Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mining for Gold at the Court House

On the southeast corner of the town square in St. John is the Stafford County Courthouse. It was built in 1929, replacing the one Isaac would have visited. I remember going there as a little girl with my father, and each time I enter the building, I am reminded of the echo of my father's leather soles on the marble floors. Today, as I create my own echoes walking the cool hallways, the building is filled with shadow memories that I experience as emotions. I suspect that the feelings inspired in me when I was a little girl had a great deal to do with my decision to study law. There was something unique about entering that quiet space in which people seemed to speak more softly, as if respectful of the business conducted there. I felt it then and I still feel it today. I suppose my sense of awe in entering what is a sort of people's temple of justice will always be part of me. The court houses I entered when I was actively practicing law were often busy and sometimes noisy, but for me there was always that special feeling about the honorable purpose of the building. My recent visits to the Stafford County Court House while doing research have not diminished those feelings, fueled by my childhood memories, my respect for the law, and my fondness for history.

Court houses are like mining for gold, the records filled with valuable information for a researcher to discover if she is willing to dig for it. Initially my research took me to the Deed Records to find information about Isaac's homestead and timber claim. Now, when I walk into that office, the women working there immediately ask about my progress on the book, research for which they have been so helpful.

Also in the court house is the District Clerk's Office, where one day I went to inquire about birth and death certificates. I was disappointed to learn that those old records are now kept in Topeka, the state capital. I must have mentioned that I was doing research on Isaac B. Werner, and while I visited with one of the women, the other lady seemed busy at her computer. Suddenly she asked, "What did you say the man's first name was?" "Isaac," I replied. "Well, there's no Isaac indexed in the Probate Records, but I have an I.B. Werner." "That's him!" I exclaimed. When she returned from the room where probate records are stored, she carried a thick probate file of Isaac's estate, from which I have learned so much about him.

Seeing my interest in the Probate Records, the women told me that they had recently finished indexing all of the District Court records, going back to the 1800s. Isaac was never a party to litigation, but several legal disputes are mentioned in his journal, so I was obviously thrilled to learn that those records were available. I periodically return to examine files, documenting litigation Isaac has mentioned, and both of those ladies have been terrific. In fact, they have shared suggestions about bits of history preserved in the records of the court house that would make wonderful stories for future writing.

Since Isaac died in 1895, the current court house was not the one he visited. In next week's post I will share a picture of the Victorian court house of Isaac's era, along with stories of how it came to be built, some of Isaac's visits there, and why it was replaced with the current structure.

I have lived most of my life in cities, and there are many things I enjoy about the urban lifestyle that cannot be matched in a small town. However, there is nothing quite like returning to the home of your childhood, where your roots go back a few generations, and experiencing the willingness of people to pause for a moment and invest their time and interest in you, something anonymity and the busy pace of city life rarely offer. Like Isaac, I enjoy doing business--and research--in a court house where people nearly always have a little time to chat.


The Blog Fodder said...

It must really make your day to not only find a treasure trove of information but a treasure trove of helpful people.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...


Anonymous said...

I, too, remember this courthouse from childhood. It was so very quiet that I thought it somehow sacred, a place to where visitors should only speak when necessary and where children should not be heard except in soft whispers.