2009-12-31 / Front Page

Dated County Records Safe & Sound In Former Armory Firing Range On S. Washington Street

Historical Society Of Owen County In The Process Of Digitizing
by Michael Stanley Staff Writer

Owen County Historian Anton Neff Sr. removes a box of sorted and filed documentation containing files which accompany information found in ledger books in the former firing range at the Owen County Armory. (Staff Photo by Michael Stanley) Owen County Historian Anton Neff Sr. removes a box of sorted and filed documentation containing files which accompany information found in ledger books in the former firing range at the Owen County Armory. (Staff Photo by Michael Stanley) While nearly 75,000 items of historical significance to the Bartholomew County Historical Society were destroyed in a structure fire at the United Way building in Columbus, Indiana on Christmas Eve, those concerned with preserving similar records of Owen County can rest peacefully knowing all such files are secured in the former firing range at the Owen County Armory.

After having stored items at the Owen County Courthouse, former Carnegie Library and the Spencer Post Office buildings, and encountering issues such as space rental, the Owen County Historical Society received permission from the county commissioners to move such files to the armory location.

Owen County Historian Anton Neff Sr. examines the pages of an order book dated February 1819 to December 1833, which contains complete records for Owen County Circuit Court civil and criminal cases. (Staff Photo by Michael Stanley) Owen County Historian Anton Neff Sr. examines the pages of an order book dated February 1819 to December 1833, which contains complete records for Owen County Circuit Court civil and criminal cases. (Staff Photo by Michael Stanley) “We have all of the ledger’s in the proper places, but we still haven’t set up the desks and everything yet to start the digitization project,” Owen County Historian Anton Neff Sr. said. “It’s a room that’s about 20-feet by 19- feet, solid concrete. It’s built like a bomb shelter. When we have that big huge tornado, one thing that’s certain is that our old records will be safe. Keeping old records safe isn’t that easy all of the time. Bartholemew County had the United Way building burn down. That’s always an issue, and that’s why we’re trying to digitize ours. We’ve started, and we’re going to make a big push for that. It will also be easier to find things. That was not easy to do in the basement of the post office, because most people who volunteer are elderly, and you had to go up and down stairs.”

However, the new location is without stairs, and access is easily made from street level.

Neff also spoke of another tragic incident in which historic files were destroyed by natural disaster.

“About a year ago in Colonge, Germany, they had a four or five story building that housed all the old records of Colonge, Germany, dating back to the Roman times,” Neff said. “Most of their records were from 1800 A.D. to current. The whole building collapsed, one floor down on top of another one. So that’s why there has to be things like digitization to rescue it and store information off-site. But if you have the original records, you have to worry about tornadoes, floods, wars, fires and collapsing buildings. These are all enemies of historical archive material.”

As Neff noted, the Owen County Courthouse basement is currently filled with more current records, and according to Neff, there isn’t enough space for another sheet of paper. However, the older records, including ledgers and material associated with the ledger records, are stored at the armory.

“Owen County is lucky in many ways, because the oldest records go back to 1818, but the current records aren’t there. There is a law that says if it’s over so many years old, there must be public access. Everything is past 1930 or older, and most of it is from the 1800s,” Neff said. “Let’s say you have a record of a trial that happened in 1835 in the common police court. There will be a listing of who was there and what the outcome was in the ledger. Then there will be a number that will correspond with a packet of material, which was the material that was presented at the trial. We still have those, and a lot of counties don’t have those. You’ll find a packet, with all of the records that would have to do with a trial. Sometimes they have people’s signatures, checks, warrants and subpoenas. A lot of these were scattered all over the ground. From a point of view, you have signatures of your relatives, and sometimes people have to find these records to really find the information they need.”

Neff also spoke of the many requests that frequent his mailbox.

“I get access requests all of the time, then I try to do some research on them. I had a couple from Lafayette who had recently been trying to find one of their relatives who was the first sheriff in Owen County. Well, there are about five people in Owen County who had the same name,” Neff mentioned. “So we couldn’t determine which person it was until we went into those extra records where we could actually look at people’s hand writing. The history book of Owen County that was written in the 1890’s or so, and another one that was written later on, are wrong. They have the wrong Andrew Evans, because they made that mistake. There is a lot of material; you’d be surprised at how much is there. Then recently I got one that was really interesting. A child at Bedford Elementary School wants to do a history of Owen County, so I’m going to respond to her after the holidays.”

Neff also spoke of the efforts made by Rodger Peterson, who started to organize the collection of historical records when they were originally stored at the Owen County Courthouse.

“The trouble that you’re going to run into is that when you start doing this, it takes up a lot of space, and space is valuable. It’s also threatened; these things could burn up in a fire or be damaged in a flood,” Neff said. “I think the real solution is to digitize, and then you can take this information and do what we call dense storage. Not all of the records are here; the probate records before 1871, the library has. They also have all of the old photographs, in the safe at the library.”

Neff also explained that the idea of making information available in a format such as the popular Internet website Ancestory. com, is the ultimate goal after digitization is completed.

“There is always the ongoing debate of do you make things available for free or do you charge?,” Neff said. “We can easily scan these and make a CD, so you’d have a CD of a book, but the trouble is going through page by page. So we need a volunteer to go through and complete an index. You have to prioritize, which ones do you do it to and which ones do you not do it to. The Owen County Community Foundation gave some money to buy some equipment to help with scanning.”

There are also surprises to be found when going through old records dating back to when Indiana became a state.

“You can find these kinds of things like veterinary licenses, doctors licenses, and most of these things haven’t been thrown away,” Neff said. “Land grant letters, and some land grants were signed by presidents. This was the first situation where I ran into a marriage certificate signed by a man and a woman. The man will have it signed, but for a woman, there is an ‘x.’ There was no law for public schools in Indiana until 1835, so you’ll see there were a lot of illiterate people, and you’ll find a lot of ‘x’s.’ This was really surprising to me, an enumeration of white and colored males over the age of 21, by township. It’s a complete inventory of all males in 1919, basically the war years. You can see by going through it, there aren’t very many. This was basically preparing for, I think, a potential war in Europe.”

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