Getting More of Your Genealogy Road Trip-The Courthouse Visit

Copyright 2001 by Robert W. Scott


I donít think thereís anything like work in the field. Renting microfilms from the Latter Day Saints library can produce results, but it just doesnít have the same feel as handling bound deed books in the vault of a county courthouse, or seeing your ancestorís signature on a piece of paper. Besides, itís a lot easier to flip through books than it is to get to the end of a microfilm roll and realize that what you wanted is on another reel. And half the time, I found out from the microfilmed deed index that my ancestorís deed was on the next roll, the one I didnít order.

But I recommend planning your trip very carefully. You may be visiting a facility that you will never see again and you want to maximize every minute of research so that you are productive as possible. Here are some tips.

Find Out Where the Records Are. This is the golden rule of field research. Thereís nothing like hitting an office and finding out the records are in another town. Iíve heard of people going to their ancestorís home town in Scotland, only to find all the Old Parochial Records (the parish records) are in Edinburgh. My memory of Virginia is that deed books for pre-1800 county records are in the state library in Richmond. If you traipse halfway across the state to the county courthouse, they will still be in Richmond.

In counties in Indiana, the board of health is often not in the courthouse. This is true in Jefferson, Switzerland, and Ripley Counties. You can walk from the courthouse to the health department in Versailles, but you need a car in Vevay and Madison. Sometimes not all the courthouse records are in the courthouse, as in the Virginia case. Complete Probate Records for Ripley County (and apparently some other records) were moved to the attic of the courthouse in Versailles during renovation. Once work was complete, (my understanding) is these books were loaned to the Ripley County Historical Society.

How to check it out. Call the courthouse. Find out if someone can tell you if wills or deeds exist from the beginning of the county. (But Iíve had people tell me that Jefferson County informed them that no wills exist before 1837. At least, last summer the office still had wills to the beginning of the county.) Call the library and see if thereís a local historical society or historian who can tell you. Check out published sources on the Web. But donít believe all these either. There are sites that will tell you with a straight face Franklin College has all the Baptist records and DePauw University has all the Methodist records for Indiana. (More about that in another column.) Find out if the courthouse burned and when. I remember hitting the Dearborn County courthouse only to find that the records were destroyed in 1826 and I wasnít interested in anything later than 1810. Iíd put my bets on the local history buff as the best source.

Office Hours. Find out when the offices open and when they close. And in rural counties, they may close early one day or close for lunch. In Switzerland County, the courthouse is open 8 a.m. through 3:30 p.m. during the week, except Thursdays, when it operates from 8:30 a.m. until noon. Hours can change. My memory is that the courthouse closed for an hour at noon until recent years.

If you are from out of the area, you better brush up on the concepts of ďSlow TimeĒ and ďFast Time.Ē Just remember, the exemption to the law requiring states to use Daylight Saving Time is called the Indiana amendment. Fast Time is daylight time and Slow Time is standard time. All of the New Albany and Jeffersonville area does switch to Daylight time, Versailles stays on standard time as does most of Jefferson County. So from April to October, much of Madison is an hour behind Kentucky, one mile across the Ohio. If I leave my momís house near Madison at 8 a.m. for the roughly one-hour drive to Frankfort to go to the state library, I get there at 10 a.m. (But on the way back if I leave at 4 p.m., I get back at 4 p.m.)

The situation in Vevay can be confounding. The courthouse stays on standard time (slow time) and most businesses switch to daylight time (fast time.) When the courthouse closes noon on Thursday, and you walk outside, itís already 1 p.m. at the restaurants in town. I remember researching in the recorderís office one year and listening to employees discuss the fact that the commissioners had not yet decided which time to pick for county offices. So they were splitting shifts, with one person coming in an hour earlier than the other to cover all bases. There has been renewed talk of mandating daylight time. I hope so. Oh yeah, the published courthouse hours are Slow Time, so if you cross the river from Kentucky to get to the courthouse at 8 a.m. Eastern daylight time, youíll have to spend an hour having breakfast.

