to crawl over everything to reach the back room.  The boiler flooded the basement at one point. It was also discovered that an air conditioner unit was venting into the basement causing the majority of the mold.                                                                                                                

Some records had been ruined by the mold, but most were completely viable.  A quick investigation of the records revealed boxes from most every department of the Franklin County government.  There were items from the court as well as register of deeds, county finance, board of education, sheriff's office, county jail, elections board and many others.                                                                                                                                                                                      

Mrs. Chastain and I spent the 3 day Memorial Day weekend hauling away trash from the basement.  We pulled out trailer loads of bagged trash, broken furniture, torn carpeting and used cleaning supplies in order to be able to get to the records.  Furniture was up righted and arranged in a make shift office in the front room. We were then able to begin picking up some of the records that were strewn about the floor.                                                                                                                                                                                                      
Over the years the boxes had weakened from either time, carelessness or water damage.  We were told that when the boiler burst and the basement flooded years ago, workers repairing the boiler (not courthouse clerks) retrieved many of the papers and books from the flooded floor and simply laid them on the shelving, resulting in more mold and destruction of the wet papers.  Most boxes fell apart when you moved them resulting in many of their contents spilling out. Many times these contents had been piled on top of other boxes and combined with other records so that most of the boxes actually contained a variety of items. A box with records on the top level dating in the 1960s actually had records from the 1800s on the bottom.  We quickly learned that each and every box and piece of paper would need to be investigated.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
We collected as many boxes as we could find to hold the loose papers.  Boxes were used from other departments as well as local businesses, the liquor store, retailers, anywhere we could find an empty box. Some of these boxes had writing or labels and 2013 dates from the department they came from which would later lead to misinterpretation by county officials that there were records of a "sensitive" and current nature in the basement. Had they looked inside the box they would have discovered their true contents.                                                                                                                                                                                          
Now that the area was more accessible a plan was needed to be developed to find the true value of what had been discovered and what could be done to preserve the documents and best share the information with the public. The Heritage Society of Franklin County, NC presented a program on May 16th to its membership along with members of the community to discuss the best way to proceed.  Present were local historians, genealogist, friends of the library, the arts council, the new Clerk of Court and County Commissioner Sidney Dunston.  All present were shown photos of the basement and the condition of the records.                                                                                                                                                                                                            
Mrs. Chastain recognized the value of having a group of genealogist and historians available who were willing and able to ascertain the historic worth of these records to the community and asked the Heritage Society to review, record, digitize and preserve the records.   Due to space constraints and conditions in the basement it was decided that only a few would be allowed to begin the work.  The Heritage Society provided the appropriate protective gear for the work to begin.  Masks, gloves, sanitizers, etc. were bought by the Society and placed in the basement for the use of everyone entering.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      
We were very excited and went to work immediately straightening, organizing and investigating.  Immediately we found Chattel Mortgages from the 1890's, court dockets from post civil war to prohibition, delayed birth certificate applications with original supporting documents (letters from Grandma, bible records, birth certificates, etc), county receipts on original letterhead from businesses long extinct, poll record books, original school, road and bridge bonds denoting the building of the county, law books still in their original paper wrappings, etc., etc. etc. The list goes on and on.   Our original feelings of shock that the records were there and in such bad condition led to feelings of joy that they were still there and that someone had thought to retain them for us to discover so many years later.                                                                                                

