Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Historic Mohave County records rescued - but why did they need saving?

Decades of documents were abandoned at Kingman Airport

Mohave County records that the Mohave Museum of History and Arts took care of for decades are seen here stored in what used to be part of the old Mohave County Sheriff’s Office on Beale Street. (MOHAVE COUNTY/Courtesy)

Suzanne Adams-Ockrassa
Kingman Daily Miner

KINGMAN - Nearly 100 years of Mohave County records would have disappeared into the desert dust if it had not been for the Mohave Museum of History and Arts.

On Sept. 16, the museum was recognized by the Board of Supervisors for holding on to more than 400 books and several plastic tubs of county records dating back to the 1800s from the Mohave County Assessor's Office, Treasurer's Office, Courts, Board of Supervisors, School Superintendent and Recorder's Office.

The story of how the records came into the hands of the museum is nearly as interesting as the information contained in the books, according to Museum Board President Bill Porter.

It all started with a raiding party, he said.

"Some time in the early '80s, someone, I don't remember who, called the museum and told us that there were all these county record books just lying around in a dusty hanger out at the (Kingman) airport," Porter said. "So, we went out to look."

Porter said museum staff found piles of county record books piled everywhere in an unlocked hangar without any air conditioning or heating. Nothing was being done to preserve them.

"We were absolutely horrified," Porter said. "These are important to the county's history. They should have been lodged with the state years ago."

Arizona law states that all state, county and city records belong to the state and are supposed to be turned over to the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records division on a regular basis.

Porter said the museum contacted the county, but no one at the county at that time seemed interested in taking the records in and no one seemed to know how the records ended up in the hangar in the first place.

"We made an arbitrary decision to take the books," Porter said. "We couldn't just leave them there."

Once the records were safely transported to the museum, staff cleaned them up as best they could, Porter said.

Pawing through some of the piles, the museum staff found records from nearly every county department: tax records, assessor records, court records, mining claim maps, cattle brand books, Board of Supervisors records. The books ranged in size from about the size of today's school notebooks to huge 3.5 foot by 2.5 foot, 40 pound portfolios.

According to County Records Manager Robert Ballard, the oldest record books date back to the 1860s and the newest ones to the 1960s.

"It's really an incredible find," he said.

Porter said the museum organized the records and stored them in the museum basement, which is as close as the museum could come to a climate-controlled area.

Porter said that tax and assessor records don't seem that interesting, but the information contained in the books was fascinating.

"They're really, really interesting books. They paint a pretty good picture of daily life," he said. "We found a 1936 or 1937 bill from the Assessor's office, written up in this very formal language, saying a man had paid his property taxes by giving 24 live chickens to the county hospital. 'But after considering the price for chickens on the current market' the man still owed $5.60 in taxes."

The books are also historic works of art, according to Museum Director Shannon Rossiter and County Recorder Carol Meier.

"The handwriting in them is just beautiful," Rossiter said.

Meier agreed and pointed to a cattle brand book from the 1800s.

Each page of the book contains the name of the rancher, a six-inch hand drawn copy of the rancher's brand, a drawing of the notches the ranchers would cut into their cattle's ears and the time and date the information was recorded, along with the signature of the county recorder.

Another interesting record found in the piles was a book from a mechanic's garage, Rossiter said.

"It had the names, addresses, phone numbers and the work done and how much it cost for each of his customers," he said.

Over the years, many people have asked to look at the records in order to track down the history of their family or make a claim for compensation from the federal government.

For example, a group from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints traveled from Salt Lake City to peruse the books in search of information about family members that may have lived in the area, he said.

Several county residents have used the records as proof that they lived in the county during the nuclear testing in Nevada in order to make compensation claims against the federal government, Rossiter said.

Others have asked to look at the mining maps, Porter said.

"You get these really interesting journeys into the past," he said.

As the years passed the museum started running into a couple of problems with storing records, Rossiter said

The museum couldn't make certified copies of the records for people, he said. Only the state archives can do that. And 400 books take up a lot of room.

Porter said the museum contacted the County Assessor's Office, since most of the records belonged to them, several times over the years, but was told the office just didn't have the space to store the records.

About a year ago, the museum contacted Arizona Archives Director Melanie Surgeon and asked her if the archives would take the records, he said.

"She was very excited about it, until she found out how many books and records there were," Porter said. "There was no way the archives could handle all that material at once."

So, the museum contacted the county again and they were put in contact with Meier at the County Recorder's Office.

Meier and Ballard were also excited to hear of the records find. Meier, who was elected to office in 2008, said she had no idea the museum had the records.

"We wanted to get them back. They are the county's history. We just can't thank the museum enough for what they did for us," Meier said.

Ballard started immediately contacting the other county offices about the records and researching storage space in the county's buildings.

The county finally settled on storing some of the records in an old branch of the Mohave County Sheriff's Office on Beale Street known as the Armory, he said. Each county office has its own storage area in the building and it was easier to transport all of the records to one location and then divvy them up.

Ballard said the county considered storing the records in the old county jail behind the Mohave Superior Court building on Spring Street in Kingman, but the building has a host of problems, including a leaking roof, that would cost too much to fix.

Ballard and Meier's ultimate wish would be to have all of the county's record books rebound and preserved in a climate controlled room, but with the cost of rebinding one book running about $2,000 and more than 1,200 books in the county's records, it's just not feasible, Meier said.