Parking: You can probably roll across Main Street in Vevay without getting hit on many days and I donít think Iíve ever seen anyone get a parking ticket in downtown Madison. But if you are visiting a more congested area, find out where you can park, before you hit town on the day you plan to research. Most parking lots near state libraries can be off-limits to everybody but state employees. You donít want to spend all or research time looking for a spot, and then walking a half mile to the library. You also donít want to spend the evening looking for the towing lot or figuring out where to mail your fine for the parking ticket.

Writing implements: Bring lots of them. If you use ballpoint pens or flair tips, I suggest carrying three. Pens can dry out, clog, leak, or get lost. Some facilities, (usually libraries and state archives, but not courthouses) forbid the use of pens and provide pencils. I suggest bringing your own and consider a refillable mechanical pencil. If youíve got a heavy hand like I do, pencils get dull pretty quickly and you spend half the time looking for a sharp one or trying to find a pencil sharpener.

Notebooks: Make sure you have one with lots of fresh pages. Put the of place visited, perhaps the general subject of research, and the year and month you visited on the front cover. I prefer stenographerís notebooks because I can flip pages easily (especially if I need to quickly check what I wrote earlier). Itís too easy to tear the pages off legal pads. Large spiral notebooks can be difficult to use if the counter is cramped with several people using deed books. Reporterís notebooks are great, because they fit into a back pocket or your inside sports coat pocket (male reporters prefer this) But the columns are narrow and people outside the journalistic profession donít know what they are. Make sure you have a book that is not completely filled up when you hit whatever facility because the stationers may not be nearby. (Again like parking and restaurants in capitol areas.) If you use prepared forms, make sure you have an ample supply.

Eating. The same warning pertains here that pertains to parking. In a small town, finding a place to eat is usually not hard (but be prepared to order the blue plate special.) In major governmental areas, you may be out of luck if there is no public cafeteria. Scout the area. Personally, I prefer to work through lunch and gorge at the end of day, instead of sacrificing research time.

Physical Exertion. Genealogy can be an aerobic sport. Spend a day in a courthouse hoisting old deed books that are stored above your head or trying to pry them out from floor level can work up a sweat (or twist your back) if you are using a lot of books. Find out if there are stepladders. Use them. Be sweet and nice and see if you can get help from the office staff if doing this work yourself is a problem. You can pull a muscle hoisting a heavy deed book over your head. Learn how to lift.

Working Conditions: These can be less than ideal. The old will and probate books for Switzerland County are in the basement, which is dungeon-like and cramped. (This was true in the summer of 2000, anyway.) If you are tall, watch your head. (At least the deed books are still on the main floors). There is no order to many of the books. Some are on shelves. Some are just stacked in piles. The situation at Ohio County courthouse was the same two summers ago. Old probate records were in the basement in an unmarked room. (And many had ends that appeared to have been eaten by mice.)

The court clerkís office in Jefferson County put all the old marriage, probate, and civil court records in a small room for genealogy research. It puts you out of the way of people filing suits and paying child support. But the aisles are crowded and thereís not much working space if more than three people show up at a time. (More than two actually) In all of these courthouses, my best experience has been in the recordersí offices because they cater to title researchers who need to spread out deed books so they provide counters or wide tables. (And youíll be rubbing shoulders with these people. Donít hog all the counter space. They get paid for doing this.)

Restrooms. If youíre the kind of person that all of a sudden has to go immediately, know where these are. If you are working in the Jefferson County recorderís office on the ground floor, the restrooms are up a flight of stairs on the second floor. And if you must use the elevator, you have to walk to the other end of the ground floor, catch the elevator, then walk the length of the second floor.) I mention this because finding the john can take more time than you anticipated if you donít plan.

Good Manners. When you use bound volumes in the recorderís or court clerkís office, leave them as you found them (if not better.) Re-shelve books in the correct chronological order, with the correct side up so the next visitor can read. (This is not like libraries where visitors are often requested not to re-shelve books.) Take care with the pages. Older pages will tear and sometimes this canít be avoided, but donít aggravate the situation by careless use of the books.


Copyright by Robert W. Scott, 2001.

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