Each book or box opened produced a new treasure. A letter, stamped and in the original envelope, from a Franklin County soldier serving in France during the First World War asking the court to be sure his sister and his estate was looked after while he was away. A naturalization paper from the late 1890s for an immigrant from Russia escaping the tyranny of the Czar. A document from County Commissioners in the early years of road building requesting another county repair their road as it entered the county. Lists of county employees and what their wages were in 1900.  A court document paying the court reporter who took the depositions in the "Sweat Ward" case, (Ward beheaded a man in the 1930s and later became the last man to be lynched in the county).   Postcards, county bills, audits, cancelled checks, newspaper clippings, store ads from long gone businesses.  Boxes and boxes of court cases covering the years of prohibition, a docket from an individual accused of running a "baudy house" within the city limits, a photo tucked now and then inside a book, one of the courthouse unseen since the 1920s. Again, nothing was in any order and many of the boxes were combinations of records from many decades.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            
In June, we requested new, clean file boxes from the county management so that we could begin saving some of the more important documents.  We received around 40 office type white file boxes which we then filled with records from the floor as well as from boxes that were falling apart.                                                                                                            
Understandably we were thrilled. Out of an abundance of caution and because we wanted to handle each document and treasure with the respect it deserved, WE (The Heritage Society) contacted the NC State Archives for advice on handling old documents and the best archiving method. This was where we began loosing the battle. The Archives stepped in and decided that they should have control over ALL of the basements contents. They sent a representative who looked through the basement and said that they would get back to us with a report on the next steps.  We continued working when we could in the cramped, dusty and moldy environment of the basement while we waited for an assessment from the Archives.   June and July were very wet months and many days we were unable to enter the basement.  It was becoming obvious that we would not be able to continue working under these conditions and certainly would not be able to bring in all of the researchers who were waiting to begin the task of preserving these documents.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
On August 5, 2013 a request was made at the County Commissioner's meeting, on the behalf of the Heritage Society, by Steve Trubilla to provide adequate space for the preservation to continue.  JM Dickens, a local business owner, had graciously donated the use of office space across the street from the courthouse and many citizens had made offers of supplies.  The Commissioners agreed to provide electric and water to the offices for 6 months.  Keys were turned over to the Society and we began stocking the offices.  Holt Kornegay, the county librarian attended the next meeting of the Heritage Society and expressed that he would be able to train the volunteers to use a computer program designed to archive the records so that they would integrate into the system and would be accessible to the public.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            
A request was made to The United Way to supply the Society with computers and Steve Trubilla donated a scanner/copier.  By August 13th the offices were ready to go and Mrs. Chastain provided trustees to begin moving the first set records up the 23 flights of stairs to the newly donated space.  All of the new file boxes, repacked with the old, dusty records from the basement floor, were moved to the upstairs space  We were ready to begin once I returned from a two day business trip out of town.

When I returned everything had changed.                                                                                                                                                                    

First, on August 15th, the issue of insurance for the office space and the Society arose and halted progress. Superior Court Judge Bob Hobgood offered to pay for the insurance for the 6 months that the offices were in use. At this point the Society felt that the support of the community was behind them and everyone was coming together to preserve this exciting time capsule of their history.

We were then told by the county management that the Heritage Society had to "stand down" as the issue of "chain of command" had arisen.  We were told that management had become concerned, four months into the process, that there were items of a "sensitive", i.e adoptions, social services, etc., nature in the basement  that should not be made public.  This had resulted from the misinterpretation mentioned earlier regarding reused boxes with labels that did not denote the actual contents of the box.

Concern was that chain of command and protocol should be followed for each pair of eyes that viewed the records.  The problem existed that with the records being in such jumbled order and no way of knowing what box belonged to which department without going through it, there was no easy way for each department to view only their own records.   It should be noted at this point that every piece of paper, book and box touched by the Heritage Society had been carefully logged and organized.  Nothing had been removed and the time capsule was intact.

It was now that I discovered that during my absence, access had been obtained (not through chain of command and the Clerk of Court) and county management had allowed people from the elections board, education, register of deeds and the State Archives and others to go through the basement and the office and remove items that they deemed to be under their control.  Items were strewn about the office floor and boxes that had been carefully stacked were opened and askew.  ALL of  the new white file boxes were gone, taken by the State Archives.  There was no way of knowing who took what or what was missing.  No one had left a log.

Our immediate question was how did this action fall within the chain of command?  How was it better to have so many hands and eyes on the records searching for what may be theirs rather than a few careful historians organizing and sorting?   The time capsule was now compromised and we no longer had control of the integrity of the records.

