Probate office books

Daniel Dye / The Herald

Deed Record book A is the earliest known collection of land records in Elmore County. Those records, along with all the other records in this room, are preserved as digital scans and archived in a searchable format on a county database managed by the county probate office.

Elmore County’s probate office has been quietly working for years at preserving every document in its possession before the ravages of time erases the information from those pages.

A main charge of a county probate office is to preserve public records and make those available for public viewing.

Common records include land deeds, mortgages, marriage licenses and military documents — typical legal documents.

“The scanning is needed to preserve these records,” Elmore County Probate Judge John Thornton said.

He indicated many documents the probate office has in its possession are the only copies.

Specific to Elmore County, the probate office houses newspapers dating back to the late 1800s, a county dog tax that appears to have lasted for two years in the 1920s and transactions dating all the way back to the early 1800s.

“(The county) was trying to come up with ways to make more money,” said Linda Blakenship, who is a county employee involved in the project. “They have the people’s names, the dogs’ names and breed. People paid a $1 per dog each year.”

While the ink on those early documents hold up, it is the paper used for those legal records that is slowly fading away.

According to Blakenship, she spends a lot of her time cleaning and piecing back together documents.

“Some of these documents are torn so I have to tape and fix these so the scan is readable,” she said. “We started scanning the end of 1999, early 2000. Twenty years of actively archiving and we are getting really close to being done.”

Blakenship has been part of this preservation project since the beginning. About five years ago she devoted all of her time to the project.

“We’ve got a lot more scanned since then,” she said. “I can get it in order, inventory what we had and scan it.”

When asked how many documents have been scanned as part of this project, Blakenship isn’t sure but knows the rooms of what was scanned. 

Those rooms hold hundreds of books and boxes filled with documents.

Although the county worked to scan and index legal documents, Blakenship said she finds family history documents and newspapers the most interesting.

She has done family research for 40 years.

“We’ve got Civil War pension papers,” Blakenship said. “They used to have to apply through the probate office so we have original applications. One day we hope to have those indexed so people can find those.”

Thornton found Civil War pension papers the office houses that are tied to his family several generations back.

“We also have a lot of records on microfish and microfilm,” Thornton said. “All those deeds and mortgages have been converted. The books stop in the mid-1970s and went to microfish until 1982 it switched to microfilm. That went until 2000 and then went to digital.”

According to Blakenship, these forms of information storage are subject to deteriorating, too.

This preservation project was championed by former Elmore County Probate Judge John Enslen.

Syscon, a technology services company based in Tuscaloosa, has assisted with the preservation project since its inception.