We had been asked to stand down.  We were still waiting for an assessment from the State Archives on the value of the records and the AOC (Administrative Office of Courts) was preparing a report on the retention dates of the court records.  A more complete inventory was needed so I was allowed to do a cursory accounting of what remained in the basement by simply labeling boxes by year range and approximate contents.  Again, none of the ledger books were opened and investigated due to time and space restraints.

The assessment from the State Archives finally arrived in October with the rules as they applied to retention dates of each box that had been cursory inventoried.  Remember, each box still contained a variety of records even though they were labeled according to approximate dates and contents.  It was the position of the Archives that since all of the records had long since met  their retention dates and there was some mold present in the basement that the records were of no value and should be destroyed.  ALL OF THE RECORDS should be destroyed and could not be preserved by the Heritage Society because of the chance of contamination.

Of course we were upset and immediately appealed to the county management to reconsider.  I questioned as to why so many of the white file boxes were taken by the State Archives if they were dangerous and of no value.  The reply was that they were "clean".  The same records that had been picked up off the floor and placed in the new, clean white boxes were no different from the records that still remained in the basement, they were just in a pretty box.

The County management concurred with the Archives. I asked many times who was actually in control of the records?  Was the advice from the Archives a suggestion or a mandate? My biggest question was at what point does a public record go from being a simple piece of paper with a retention date to a historic document simply because of its age? My questions were unanswered.

We appealed to the County Commissioners, our state representatives, the Governor was even contacted. We talked endlessly to the state Archives, we contacted the state Genealogical Society, the newspapers, anyone that would listen.   I requested to at least be able to view and review as each item was removed from the basement so that items of extreme interest could possibly be set aside and photographed before destruction.  I was denied. Unfortunately, I believe that no one actually believed that they really would destroy these documents until it was too late.

I would like to say that I believe that everyone involved did what it was that they felt had to be done.  There are rules and laws that dictate the handling of state, county and public records.  Protocol should be followed and certain privacy issues need to be adhered to.  However, there comes a time when common sense and doing what is right should be part of the process.  These records were a special circumstance.  They had outlived their retention dates by many, many years.    They survived and existed in spite of the passage of time, water damage, neglect and mismanagement.   I cannot tell you the thrill you feel when you hold in your hands a piece of paper, 100 years old, that survived to tell the story of  those that came before you.  How do you make the decision to destroy something that has survived so long?

The sad thing is that since we were not allowed to complete the inventory of ALL of the basement's contents, we will never know what was lost. Hopefully, that is a question that the County's leadership will be able to live with.

Ledgers from the Franklin County basement that were destroyed on December 6, 2013
Ledgers from the Franklin County basement that were destroyed on December 6, 2013
Some of the worst of the mold damage
Some of the worst of the mold damage
Chaos found when the basement was opened in May.
Chaos found when the basement was opened in May.
Bundles of letters and court dockets from the 1800s still tied with string
Bundles of letters and court dockets from the 1800s still tied with string
Stacks of boxes unaffected by the mold
Stacks of boxes unaffected by the mold
  • 61 people like this.
  • Dwight Collins
  • Renate Yarborough Sanders Diane, first of all, THANK YOU for taking the time to write and post this note. I have been formulating a post about this for my blog, but because I was missing so many pieces of the background events, I haven't been able to finalize and publish it, yet. I'd love to be able to have you to guest post, just by allowing me to insert this note, if nothing else, but if you aren't comfortable with that, I understand. Please let me know.

    I didn't realize that you, or anyone else from the society had gotten even that much access to the materials in the basement, nor did I realize that the things that the Archives took away, had actually been packed up by you. I think we many have a legal situation, here. I will definitely be writing a letter or two, and I'm expecting the lady from Raleigh to return my call, tomorrow. Letters??? That breaks my heart. Poll records??? I'm sure there were records that would have been of value to me, there. Bible records, delayed birth certificates??? These are a genealogist's DREAM! And, if you're saying that some of these items dated back to the 1840's, then we're really talking about records that are up to 170 years old, not just 100! That is inexcusable!!!

    ALL of my paternal ancestry, from the the early 1800's on, is from Franklin County, with some dating back into the 1700's. My Hawkins ancestors were some of the county's first leaders. My Yarboroughs built the county with their sweat and tears. My Dunstons were Free People of Color, who descended directly from Revolutionary War patriots. My Greens all descend from a strong mulatto woman, who endured the struggle of being in a relationship with a White man, whose family stole her inheritance after he died, leaving her to (successfully) finish raising their six children in her own, despite the shame and hardship I'm sure she encountered after being thrown out of her home by his family.
    All of these are things I've learned, and been able to verify as a researcher. But, I've always known there was more. I've asked over and over at that courthouse about why there weren't more records. I knew that I wasn't seeing the half of what my genea-friends report finding in the courthouses they do research in. I've been asking for years, but no one seemed to know the answer to where anymore records might be found. But, now we all know, don't we?

    Shame, shame, shame on Franklin County AND on the NC State Archives!
  • Heritage Society of Franklin County, NC UPDATE: As of Sunday afternoon, the incinerator at the county's animal shelter was still burning as workers, methodically and deliberately, inserted each box, bundle and book, adding hundreds to the bill in fuel to consume the packed boxes and large l...See More
  • Heritage Society of Franklin County, NC No, Carolyn Homeister Caplinger, we were not able to save anything. The Society was not officially notified that the destruction was scheduled to begin either. We found out through channels and were only able to have a few members present to photograph the records being removed from the basement.
  • Joy Gregg Everyone in management that made the decision to destroy those records should be fired immediately.
  • Tricia Roberts Griffith So, so, sad. Decisions made by people who have no concept of the value of these documents. And who won't listen to those that do know. There is a lesson here. The fewer outsiders contacted and involved, the more likely to get salvaged. Every time I look at those pictures, I get sick, and I have no connection to this county. The story however, is repeated across the country, probably around the world. Next time, it may be mine.
  • MaryBeth Roberts Adams This apparently all started when the Archives were contacted so shame, shame, shame on them!
  • Bonnie Belza For anyone who would like to voice their opinion the Director of the NC State Archives is Sarah Koonts • Director of Archives and Records • (919) 807-7339 • • fax: (919) 715-7274
    • Annette Hopper Bost TY posting this info. Being out of state makes it very hard to travel for record searches and I have been so impressed with NC efforts to digitized their old records, making them available online. But this seems to be such a travesty. I will certainly be contacting them and voicing my concerns. I naively assumed there was a strict protocol when items of historical value were uncovered. The lack of respect for the significance to history, not only personal, but city, county, state, and national is really hard for me to fathom.
    • Dwight Collins
  • Sheila Hobbs As a lifelong Franklin County resident, I appreciate the tremendous work and effort you and the other members of the Heritage Society put into this very worthwhile endeavor. I also greatly appreciate all the efforts made by our obviously dedicated Clerk of Courts, Patricia Chastain. It's certainly disappointing that those in management positions for Franklin County do not share yours, the other members of the Heritage Society, and Mrs. Chastain's dedication to this county and documents of historical significants. The amount of volunteer hours that you all put into this great effort were obviously not respected as they should have been and it's very sad that the outcome was so disappointing. Thank you for all of your efforts and for this very enlightening summary.
  • Herb May Diane, history is what we all learn from, unless you have the ability to see the future. It appears that someone does not want their history around for you to see. That's why the door to these records was closed and locked. What a tremendous loss to your society and the people of Franklin County.
  • Bill Harris Diane, I know a lot of what you've been through in regards to this over the last few months. I know how much this meant to you and to many of us. I just wanted to tell you myself how much I appreciated your efforts.
  • Kerrie Smith Cornett All of the records from the basement were destroyed?? That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard!!! If even one piece of information of historical value could be gained then it was worth saving!! Did any of these people that made the decision to destroy these things have ties to Franklin Co? How dare a few make such an important decision without thoroughly researching the documents! At least allow a team to see what was there and take a full inventory. And the records sat for over 100 years in some cases so what was the big rush?? This is heart breaking to me.
    • Sharon Nanney Wells I Agree so much Kerrie Smith Cornett they sit there that long what would a few more weeks or even a month would hurt??? It would been nice if there were a way surnames were listed and family members had a chance to get the docoments ....
    • Dwight Collins
  • Peggy Rose Thank you for your time and effort put forth in all of this. It saddens my heart. God Bless.
  • Susan Carnes There are locales where researchers mourn the loss of records due to a courthouse fire. Here we have morons setting fires on purpose. Some moron needs to be fired. PS This makes me want to puke!
  • Mike Edge Diane, thank you for all that you and the Heritage Society did to try and save these records.
  • Curtis Lambert This is pretty pathetic. Wouldn't it be ironic if one of the old boxes they did not bother to look in had old stock certificates worth millions? Or maybe an original copy of the Declaration of Independence or some other rare document? As Indiana Jones once said, "Bureaucratic fools".
  • Joann Russell I am sorry to say that the first thing that came to mind was when the Taliban destroyed so many ancient statues a few years ago in the Middle East. Everyone who heard of their plans - government officials, people in the art world, etc. - begged them not to but stupidity prevailed and now the statues are lost for all time.
  • Rebecca Christensen Thank you for your efforts. I have Franklin County, NC ancestors. I feel devastated. My family's records were destroyed. This is criminal.
  • Catherine Harrison very sad, but i can't say i'm surprised by the response of the State Archives. At the very least, it could have been copied or microfilmed and then destroyed but why destroy something that could be saved and it wouldn't have been any cost to them since you were going to do it. very sad that all that history was lost.
  • Mary Elizabeth Brown Outrageous & heartbreaking! Those records could have held the very clues so many of us were searching for!
  • Katherine Borges You need to organize and network amongst yourselves. Get an attorney to file suit ASAP so a judge can issue an injunction against the county to stop them from destroying more. Network - who knows an attorney(s) willing to help? Who knows a judge? Who...See More
  • Lynnette Todd my heart aches for FC, NC. it's bad enough when a fire takes priceless US census records (the 1890 fire) but for an established, known burn to take NC historical documents is beyond imaginable. if Archives' only focus was on contamination i am sure pre...See More
  • Cheryl Duke This is a tragedy, and I don't have ancestors in Franklin County, that I know of. Bless you and the historical society for your efforts. Family historians across the country weep with you for the SENSELESS, WANTON destruction of history. How many brick walls will still stand because the answers were in the burned records?
  • Zevandah Barnes seems like people do their best to keep the truth and the real history hidden. bad or good the truth should be able to flourish.
  • Katherine Borges People outside of Franklin County can help you too, they can write letters, emails, letters to the editor, etc. and they can contribute funds for expenses like signage. There will also be outside people with powerful connections, perhaps at state level, who can apply pressure to the county. Start a petition, but write it well. People will not sign unless its well written & they agree with it.
  • J Lee Simons How sad and how unfortunate that things like this have happened in the past and continue to happen due to ignorance of the value of history.
  • Janet Taylor What a loss! Thank you for your efforts.
  • Dennis Shea I smell a rat! I wonder if , in all those records, It would be proved that someone didn't really own land or property they claimed to. Seems to me that something is amiss!
  • Christopher Mihans How is this not a crime? If you need help to assure this is treated correctly you can count on me.
  • Annette Hopper Bost After reading more on this subject it suddenly dawned on me your tax dollars probably paid for the cost of records being destroyed when those funds could and should have gone into their preservation.
    6 hours ago via mobile · Like · 2 · Reply
  • Joy Anne I have to submit my personal suspicious opinion which is I am sure negative but id would say possibly say there probably are several things that several people want to disappear. Another words not to open a can of worms. Then logically I understand the health risk but since yall volunteered I can't understand the issue because that would release liability technically. Then with the Adoptions once someone is dead the liability of information leaked should not be an issue. Legally unless requested by adopted or adoptee is it not true that the privacy law is void? I just wonder
  • Gary Street This just breaks my heart. This is our history.
  • Carol Hubbell Boggs Why chastise the mice who nibble around the edges of history, feeding upon the dumb words, when man comes with boxes, trucks and fires to do a thorough job of it?
  • Beverly Abbott I have been heartbroken since I learned if this. I had been trying to get information from Franklin County for more than four decades. Thank you for your diligence and perseverance.
  • Jill Perry Heartbreaking!
  • Homer Thiel Just talked to the County Clerk, who was very nice actually. The blame for the destruction of the records lies with the County Manager. The County Manager called for their immediate destruction at the November 2013 supervisors meeting and the supervisors apparently agreed. Efforts to stop this from happening, including an offer by the Utah Genealogical Society, were not considered. At least the State Archives apparently took 40 boxes of records during the course of the debacle.
  • Homer Thiel I have emailed this story to the local newspaper and tv stations. The County will have to explain why this happened.
  • Diane Smith Wright Absolutely unbelievable! So sad to lose so much history.
  • Jean Inscoe Sick sick I have people from Franklin county. Thanks for the information re the death of the records. I appreciate your efforts.
  • Jay Hubbard Those who destroyed these documents should be charged with crimes against the people of this state. I am simply shocked to read of this.
  • Jacqueline Lacina This is so sad and wrong.
  • Derlin Gerard Clair Very sad indeed,the loss of so much historical,and potentially family
  • Andrew John Rensenburg reminds me of the cultural revolution - and what was achieved by that?
  • Chrissy Watt All that history lost. All because a bureaucracy threw a temper tantrum, they didn't get there first. The total disregard in "fetching" the pretty white boxes and strewing the loose and contents of the other not so pretty boxes, should have told you what was in those poor papers future. I would demand the contents of the boxes that the archivers, back. Maybe something could be salvaged from this tragedy.
  • Amanda Faulkner Thank you for preserving what you could. It is so important!
  • Heather Barnett Adams first and foremost these records should not have been burned.. whoever made that decision.. BAD FORM
  • Don Luis This is beyond tragic.
  • Texanna Jackson I am totally speechless! I cannot be reading the truth, and yet, I AM. HOW could, I still ask myself, HOW COULD anyone in their RIGHT MIND do such a thing? Yes, I understand protocol, but Diane, you even said that about doing the right thing. Diane, you certainly deserve a medal of honor! Thank you so much. Thank you for trying to help all of us who would drool at such a wonderful opportunity to save these records! I agree, some did what they thought was right, but why could they at least not let you all keep what you had already archived? ALL of us who love history and the records of the past, as well as us genealogists, THANK YOU ad Mrs. Chastain for all that you did.
  • Larry Hamilton This is sad. I hope I don't have any ancestors or their descendents in Franklin Co., NC....
  • Glenda Maxwell Simpson Well I cannot even imagine the heart break of finding all of that history to have it taken away and burned. Who ever made the decision to do this should be fined BIG, lose their job and never be allowed to work where decisions were to be made again about what should be destroyed or retained! First of all it should never have been put in the basement in this order but should have been in files and file cabinets by years, dates, names, etc. This makes me wonder how many records are in other Court House Basements in the same mess! Just breaks my heart!
  • Connie Jones New Update. I heard from Sarah Koonts and have more details... if no good answers. See:
    In response to the Friday, December 20, 2013, email I sent to Sarah Koonts and others (see 12/20/2013, Note #1, below), at the North Carolina State Archives, regarding the destruction of Franklin C...

No comments:

Post a Comment